Southwest Fly Fishing

Bounty on the San Juan River, New Mexico
By Toner Mitchel

One of the most significant moments of Larry Johnson’s life occurred on a bluebird autumn day in Farmington, New Mexico. Pen in hand, a bottle of champagne on the loan officer’s desk, he calmly basked in having culminated a three-year chase of a long-treasured dream. Upon leaving a successful career at the Polaroid Corporation, he’d searched for the best possible location to own or establish a top-shelf fly-fishing lodge. The San Juan River had almost immediately captured his fancy.
   He worked at a local fly shop, learned to row a boat and guide; he made beds, tied flies, did payroll, everything but prepare dinner feasts for 20 people; if a future employee no-showed a shift, his thinking went, he wanted to be prepared to do any task himself. His executive experience at Polaroid had taught him the value of such preparation and of paying one’s dues. Now that his moment had finally come, Larry Johnson popped the cork and drank his due, on the 10th of September, 2001.
   History shows that the following day was significant for a different reason. Johnson arrived early at Soaring Eagle  Lodge to meet the staff and his guests, and while everyone was chatting and shaking hands, a guest entered the dining room and reported that terrorists had committed mass murder on the East Coast. Like everyone in the nation, the folks gathered at Soaring Eagle entered a state of shock and spent the next several hours wondering what had just happened and what the future would hold. Larry Johnson, brand-new owner of  Soaring Eagle Lodge on the San Juan River, was having these thoughts in spades.
   The phone started ringing around noon and didn’t stop until suppertime—30 cancellations later. Then, in what would appear to be a storybook twist, the bookings came back within a week of that tragic day.
   To anyone familiar with the San Juan fishery, this outcome would be expected due to the river’s reliably excellent fishing. Consistency is its signature. The flow is consistently between 250 and 500 cubic feet per second. 
The sky in New Mexico is consistently sunny, the air temps consistently bearable, which accounts for the San Juan being one of the world’s greatest cures for cabin fever among fly anglers. Throughout the Quality Waters section—the first 3.75 miles below the dam—water temperature is practically constant year-round, and the trout bite is consistently on the same types of fly patterns.
   Since Navajo Dam’s 1963 construction, the nutrient-rich waters below have sustained a biomass of incomprehensible proportions. The main reward from this bounty is not only that the accomplished angler can spend the entire day fighting and releasing fish, but also that the beginner can stay similarly busy. Brown trout and rainbows longer than 15 inches are plentiful, and no matter if the day is your first or thousandth on the San Juan, there is always a chance that a whale of more than 25 inches will make you famous.
   Nymphing is the most common method of fishing the San Juan, for the simple reason that there is so much available food (the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has counted up to 100,000 invertebrates in a square meter of substrate). One can fish with a tiny Pheasant Tail or a black, red, or olive midge larva, and usually be assured of catching something. Of course, catching just a couple is far from what’s possible if you consider the trout population, which often tops 15,000 per mile.
   Successful nymphing is a matter of constant experimentation until you start hooking up. It’s not just a matter of a red larva, but what shade of red, and whether size 24 might work better than 22. I’m one of those anglers who believes that if I can deliver my fly on a dead drift, I’ll get the fish. Not so on the San Juan, where exacting fly choice (size, color, pattern) can make all the difference. Well, tippet diameter too, the size of split shot, the distance between flies, and the distance between your shot and the indicator.  As Larry Johnson puts it, “By refining your approach, you will eventually start hooking lots of fish.”
   The current on the San Juan is generally slow, allowing trout to consume from the drift at leisure. Usually, strikes transmit indicators as stops or slight wiggles, so you will benefit from developing an itchy trigger finger on hook sets. At best, striking late will result in you not hooking a fish; at worst, you will snag fish and needlessly beat them up.
  As a student and practitioner of many nymphing methods, I have found that the standard rig of indicator, weight, first fly, and second fly is the most successful on the San Juan, at least for beginners. Keep in mind that the food in the current may change abruptly during the day. Maintain vigilance for change and, per Johnson’s advice, respond with new flies or rigs.    
   A commonly held belief is that dry-fly fishing on the San Juan is an expert’s game. In many situations this is true—most of the time you’re not throwing Humpies at gullible high-mountain brookies—although anyone can fool a San Juan riser by minding the Ps and Qs of presentation and by remaining patient and persistent. When I encounter rising fish, I am usually more successful with a downstream delivery. Soft currents magnify factors like drag and inspection time, and may ruin even the best of drifts. In any circumstance, it is better that the fish sees only your fly before anything else.
   According to Jeff Massey, longtime head guide for Soaring Eagle Lodge, drop your fly within about a foot of a trout’s feeding station and try for just a short dead drift. To this end, develop a few different casts such as a reach, a curve, and a parachute cast, to account for varying conditions. If you don’t have the time or desire to develop a trick cast or two, just practice a basic downstream presentation and you’ll do fine.
   Midge and Baetis (Blue-Winged Olive) mayfly hatches can happen most times of year on the San Juan, most prolifically during the cooler seasons. Pale Morning Duns and a couple of caddisfly species come out in July on the lower Quality Waters. While hatches provide the most reliable dry-fly excitement, the river definitely rewards blind fishing. I like working riffles with big terrestrial patterns trailing midge pupae or Blue-Winged Olive nymphs.
   Speaking of terrestrials, the summer’s first heavy monsoon storms in late June to mid-July trigger one of the most remarkable feeding frenzies you will ever encounter. As the rain moistens the desert soil, millions of unanointed queen ants get evicted from their colonies. Subjected to the cruel whims of nature, many of these pseudo queens end up in the San Juan, where they are snapped up by trout. The ant hatch is difficult to plan for, since it is truly rain dependent and lasts for only a couple of days. There is always a chance, however, if you keep an eye on weather trends.
   Like most die-hard San Juan anglers, I can’t resist throwing streamers at the banks and putting them to work with a variety of retrieves. Sinking-tip lines can make streamer fishing especially deadly, and if my fly isn’t dropping fast enough, I either pinch a split shot at the head of my fly or thread a slip sinker above it for a crazy swimming action. Subtle imitations like Clouser Minnows and Crazy Charlies work wonders during times of heavy fishing pressure. Some San Juan junkies fish 6-inch-long behemoths, catching few but monstrous trout.

