Ahhh! We finally made it back to the San Juan River Quality Waters after an eight year hiatus! It was a three hour drive north through the scenic New Mexico high desert after landing in Albuquerque, but making the turn onto NM 173 and seeing Abe's fly shop was just what the doctor ordered. A quick stop at Abe's to check in and buy licenses and it was off to catch some fatties.
Weather: 75F and cloudy/drizzly
We hit the river around 5:00 PM at the Texas Hole parking lot and walked into the infamous Kiddie Pool. All three of us were anxious to test the new and improved braids that seem to be the hot topic this year. Not being able to walk past the first riffle, Matt and Andy started catching some trout right off, only these were PA sized fish! After an hour of 8"-12" rainbows coming to the net and not seeing all that many lunkers, we all kinda looked stupefied. As the evening wore on, and we explored the work done to improve the area, we were still into smaller trout. I think we may have only landed five or six big boys by the time the sun was setting and the midge hatch was bringing every trout in the Kiddie Pool to the surface. Out came the Griffith's Gnats and the final hour produced few fish of any size as the risers proved selective and tuned in to only they knew what. While all of us landed several fish, there was a kind of unspoken nervousness between us, and we were wondering if the old Juany had taken a turn for the worse. With only 3 hours of fishing, we hoped it was only us jumping to conclusions, tomorrow would tell the tale.
Weather: 78F Cloudy/some rain
Off to the Dam in the morning! After the death march through the mosquito infested swamps, the 42F water spewing from the bottom of Navajo Lake felt good and we were very excited. We ended up in the pole positions on the main riffle and expected big rainbows on every cast. I landed the first two pigs fairly quickly on Rainbow Warriors and Redhots, and soon each of us had a lunker to net. Orange annelids and Yong specials accounted for some trout, but as the morning wore on it was evident we weren't in for a 50 fish morning. The clouds were out and it was hard to see the fish, and the bite was slow, so each of us started getting a deeper feeling of doubt as the morning turned into afternoon. Around 3:00pm we decided to move down to Baetis Bend to test the waters downstream.
Probably the best move we made the whole trip! A quick interview with a fella leaving the water revealed dry fly fishing to Blue wings and him having a 20 fish top water day. We made our way quickly through the side channel and looked out to see risers. Even better as we walked around, the old familiar train of rainbows followed under foot, finally signs of the Juan we know and love! While the Baetis were micro, #22 - #28, we managed quite a few hogs, and at dark there was a massive midge hatch that had thousands of fish topside, Griffith's Gnats worked then. The evening ended with the three of us scoring on around 20, all top water. The sinking feeling in our stomachs a distant memory.
Day three found us trekking up to the Lower Flats in the morning, eager to keep the catching as strong as the night prior. Matt took the right side and Andy and I took the left as we had the entire area to ourselves. Matt had an excellent morning on small midge patterns and annelids while working up to the outlet of a small side channel. Andy and I caught a few of the hundreds of trout stacked up in some slack water around what in lower flows is a small island, but the catching was tough. The current was such that it had almost no flow, and it proved very difficult. After watching Matt pull in several fish, we worked over to the side channel he was working and all three of us moved up into the more intimate water. This was a good move as all of us hooked some nice fish in here. Late in the afternoon we decided to work another side channel back to the parking lot, and it was Baetis dry flies the whole way. We did very well with each twist and turn in the backwater. The fish were very active and very large, and maybe not quite as pressured back here. It was great fishing in a what felt like a spring creek setting. We moved back to the Kiddie Pool, for no other reason than to give it a second chance. After an hour of smallish trout, we walked to the Back Bowls against the mountain in hopes of bigger fish. It ended up a great move, as Matt found a deep pocket filled with lunkers, willing to scarf San Juan Worms. All three of us scored several trout out of the area, and it was really fun. We picked off a few small ones on top on the way out too. The score moved into the 40's for a three person total for the day.
Weather: Sunny 85F
Day four found us giving the Dam a second shot in the morning. We hit this section with a chip on our shoulders, and the fishing improved slightly. While it was much more difficult than I remember, we did pick up a few more than the previous day. Tav's Big Mac larva proved effective at the Dam and Cable Hole, and after a morning of sunny skies, we could at least see that the fish were indeed still stacked up in the area, our catching was the only thing lacking. After a quick visit to the Upper Flats, and a few fish there, we were off to Baetis Bend. It was small midge emergers fished mid-column that worked magic on this late afternoon. We all got into several nice fish using this method, waiting for the better topwater action later in the evening. The late midge hatch did not disappoint, and the fish worked the surface with vigor around 6:30pm. All of us landed many fish on an assortment of small adult midges, BWO, and Griffith's Gnats. The day's three person tally exceeded 50 for the first time! It wouldn't be the last.
Weather: Sunny 90F
The final day of our trip found us into Lunker Alley all morning, and it was the Juan of old! Fish after fish fell victim to San Juan Worms, Big Mac's, RedHot's, and Rainbow Warriors. It was fast and furious for three hours. We caught many big fish too, more than the other days. Late morning we worked back up to the Lower Flats and had some solid catching, better than the day's previous. When the fishing started to slow, we decided a slow walk/fish back to the parking lot would be the end of the trip, as we had the three hour drive back to Albuquerque ahead of us. Well the catching was steady the entire way, and the final two hours provided an unexpected stint of top water action, that produced many pigs. As the top water action slowed we all decided it was time to wrap this San Juan trip up, and the day had been the most successful with at least 60 fish to net, all before 6:00pm.
This trip to the San Juan was awesome and productive and all three of us learned more about this river. I think in a year the area from Texas hole to the Dam is going to be absolutely like the Juan from the 90's with sick numbers of pigs. None of us had ever fished the water at 1000 cfs, and I think that played a large part in our nymphing game being a little slow on some days. The fish did not seem to be in the fast water at all, using the slack water exclusively. This is in sharp contrast to the Juan I had fished in the past, the riffles meant feeding fish and plenty of them. The top water action was awesome, and quite frankly saved our trip. I always had more luck on top than the books and guides reported, but it was really good this trip. All I can say is this place is definitely one of the best streams I've ever fished for large fish, and it remains so. I can't wait to plan another trip out, hopefully in a year or two, and not a decade from now.
Here's a list of the flies that caught fish, in order of importance:
#22 Big Mac: Cream, Brown
#20-#24 Yong Special: Cream, Brown, Olive, Gray
#22-#24 Krystal Flash Emergers: Black, Gray, Olive
#20-#24 Rainbow Warriors
#14 San Juan Worm: Red, Orange
#22 Yong Blood: Cream, Yellow
#20 - #22 Poison Tung: Black, Blue, Purple
#20 -#24 GEM Midge: Black, Gray
#20 Annelid: Orange
#20 Chocolate, Gray Foam Back WD40
#20-#28 Blue Wing Olive: CDC Wing, Comparadun
#18-#24 Griffith's Gnat
#22 CDC wing midge adult: Olive, Black