This webpage goes into some detail about my October 2017 expedition to the San Juan River in Northern New Mexico. The following topics will be covered:
I have not been fly fishing in nearly ten years or so. That said, I had to upgrade my waders, boots, vest and re-teach myself how to tie flies before I could even think of planning a fly fishing trip to my favorite trout tailwaters.
I left Las Cruces, NM on 29 Oct 2017 and arrived at Abe's at 1700H, the same day. Trip duration was approximately six-hours and fifteen-minutes. Distance, 422 miles, one way. I was booked until the following Saturday morning, which gave me five days of fishing. I wanted to fish only weekdays to avoid the weekend crowds I expected. As it turned out, the week-day crowds were nearly non-existent.
I stayed at Abe's as noted above. His two-bed with kitchenette rentals go for $59/night for one person. This is, IMO, extremely reasonable. The food in his restaurant was resonable as well and what I ate was excellent.
My first night there my old refinery buddy came up from Farmington and we ate at Abe's restaurant. We each chose a chili cheese burger. It was superb. That was the only time I ate there because I brought homemade stew and that was my evening meal for the rest of my stay.
My room had a large table which was perfect for tying flies. One word of caution: NEVER walk barefoot near those tables because chances are extremely high that there are flies or hooks embedded in or on the carpet. I dropped a pen on the floor and found a very small fly while in the process of picking the pen up. You've been warned.
Abe's fly shop is well stocked. The shop crew are all friendly and advice is given freely.
Not too far from Abe's is the Float 'N Fish Fly Shop. This where McFlyLures works. He contributes to the FlyTyingForum and makes videos of the San Juan River and surrounding trout waters. They have a large selection of fly fishing and fly tying gear. I was told that they also have a lot of 'local' flies which could come in very handy. The staff I chatted with were all helpful and extremely friendly.
Simms G4 Pro Waders
I was very hesitant about purchasing Gore-Tex waders. I had always worn neoprene waders because that was the norm (as I recall) ten years ago and neoprene definitely kept you warm in the chilly 40 degree water of the San Juan River. But, neoprene waders are no fun to get into. They fit very snugly and make moving about difficult. Gore-Tex waders, on the other hand, I was told are easy to get in and out of and were very comfortable to wear. However, I was not sure how much fleece I would have to wear beneath them to keep me warm.
I chose to wear a pair of thin Patagonia Capilene light-weight bottoms and a pair of heavy-weight fleece pants. Both of these items were purchased long ago and they worked perfectly.
My feet were another story. The wader feet appear to be a neoprene of sorts, they are a different material than the rest of the waders. I wore a pair of thin Cabela liner socks under a pair of heavy Orlon socks. After about four hours or so in the cold tailwater, I felt that I needed to get out and warm up my feet a bit. This usually happens around lunch time for me, so the timing works out well.
These waders have a 'Flip-out Tippet Tender' that I found handy, but not for their advertised purpose. I used it to store my wallet and car keys. Both were very secure in this zip up pouch.
The Gravel Guards performed perfectly. My old Orvis neoprene waders used slip-on gravel-guards that were small, cumbersome and not at all easy to snap onto your boot laces.
I think these waders are money well spent. They advertise for $699. I paid $629, which is still pricey, no question about that.
Simms G3 Guide Boot
My old Orvis wader boots were so stiff they could not be flexed. They were bricks. Period.
The Simms boots worked out perfectly for me. I have no complaints other than the cleats or studs which I will cover next. Simms recommended one size larger than your normal footwear. I wear twelves, so I ordered size 13's and that was a good choice.
Price was not too bad: Advertised price was $229.95. I paid $169.95. This was a close-out price. Worked for me.
Simms Hardbite Star Cleats
While these looked great when freshly installed on a new pair of wading boots, in practice they did not work out as well as expected.
This is the cleat problem: Once the Vibram soles get coated with mud, the cleats are practically worthless. The cleats are too short and do not protrude far enough to be effective. Where I fish, in addition to the normal river bottom mud, there is a lot of moss growing on the rocks.
