Home Cooking - Acquired Instincts - The Home Court
Advantage. Call it what you will, there's nothing
like a little local knowledge (or the lack of it)
to let you know that you're on someone else's territory.
It takes three or four times around most championship
golf courses to learn when to "go for it" and when to
"lay up." Knowing the details of the haunts and habits
of the local whitetails, the turkey gobblers, or even
the quail coveys, can mean the difference between a good
day of just having been there, or one chock full of extra
special memories. Trout streams, especially those quality
waters that see a lot of fishermen, hold their own sets
of secrets. Learning them can be as much fun as knowing
When my friends Ken and Larry from Dallas invited me to
join them for a mid-winter sneak-away to the legendary
San Juan River in Northern New Mexico, I jumped at the
chance to add another quality water to my modest but
growing life's list. I'd heard stories of fish after
fish in the 20"+ range - those were the stories that
I remembered. Pushing a little further into the memory
banks, I seemed to recall a few folks saying it was
sometimes tougher than it looks - those are the reports
I dismissed. I had no idea.
The day came, I left Houston early and during the 3 1/2
hour drive from Albuquerque to the metropolis of Navajo
Dam, New Mexico, I was recounting other experiences on
tailwaters and rehearsing techniques that had served
me well before. Nymphs and strike indicators, I'd heard;
dead drifts in channels and runs so thick with fish that
even a first-timer should have a day to remember. No
special skills needed, just good concentration and a
little luck. Smaller flies in the wintertime, I suppose,
but I'd done that before, too.
It was late afternoon when I arrived. Ken and Larry had
not yet checked in, so I decided to drive the 3 or 4-mile
stretch up to the dam, get my first look at this special
place, and plan my strategy. The falling sun put the
classic Western glow onto the cliffs of Cretaceous
sandstone, and the bottomlands on both sides of the
river waved shades of golds, browns, and purples
through the tamaracks and field grasses. Mid-February,
50 degrees, scattered clouds - perfect, and hardly anyone
in sight - I can handle this. I was already pleased that
I had made the trip.
I rounded the curve to the first parking area and did
a major double take. There must have been forty cars!
A half-mile more and another lot - another 40 cars - and
once more, again. "Whoa", I thought, "this is Thursday,
and it's February. Man, the locals must really know
I finally got my first glimpse of the river itself.
There must have been 100 guys there. They were strung
up and down the channel like they were waiting for a
parade. It looked like Bennett Springs in Missouri
on opening day. Surely this must be some huge corporate
outing or a convention of some sort. This can't be
normal. The short drive back to town brought thoughts
of the strategies necessary for dealing with this much
Now, I have managed to arrange my life so that it includes
a good bit of fly-fishing. I'm no pro, for sure, but I'm
not a novice, either. Maybe 30, maybe 40 days a year
on various waters, but never enough in one spot to really
learn a place - and this river was a new one on me. I
could already tell that it was going to be something I
had not faced before. I needed advice. Frequently,
the best place for a little insight is the local fly
shop - if they'll tell you. With the crowd I'd seen,
I figured someone had told somebody.
Abe's Motel. I've heard and read those words for years,
usually with a degree of reverence attached to
them - something like "Mecca" on the San Juan. Navajo
Dam, New Mexico is pretty much somewhere you go to - it's
not somewhere you go through when you're going somewhere
else, and Abe's, Rizutto's, The Sportsman's Cafe, and
the upscale Soaring Eagle are pretty much "It" when
you get there. Abe's is a grocery store, fly shop,
guide and motel office, gas station, cafe in the morning,
dining room at night, and a bar when you need it to be.
I entered the swinging doors and made my way back to the
fly displays. I was greeted by a friendly and honest-looking,
20-something fellow with a hat that said "Born and Raised
on the San Juan" on it. This, I took for a good sign.
"Okay", I said, "What's hot, I'm a novice here." As soon
as I spoke them, I worried that those last three words
might create an opportunity for Abe's to move some slow
inventory. I looked up and noticed the "River Conditions
and Good Bets" chalk board on the wall and decided that
I could protect myself from the oversell.
"Well, the river's a little murky right now because
of the turnover, so the fish are being a little picky,"
came the reply. I was faced with acting like I knew
what turnover was. I tried to appear pleased that
conditions were to be a challenge, and I began patting
myself on the back for knowing enough to seek out the
local knowledge before hitting the water.
The "Born and Raised" fellow directed my focus to
about ten compartments in his impressive rack of
options. "Got anything like these here?"