 

A Trip You Won’t Forget
I can’t remember when I finally decided that I wouldn’t enjoy the San Juan half as much if I didn’t stay at Soaring Eagle. All I know is that I can’t return to the past, when my buddies and I camped on surrounding mesas or stayed at joints where the winter blew in under the door. Our cooking kit took an hour to compile, two to break down, weighed a good 40 pounds, and saved us money but not time. 
   “I didn’t want to be a hotel,” says Larry Johnson. “I wanted to be a fly-fishing destination, where the lodge itself played a positive role in my guests’ experience.”
   On a truly transcendent fishing adventure, one is immersed in palpable satisfaction all day long, and even while asleep. Having worked at and visited quite a few destination lodges, I can say with confidence that Soaring Eagle is tops on the San Juan at hitting this mark, not with chocolates on pillowcases or monogrammed bathrobes, but by sweating certain details that contribute directly to a guest’s pleasure. When I stay at Soaring Eagle, my days are easy, even if the fishing sometimes isn’t.
   At the appointed hour of 7 a.m., I’m eating eggs, potatoes, biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, cereal, bagels, yogurt, and fruit. I’m not making my own breakfast when I want to be thinking about trout. After eating, I go back to my room and brew a pot of coffee, build a sandwich, and get my gear in order. If it’s not in order, I suit up, stop by Johnson’s well-stocked fly shop, and then head to the Quality Waters, a short drive of 20 minutes.
   Sunburned in the summer or shivering in January, I can bag fishing and head back to Soaring Eagle for a nap or a nip of bourbon. I can stretch out on one of my room’s body-consuming easy chairs and watch television, read, or talk fishing with my friends. The San Juan flows 50 feet outside my room’s sliding glass door.
   That’s right: like a mere 15 percent of lodges in America, Soaring Eagle Lodge is on the water. If I take a break, I can make up for it when my enthusiasm returns, right outside my suite. In the summer especially, when heat and sunlight strain the stamina, I can wait until shadow time and cast to snooty risers on Soaring Eagle’s exclusive private frontage.

 

Soaring Eagle Guides
Even if you’ve fished the San Juan before, do yourself a favor and hire a Soaring Eagle guide for at least one day. Doing so will yield more hookups, in addition to take-away knowledge that will make you more successful back home. A Soaring Eagle guide is your mechanic, tuning up your fishing game so you can get the best from a really special trip. 
   With equal proficiency, the guide must teach the beginner to catch fish in a relaxed yet constructive atmosphere, in which  coming up short here and there is simply part of improving. Be they business associates or spouses, anglers should feel comfortable in their guide’s company, as beginners or pros, while fishing or at rest.
   Johnson believes the best way to build such an experience is by selecting the most knowledgeable and mature guides he can find. He requires his guides to be better San Juan anglers and boatmen than he is. He favors guides who have been to college, are married, have children, or own property. He believes that such life choices indicate discipline, commitment, and empathy.
   One of his firmest rules is that his guides have at least seven years of hard-core fishing experience on the river.
   He says, “We profile our clients so we can meet their objectives. If someone’s priority is to catch a ton of fish,pairing him with his buddy who needs lots of attention might not be a good idea. If business is being transacted, we’ll put the critical players together. It helps to have guides who appreciate these nuances and empower clients. My guys have led me to expect nothing less than their level of professionalism.”

 

Family Friendly
If I take my wife to a lodge, I expect her to still be smiling when we get home. The bedrooms and bathrooms should be clean, and if she needs something, she should be attended to within a respectful time frame. Not to suggest she should be treated like Queen Elizabeth, just like someone who’s not a guy.  Ignoring or patronizing female customers should be easy to avoid these days, but I’m nevertheless amazed that havens of macho have yet to go extinct on high-profile fisheries. At Soaring Eagle, women and children are as welcome as the sheets are smooth and the towels are fluffy, which is very.

 

Over-the-Top Gorgeous
Among its many attributes, the San Juan River is a breathtaking aesthetic treasure that may elicit a reckoning at any moment of the day or year. When I read San Juan reports about fly patterns, tippet sizes, flows, and hatches, I usually find myself filling in the truly important details: the clash of sandstone against the deep blue summer sky; golden yellow cottonwoods at Simon Canyon; holding a red-cheeked rainbow caught near the dam as snowflakes swirl across a January sunset. Sometimes I imagine that I’m sitting outside my suite at Soaring Eagle Lodge, a beer in my hand, hearing nothing but the river riffling past and the breeze whispering through the trees. It could be dusk or past dark, with a moon so bright that the green leaves above me and the orange in the distant cliffs twinkle like the stars in the sky. 

 

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