Most people know that walking along the river bank will pack the Vibram soles of your boots with mud. So the boots are already packed with mud before you ever get into the water. At one point, I was beginning to wonder if the cleats had fallen off. After checking, they had not fallen off, they just were not long enough to work effectively. So when I was walking in the river, I had to be very careful not to slip and fall on my butt or worse. I hope to find longer cleats for these wading boots.
The other issue is that there are only a few of the 'pre-defined locations' on the Vibram soles where the cleats will actually fit in properly. Looking at the image above, you will see that the middle and right cleats fit correctly. The one on the left does not even come close to fitting as the other two do. Simms makes another style of cleat that could fit into these 'pre-defined locations'.
Cleat price: $29 for 10 cleats. You will need two boxes - eight cleats per boot with two back-ups.
Boot price was not too bad: Advertised price was $229.95. I paid $169.95. This was a close-out price. Worked for me.
My old vest was made of canvas and was heavy. This vest is very lightweight and has lots of, mostly accessible, pockets. In truth, a five day test trial may not be sufficient to give a really honest accessment of its 'flyfishing worthiness'.
When the front pockets are loaded, you have to bend over to see the zippers on the lower pockets. This is not really a big deal, but I am going to make a lanyard to hang all of the gear I need access to so I do not have to search through all of the pockets. This, IMO, is a big waste of time, so I'll have a lanyard the next time I'm on the stream.
One thing I missed on this vest was a large pouch on the back. I did not do sufficient research before I purchased this vest because this manufacturer makes this same vest with a large back pouch.
One morning on the river it was raining and I had to wear a lightweight backpack to carry my rain jacket. As it turned out, the rain was not too bad and I never had to use the rain gear. However, it would still be nice to have a pouch to store my lunch and whatever else may be necessary for the day in a back pouch.
Price was $59 via Amazon. I just noticed that the vendor is selling this same vest for $49. Live and learn.
I had never fished below the Texas Hole and this trip was planned to explore as much of that part of the river as time permitted. The weather was picture perfect, as they say, except for Tuesday. On that day, the morning was very cool, raining and totally overcast. Shortly after lunch, the sun finally broke out and it warmed up.
I am not one to photograph every fish that I catch regardless of size. I believe in releasing each and every trout I am fortunate to catch as quickly as possible. I mention this because there are no 'look what I caught selfies' to be seen within this page.
Releasing some trout really is difficult to do sometimes especially if I am using 7x tippet material and have a strong fish on the line. There are those who think that 7x is rediculous on this river, but I know of some who use 8x tippets when fishing dries. Generally speaking, the water is crystal clear, so these thin tippets make perfect sense at times.
So, with delicate tippets such as these, it is difficult to 'horse' the fish to the net, doing so will nearly always guarantee a broken tippet.
Nor am I a 'numbers' guy. If I catch zero fish on any given day, then that is fine with me. I did my best and that is all I can do. The ice cold brew at the end of the day tastes the same regardless of the number of fish caught.
30 October 2017, Monday
First thing in the morning I turned down the Crusher Day Area road. This is the end of the quality waters. For some reason, I felt uncomfortable there as I walked the river bank upstream. So I left and drove upstream to the Munoz Pay Station area.
After I paid for my day permit - $5, I began looking for the trail to the water. I went upstream and then back downstream. It was not until I spotted some fisherman leaving the river back to the parking area that I finally found the trail leading to the river.
The trail to the water shown above can be tricky to find. If you walk directly to the river from the parking lot you most likely will run right into the steep trail leading down to the river. You will have to cross the Lower Estuary before you will get to the larger river flow. The LE contains nothing but fingerlings that I could tell. They will happily take any dry that you toss on the waters surface. After a few minutes of this I moved on to the main river flow.
I spent the rest of the day in this area and caught several nice rainbow.
31 October 2017, Tuesday
Once again, I parked at the Munoz Pay Station and fished in very much the same area that I had the day before. Fishing was just as good as it had been the day before.