On occasions in the past I have dumped my fly boxes
onto a white paper spread across the kitchen table
so that I could re-sort them - part of my ongoing
objective of becoming a more efficient fisherman.
Once, in the midst of this exercise, I decided to
count - big mistake. Since it has been a couple of
years since I last inventoried, I now have to estimate
the total. I believe that I now own somewhere between
1250 and 1500 trout flies. Of course, it would look
foolish to carry them all, so I usually have only 500
or so with me at any one time. I guess that's why I
never seem to have what I need. "No, nothing quite
like that," I admitted.
I looked carefully at the ten targeted compartments.
It looked as if someone had spilled fresh ground pepper
into the tray. Some looked like those little brown
and red seeds that you shake onto your pizza at Mr.
Gatti's, and others resembled fly specs and roach
leavings. "Mostly midges," I mused. The silence
indicated that "Duuhhh" might have reflected my
mentor's thoughts, or maybe he was just polite.
I thought that I'd spent some time with small flies
in the past, but when the sizes start with #20's,
and go down from there, well, we're really talking
Poking through the variety of proffered options,
I discovered that each was indeed different. Some
of the black ones were segmented, some were smooth.
Some had little glass beads for heads, some had
little wing coverts, some bits of flash and sparkle.
The red ones varied as much, five or six different
patterns, each in five sizes ranging from small to
"you've got to be kidding?" A mild sense of panic
crept over me. Without further direction, I was dead
meat. But, fortunately, I'd been in this fix before.
In an attempt to progress without sounding clueless,
I said, "Why don't you just pick me out a dozen that
you'd take if you were going out."
Born and Raised said, "Well, if I was going out I'd
start with a #20 Red Annelid or a Princess on the
lead and put a somewhat smaller trailer behind it
("somewhat smaller? - than a 20?"). I nodded my
head in approval. While my box was being filled I
glanced up at the tippet displays and spied the new
fluorocarbon. I'd heard great things about the
invisibility of this new stuff, and I figured it
would be just the ticket. "How about a wheel of
the new stuff?? I asked, "7x or 8x, I suppose?"
My friend said, "I'm getting by with 5x right now
with the turnover."
"Oh yeah, the turnover. Well, give me a reel of 6x then."
"You sure you want the fluorocarbon?"
"Absolutely, I hear it's great."
"OK", said Abe's guy, "It's $9.95 a reel"
I suppressed a cough.
"So, with the dozen flies, and the tax, that comes
to $36.85. How are you fixed for Eggs and Chamois
Born and Raised directed my attention to another
rack of flies. It looked like Alaska in miniature.
Rows and rows of egg patterns in about eight different
colors and six sizes. It looked like the bead rack
at a craft store. "I heard that the 22 pale orange
or peach is working well, and if all else fails the
Chamois Worm sometimes gets 'em started."
I began to feel that I might be getting the "Let's
just see what this Texan will buy" treatment, so I
tried to be polite but skeptical. The Chamois Worm
looked like a skinny strip of my old work gloves
tied fore and aft to a size 8 hook. It came in
four colors, and at $1.85 each I decided I could
pass. And, I just don't do eggs, period, ever.
They don't look like bugs, and they don't look
like little fish. "I'm ok in those departments,"
I tucked the small package of acquired local
knowledge, and my $10.00 tippet, into my pocket
and walked out the door. I was mentally increasing
my active inventory count to 512 as Ken and Larry
pulled up in their rented car. We exchanged greetings,
and I asked, "What kept you?"
"Oh, we stopped in Cuba on the way up. They've
got a killer Mexican food restaurant there, so we
I kicked myself mentally. Not two hours earlier I
had passed by the same spot and I remembered thinking
that it was probably a local secret. Local knowledge
works on all levels. I recalled my bag of Ritz Bits
and ice cream sandwich.
Ken asked if I had heard what was going on at the river.
I responded confidently that we were in the midst of a
full-blown turnover and that red and black pizza peppers
seemed to be the hot ticket. I showed them my new
purchases and they nodded knowingly. We got checked
in to the motel room and decided that dinner was in
order. Ken actually had been to Navajo Dam before,
a couple of times, and he quickly recommended The
Sportsman. "It's where most of the locals go."
That sounded like an acquired taste, I thought.
Life really can be a learning experience if you
That evening, after a decent dinner of fried mushrooms,
green chili soup, a ham and cheese sandwich and a glass
of Mer-Lot (as they called it), I went to sleep reading
Ed Engle's Fishing the Tailwaters. Between
that, my own experience and the latest additions to my
fly inventory, and the fluorocarbon, I was certain that
I was ready.
