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Fishing at Bosque del Apache


Fly-Fishing in New Mexico
by Karen Denison of High Desert Angler

I went fishing the other day. Now, mind you that this is not new, since I've fished around this area since 1986. But on this day the raspberries were ripe, the air was cool, and the summer rains had brought a beautiful crop of wildflowers. These are among the pleasures of fly-fishing in northern New Mexico.

The fish were there, too, and willing enough to take small dry flies carefully floated on the surface of the clear little stream. But the bright colors of the small rainbow and brown trout were only a part of the afternoon.

Northern New Mexico has many miles of small mountain streams, such as the Pecos River and its tributaries, seldom greater than 15 feet in width and often holding fish in streams as narrow as two feet across. Most of these streams are freestone, relying on surface water for their flow, and often have public access-and the best fishing-at their headwaters at the higher elevations. Higher elevations also mean that the streams fish best during the late spring through early fall, when warmer water temperatures encourage greater enthusiasm on the part of the trout.

Fly-fishers are happy to have a box well stocked with high-riding dry flies like Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, small Royal Wulffs and Humpies. Wild brown trout seem to predominate in most streams, although the native Rio Grande cutthroat may be found way up several area watersheds by those willing to go on a rigorous, healthy walk.

New Mexico also has larger, lower-elevation rivers such as the Rio Grande and the Chama, which seem to fish best when the water cools in the fall until the spring snow runoff in April or May. These streams tend to fish quite differently. Because they have more sediment and deeper water, the food sources for the trout are not the same as in the high streams, and the tactics and flies used are also different.

Weighted subsurface nymph and forage fish imitations such as Pheasant Tail or Hare's Ear Nymph, various caddis fly larvae and Wooly Buggers or Egg-Sucking Leeches all work well in these rivers. More open water also means room to stretch a longer cast if you can handle the heavy flies. Bigger water and better food seem to grow bigger brown and rainbow trout as well. The larger waters can be very fickle, though, as many fly fishers would attest. Persistence and a willingness to adapt to the river can pay off with a memorable day.

No mention of New Mexico fly-fishing can fail to list the San Juan River tailwater below Navajo Lake. With an estimated 17,000 trout per mile for the first three miles of special-regulation water below the dam, it seems stiff with fish. Beware: These are big, smart, crafty fish, and they've seen everything. That they congregate around your legs does not mean that they will take a badly presented fly. Go the first time with a guide or a friend who knows the river well, expect to use tiny (size 20-24) flies, and test your ability with these well-educated trout.

As anywhere, a willingness to get away from towns and roads will find more solitude in the stream. My husband, Terry, says this about New Mexico fly-fishing: "Easy access OR big fish OR no people-you can't have all three."

Area guidebooks, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geologic Survey maps (especially those with topographic lines for backcountry travel) and local fly shops can help get you pointed in the direction that is right for you.

photograph courtesy of Scenic Concepts Photography

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