1 November 2017, Wednesday
On this day, I decided to fish from the Simon Point Pay Station day area. There was only one other fisherman there the whole time I was there. I caught two small rainbow and I believe he did as well. And, as usual, small fingerling were jumping everywhere. I left early because I wanted to check out the Float 'n Fish fly shop. I believe I got there around 1600H or so and then returned to my room.
2 November 2017, Thrusday
I decided that I was going to fish from the Texas Hole Pay Station area and head upstream from there.
On leaving the parking area, I headed upstream hoping to see some area that I would recognize from ten years ago. I recognized absolutely nothing. I quickly realized that nearly all of the water flow had changed quite a bit. This felt odd to me, but nature has a way of doing that over time.
The day was sunny and warm and ducks were everywhere. The fish were non-existent. I moved on directly across the stream towards the sandstone bluff. The water flow in this area was absolutely perfect for large trout to lurk in.
Some commentary is warranted for the above image.
When a fisherman shuffles about in the water, he stirs up the river bed and releases nymphs, larva and other fish food. In no time, large trout will congregate downstream from you and munch on the fish food you stirred up for them. This happened to me a long time ago on this river, but I had forgotten about it. I have read of fishermen bumping into trout as they walked. I never had that experience, but having them gather downstream from me did happen before. To me, this is a bit unsettling to see large trout at your feet. The thought did occur to me that it was pointless casting for trout in front or the the sides of you because all the fish were behind you. Crazy.
3 November 2017, Friday
What should be very obvious in these images is the lack of company I had during my visit. On this particular day, the boats were fairly thick in the morning hours, but they soon moved on to other areas of the river.
I tried a LOT of different flies on this fly fishing journey. While the midge population on this stream is world renowned, a variety of non-midge imposters will also get a hit.
If you are going to fish the SJR, midge emerger fly patterns are one of the most important flies to have at the end of your tippet.
Here are all the particulars for my midge emerger:
Lolita Fly Pattern
This fly is, IMO, a great fly to use on the San Juan and would probably work very well elsewhere on other trout water.
His book was published in 1994, so IMO, he was the originator of this fly pattern and was first tested on the San Juan River before the book was ever published. He tied this fly onto the tippet of a client who soon hooked up with a large trout. The trout jumped clear of the water and the fly came free of the trout. It was actually his client that named the fly.
I tied the only Lolita I had onto my tippet and after it hit what water, it drifted no more than five feet or so when it was struck very hard breaking the tippet. So, with this experience under my belt, I think it fair to say that this is an invaluable pattern to fish on the San Juan. Tip: Bring more than one of these flies with you.
The hook used in the photo above is a Firehole Stick 413 #20. These are seen below.
I was trying to recall if I put floatant on this fly or not, but I do remember that there was no 'splash' when it was struck. So, that tells me with 99% centainty that it was hit below the surface of the water. Either way, the strike was huge and the fish snapped the tippet and took the fly. Adios, Lolita!
This is the actual fly I used, if fact, if you look closely at the image you will see the tippet knot still in the eye of the hook. Now you know why it looks so scraggly.
The details for this beaded nymph pattern are as follows:
These will nearly always work.
These will nearly always work.
Adams Thorax Style
These will nearly always work.
These will nearly always work.
Old Red Quill
The fly you see below was ripped from the suface of the San Juan River on my last trip. I have a few more to use for my next trip beginning 12NOV2017.
First off, I think I should reveal that I do not use a strike inidator. And, I only tie one fly to my tippet. When I return to the SJR, I may use two flies: one as an attractor above the lower midge or midge emerger. This may work better than using a single fly.
However, I have no need for strike indicators. This is not to say that their use is inferior or immoral in any way. I can still see just fine so watching the tip of my fly line is sufficient for me.
Yes, I know, it could certainly be argued that watching the end of my fly line is no guarantee that my fly has not been hit. I do my best to keep the slack out of my line and that has worked well for me.
When fishing the San Juan, tippet-to-fly knots are extremely important. Here is a great Rio Products video on the knots that most of us use.