The morning broke clear, a crisp 27°, and fabulous.
Boy, I love the West. I was up early. Ken had said
that his information indicated there was not much need
to be on the water before 10:00 a.m., so we hit Abe's
breakfast cafe for a leisurely start to this day.
"How's the oatmeal?" I asked. "You mean the trough?"
came the reply from our bouncy-friendly waitress.
Despite the inference, I ordered it anyway. In a
few minutes approximately 2 pounds of sticky oats
arrived in a large soup bowl. Local knowledge might
have suggested a different choice - but then the
locals don't really know how much I like oatmeal!
Ken reported that he had called Steven in Durango
and that he was going to drive down and join us
for the morning. This was excellent news since
Steven has written one of the premier books on
the San Juan. He is an expert; part of the
knowledgeable in-crowd. He's fished this river
season-in and season-out for over ten years. If
there was someone to have on your team, Steven is
definitely the man. As far as local knowledge was
concerned, we were headed for the head of the class.
I was inspired and finished most of the oatmeal.
We met Steven at the appointed hour at the appointed
place and proceeded to the first parking area. The
upper part of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam
is on New Mexico State Park land. They have erected
excellent facilities designed to handle the large
numbers of fishermen who use this great area. We
paid our $4.00 day-use fee, stuck the receipt inside
the front window, rigged up and headed in single file
down the well-worn path through the head-high tamaracks
to one of the back channels off of the main river. As
we walked in, we met a couple of guys coming out.
Surprised, I asked if they were having any luck.
"Yeah, we did pretty good. They got going really
strong about 8:30,but it's tapered off a little now."
I think Ken pretended not to hear.
We reached the streamside and sat down in the sun
to plan strategy. "Let me see your fly box, Ken."
It was Steven making the request, so it was obvious
that paying attention here was a good idea. Ken
opened an old Wheatley, the kind that has the turning
pages of white felt. Everything appeared to me to be
size 18 or smaller. There were rows and rows and rows
of flies, all manners of ties, all shades and hues of
color, 1 dozen per row, 18 rows per page, 6 pages in
the book. My engineering background allowed a quick
calculation. Ken had 1296 miniature nymphs right there
in that one box, and his dries were somewhere else!
Damn! I thought, I should have brought more.
"What do you think?" Ken's inquiry reflected the
pride of the time he had spent tying these little
jewels. "Obsessive comes to mind", said Steven,
"but then obsessive is sometimes good." At that
point Steven did not know that Ken had also made
the cane rod he was using.
"What's your choice, Steve?" I asked, trying to
maximize this lesson. Steven pulled out a rather
small box with maybe a couple dozen occupants.
"I think I'll put an attractor nymph of some sort
up front and then use a dark midge for a trailer."
An attractor nymph? My mind raced through the annals
of flies I have known. A Humpy emerger? A nymphal
form of Royal Wulff? Maybe a gold-ribbed Goofus Bug?
What the heck is an attractor nymph? Come to think
of it, though, the Princess's I had bought from Born
and Raised did look a little like a tiny form of the
Parmachenee Belle that my Dad used to like when I
was a kid.
Steve continued, "I'm going to put a Chamois Worm
or an Egg up front and trail that with a Crystal-headed
Black Annelid." I felt the trough of oatmeal turn over
in my stomach. Larry immediately produced a box of
Eggs and Steven pawed through them cautiously. He
suggested a size 22 Peach. I looked over his shoulder
and realized that his were all Georgia Peach. With my
luck, even if I had any they would have been Texas Hill
Country Peach. Ken and Larry were actually worse off.
They had some Eggs but none were smaller than an 18,
and they were more like a South Carolina Peach.
"Go ahead and give one a try," said Steve, trying
hard not to sound too pessimistic.
The others dropped me off at the first run and took
up successive positions along the way upstream.
Steven pointed out for me as best he could the
suspect lies. I assured him that I had experience
at dead drifting nymphs, (which was true). He said
that was good but this river was sometimes a little
different than most. As he left I hollered out
"What kind of tippet do you recommend?" "Probably
5x or 6x today", came the reply, "Regular's fine.
That fluorocarbon is too damned expensive." The
oatmeal turned again.
I surveyed my first run and tied on a size 20 Red
Annelid and trailed that with a 24 Black Pepper.
I added the suggested BB between the two and put
on an unobtrusive little strike indicator at about
1 1/2 times the depth of the water as I estimated
it; a plan that had worked many times before. My
expectations were modest, but my enthusiasm was high
as I stepped into the first run. After all, this
was someone else's water, and I'm just learning
For about 45 minutes I fished my heart out in all
of the likely looking spots; seams, shelves, throats,
cut banks, drop-offs; anywhere that the current
provided any focus. I made great casts and great
drifts, I concentrated, I switched flies, moved BB's
and indicators, and I just knew that the 20" Rainbow
was right there ready for the taking. I made a cast
to one of those "not to hot but might as well try it
anyway" spots and was rewarded with my first San Juan
trout, a bright 15-incher. "Aahah, a start", I thought,
and then spent another 15 minutes without further
confirmation that I was learning anything. I began
to think that the guys who started at 8:30 might have
I knew that Steven had to leave early, so after about
an hour I decided to walk up to see how the others
were doing. It was then I realized that I had not
seen other fishermen. Where were the crowds from
the day before? I also began to pay attention to
an incredible array of waterfowl and other wildlife
on the river. I saw a muskrat and a beaver. Overhead
was a Bald Eagle applying a different technique to
the same challenge. There was going to be plenty of
redeeming value to this trip, even if I didn't catch
another fish. I was happy.
Larry, Ken, and Steven were all fishing near the head
end of our side channel as it cut away from the main
river. As I spied them I also found the crowd. Beyond
my friends I could see at least 30 other fishermen
working almost every available piece of the main channel,
and at any one time, my field of vision contained at
least three float boats making their way down the center
of the river. Most everyone seemed to be fishing right
at their feet or immediately over the side of the boat.
As I got closer I could also see something else new to me.
Everyone was using strike indicators that looked like
tennis balls, or pom-poms off your kids' bedroom slippers.
It looked as if a Christmas tree had lost its load of
ornaments and they were all floating down the river in
unison. Reds, oranges, whites, greens, and
chartreuses - like so many giant dandelions on the
current. What has life become?
I approached Larry first who, like me, was on his maiden
trip to the San Juan. "No good, so far. How about you?"
Ken was next and had gotten one fish about like mine.
"How's Steven done?" I expected the worst. "He's got
7 that I know of and probably more cause I wasn't with
him the whole time. Looks like 3 or 4 over 20 inches."
Ken's report was succinct. I thought quietly for a
moment and then decided that I would not have oatmeal
Steven was reeling up to start the walk back to the
car for his drive home to appointments in Durango.
He is, in fact, just a super nice fellow, and he
smiled knowingly at our efforts. He sat down with
us and shared a few things about the river he knows
best. He explained that the San Juan is one of the
most prolific fish factories in the country. Its
waters are loaded with all forms of micro-biota and
the fish have become accustomed to their natural
smorgasbord. They're also used to not having to
work too hard to access it.
The state has recently assigned a fisheries biologist
to the river on pretty much a full-time basis, and
Steven reports the nearly unbelievable number of
15,000 to 20,000 catchable fish per mile of water.
The river is pretty broad throughout, and it carries
a lot of water, but that is a lot of trout anywhere.
As a result of the number of fish, the richness of
the food source, and the amount of fishing pressure,
certain sophistication in just what the fish will
eat has evolved. In addition, the fish tend to
spread out across the river and are not concentrated
to the degree one might expect in the "normal"
currents, runs, chutes and seams. What often looks
like a broad flat run is likely not as flat as it
looks, and within, it hides any number of
micro-channels where the fish lie.
Steven offered a little free lesson, "You've really
got to focus and concentrate on the subtle details
of the water and put your bug right in front of
their noses. And you pretty much need to be right
on bottom. If you're not hanging up, you need more
weight. Usually the water is a lot clearer than
now and you can see more of both the fish and the
bottom structure. That makes it a lot easier.
We've got the turnover to thank for the current
"Okay, okay," I finally succumbed, "What is this
turnover business?" Steve explained that the area
had seen an unusually mild winter and that the
thermocline in Navajo Lake never could make up
its mind. The cold surface layers of the lake
waters periodically sink and change places with
the warmer lower layers and the flip-flop creates
some turbulence. Rather than seeing this happen
once or twice during the season as is normal, it
seemed to be almost a continual event, and that
has kept the river murky. "Well Heck", I thought,
"I could have figured that out, I just wasn't thinking
about the lake."
Steven got up to go and wished us well. As he
walked away we felt a bit of comfort in our brief
education, but I, at least, knew that I did not
have any #22 Georgia Peach Eggs. We re-entered
the side channel to practice our newly learned
secrets. I began to concentrate on the slower
and broader runs and actually picked up a fish
or two, but still no bruisers. I moved out to
the main channel of the river and tried to
concentrate on the methods of the assembled masses.