The October trip did not get all of the fly fishing out of me, so back I went - with permission from my wife, of course, for another week on the river. I knew the weather forecast would be perfect for the coming week - it's usually cold and snowing by now - plus, the river was low, the water was crystal clear and the crowds were non-existant. So, back to the San Juan river I went on Sunday, 12OCT2017.
Six hours later I arrived at Abe's. Abe's can't be beat. However, unbeknownst to me, their restaurant is a "three-season" restaurant, which meant that they close during the winter. The colder months are never a draw for fishermen, so no point in being open if no one is around. I always pack a hearty evening meal (usually homemade stew) for each day that I plan on being there, but on occassion, I enjoy a meal at Abe's restaurant. That would not be possible on this trip. Too bad!
When I arrived at Abe's fly shop, I asked if they carried wader studs. They did!
These studs were pricey, but they were necessary. When I opened the plastic box I discovered that the studs came with a tool for installing the studs. I was surprised that the tool was included, but was grateful for Orvis's foresightedness. My appreciation for Orvis's thoughtfullness was shortlived.
Before I left home, I thought it best to bring a file, Vise-Grips and my entire Metric and Western/English nut driver set as seen below. As it turned out, the file and Vise-Grips turned out to be a good idea. The nut-driver set was of no use whatsoever.
The Orvis "tool" did not fit ANY of the nut driver's that were in my 12-piece Western/Metric set. These were:
Western set: 1/4", 5/16", 11/32", 3/8", 7/16" and 1/2";
Metric set: 6mm, 7mm, 8mm, 9mm, 10mm and 11mm;
NONE of those fit the Orvis "tool"! So what was the point of this "tool"?
In all fairness, this may be what Orvis was thinking: It MAY have been possible to screw in the studs using their "tool" with your fingertips if I had not filed down the screw tips to make them the same length as the Simm's screws that were already installed in my Simms wading boots. I did want to take a chance of the longer screws protruding into my boots, so I filed them to match the length of the Simms screws.
However, that scenario is a stretch because I had to resort to using my Leatherman pliers to screw in the studs. So filing the tips off of the stud screws would have done nothing to reduce the friction of screwing in the studs, tip or not. If this "tool" would have matched one of my nut-driver's, then that would have worked perfectly. But, screwing the studs into hard Vibram using your fingers and this tool was never going to happen.
Orvis will definitely hear from me on this.
On the plus side, looking at Image 21, I was sucessful in installing two of the studs in the forefoot of each of my wading boots and one in the heel. These studs really made a difference cutting through the moss and debris on the round rocks I had to traverse in the riverbed. In the future, I may remove all of the Simms screws and install the studs over the Simms Hard-Bites which will save me from having to file the tips off. More on this later.
Let's move on to the good stuff.
My foremost goal in my two weeks of fishing the San Juan was to fish as much of the Quality Waters as I could. A lot of fishermen begin and end their SJR fishing careers at the Texas Hole. That's fine, but I wanted to explore the river from the dam down to the cable which marks the end of the three-and-half miles of Quaility Waters.
That said, I'm going to go through each day of this trip in detail.
I decided I wanted to begin fishing from the Munoz parking area. This area is very near the middle of the Quality Waters. The Quality Waters is the catch-and-release section of the river and begins from the Navajo Dam downstream for three-and-a-half miles.
The day this beautiful. The morning was cool, but when the sun rose above the eastern horizon it warmed into the high 60's. There was no wind to speak of ... it was just perfect for fly fishing. Image 19 (above) was taken a few minutes after I was on the river. I was in heaven.
There was a truck in the parking area when I arrived. However, when I entered the river, there was not a single person in sight. A little later a duck hunter waded by on his way back to the parking area. Being alone on this river does not happen very often. I had no complaints.
For some reason, the spot I was fishing in has always been good to me. By "good", I mean that I can always catch large trout here. I have no idea why, I just can. There is nothing special about my fly fishing skill set, but this one spot never fails me. It has also taught me a few things that I will explain below.
After about an hour or so, Jay Walden, who is an author that writes about the San Juan river (and other things), waded behind me heading upstream. We chatted for a minute and off he went. I was aware that Jay was a excellent author and I planned on purchasing one of his books when I checked out. He works at Abe's and is their night manager as well. Jay is a very personable guy.
I spent the whole day in this area. I tried several of my flies and was very sucessful for the entire day. Later in the morning, I offered my spot to a gentleman fishing below me who was not having much sucess. He quizzed me about my leader-tippet set up. I told him how I was set up and he began changing his tippet. I gave him a "Lolita", wished him well, and waded upstream.
Late in the afternoon, I moved back downstream and found my original spot vacant. I waded out and once again began catching fish.
At nearly dusk, Jay was on his way out and stopped to chat. He netted a nice rainbow that I was just reeling in. I never stay on the river this late, but the fishing was incredible making it difficult to leave. Anyway, it was time to head out so we waded out and trekked back to the parking area. I was amazed at all the vehicles still in the parking area: We were not the only ones fishing so late.
Jay asked what fly I had been using and I told him the "Lolita". He had never heard of it. I gave him the one off of my tippet and promised to make him a few more that night and drop them off at the fly shop the next day.
Monday's Fishing Analysis
I had a LOT of fish break off on me today. I have a few thoughts on this.
I absolutely hate to keep a fish on for too long. I would much prefer to bring the fish to net within a five-minute time span, but sometimes that is difficult to do. I normally use my 10-ft Sage RPL+ rod, but I don't feel that I've used it long enough to know how much pressure I can place on it to force the fish to net without breaking the tippet or the rod tip.
There are a few other issues that, I think, are keeping me from reeling in large trout quickly. These are as follows:
Tippet strength. I normally like to use 6x fluro, but I've broken too many of these tippets, so of late, I have been using Orvis's Super Strong 5x mono tippet which is rated at 4.75 pounds. I do not recall ever breaking this tippet material.
Hook size. From my experience, I believe that the wider the hook gap the better regardless of hook size. I have tied a lot of flies on TMC100 hooks, but I am getting away from that particular style hook in favor of TMC 206BL and 2488 hooks because they have wider hook gaps. I am also using a lot of the Firehole Stick hooks, in particular the 413 hooks as seen below. Nearly all of my "Lolita" flies were tied on the 413 #20 hooks. The Firehole Stick hooks have very wide hook gaps and I really like that expecially for large trout.
I have had trout break off after being held for 15 minutes or so. I think the reason this happens is that the small section of the fishes mouth that the hook is embedded in just gives away due to the fish struggling to free itself. IMO, a larger hook will have a better grip on the fish and will not come loose so easily. I would very much prefer to net the fish quickly than have it struggle to free itself for longer than 5 minutes. There is nothing magical about 5 minutes, I just think that is more than enough time to bring a fish to net.
I know all of this can be fiercely debated, but I want to err on the side of the fish. I feel terrible when I have to revive a fish that has stuggled so valiantly to free itself. All of its energy has been consumed and now is dependent on us to help it survive this ordeal. Fortunately, I've only had this happen to me once while on the SJR. My hands nearly froze in the cold water, but the fish was finally able to swim away to live another day.
I think the solution is to have at least a 5x tippet and net the fish as quickly as possible. I have had many fish take out nearly all of my fly line. On one late afternoon, I had a trout take my fly line and nearly all of my dacron backing. There was a lot of line out there. Again, after about a 20 minute struggle the fish managed to break off. I never saw the fish, but was happy that it had freed itself. No problem. My tippet and fly were still intact. He just came free.
Knot choice. My favorite tippet-to-hook knot is the Clinch knot. The bulk of the knot material is tied in front of the fly as opposed to behind the eye of the hook. With small flies and bulky heads behind the hook-eye, this knot, IMO, is a very good knot to use.
If you watch the video, you will note that the Improved Clinch knot is actually weaker than that Clinch knot. I used to use the improved version, but now refrain from doing so.
What a beautiful day this was.
What a beautiful day this was.
What a beautiful day this was.
Friday, 17 OCT2017
What a beautiful day this was.