By this time the river was pretty well populated
with fishermen of all shapes and sizes. The plethora
of pom-pom indicators was noticeable - obtrusive,
A steady flotilla of drift boats provided distraction
from the steely-eyed focus on the pom-poms. I noticed
that most seemed to be fishing a very short line, maybe
15' or so, and the guys in the boats barely had any
length beyond their leaders outside the rod tip. In
fact, the drifters were simply hanging their offerings
straight over the side of the boat and going where the
current took them. (We used to fish for Crappie that
way around the stumps in the Louisiana bayous).
Hook-ups were frequent enough to be noticeable, but
with from 50 to 75 folks in the field of vision at
any one time, the apparent success level may have
Returning to our side channel, I picked out an
innocuous-looking flat run upstream from Larry.
I waded out what seemed to be an appropriate
distance from the shore and began a short-line
flip and drift routine. Flip, drift - flip,
drift - flip, drift. No hang-ups. I need more
weight. Add two BB's. Flip, plop, drift - flip,
plop, drift - flip, plop, drift. My thoughts
wandered. Let's see, I'm standing here with my
$600 fly rod, my $250 reel, my $500 worth of
necessary stuff, and my 510 flies (lost two this
morning) doing a 15-foot flip, plop, and drift
routine. Fly casting at its best.
My mind was searching to rationalize this
situation when my attention was ripped back
to the present by a strong bump against my
submerged calf. A trout, and a substantial
one at that, had just crashed into my leg - and
pretty hard. Within a minute I was again torpedoed
by a San Juan assassin, and then within a minute,
again. I was contemplating the cast that would be
necessary to put my fly drag-free between my legs
when I was hit yet again. Perhaps these fish were
picking nymphs off my waders, or maybe they were so
used to fishermen that they were trying to encourage
me to initiate the dreaded "San Juan Shuffle" and
move my feet to dislodge a few naturals. I decided
against the between-the-legs drop cast.
Downstream Larry had just hooked a good fish and
Ken had picked one off a few minutes earlier. I
focused on them. Although they were almost exactly
as far offshore as was I, they were standing in water
about knee-deep. I, however, was about up to mid-thigh.
The micro-channels!! I must have been standing in one!
I immediately backed off about 6 feet, lengthened my cast
to 21 feet and began again. Flip, plop, drift - flip,
plop, drift...bang-the tiny indicator made a quick dip
and I picked up, fast to a strong fish. "Yes!" I
congratulated myself out loud, and then realized
that my prize was hooked squarely in the tail.
"Sure fooled him," I thought. I did my best to
create the impression of an underwater release
and waved smiling at Ken and Larry.
The afternoon continued the matter of a slow education.
Like most rivers, this one was going to take a while
to really figure out. By habit, the "fishiest"
looking spots got my most intense concentration,
but they yielded the least reward. The occasional
strike, and the more occasional fish, came from
spots I considered least likely. Acquired knowledge,
Throughout the day I was distracted by the surroundings.
Being a geologist, I notice the rocks, and the Navajo
canyon, while not as outwardly spectacular as some,
nevertheless left me with a desire to return on foot
and hike its walls seeking out relics and prizes of
the primal seas that hid them eons ago. Great rocks
I love ducks. All day long the sky was filled with
wheeling and turning flocks of widgeons and goldeneyes,
their whistling wings announcing their arrival before
they were seen. Mallards in pairs, three pintails,
and a small flock of teal jumped from channel to
beaver pond and back again. I imagined that they,
too, were seeking the local knowledge, in their case
the juiciest grazing grounds. For them, the stakes
were a bit more intense than they were for me. All
up and down the river, each 200 yards or so, the
banks were occupied by loud and territorial pairs
of magnificent Canada Geese. Though wild, they,
like the trout, had become accustomed to the steady
presence of their human visitors and they casually
dabbled in the same waters we fished, often within
15 or 20 feet. The senses were fully charged.
As the afternoon drew on, we agreed to make our
separate ways back to the parking lot. I wandered
my way back through the scrub intending to re-visit
a couple of the earlier pools. I imagined that I
might be more successful now. Picking through my
fly box I spied an old friend from my college days.
I picked out a #16 Brassie and recalled many
dead-drift successes with it in the Cheesman Canyon
of the South Platte. As I tied it on, a flock of
hard-driving little ducks bombed towards me.
Buffleheads, beautiful little divers, I recognized
the drake in the lead - and there in the tail of the
flock flew a true albino - a wild, white marvel.
The obviousness of his presence made it appears as
though he was working harder to keep up. I had never
seen a wild albino, and, almost as an apparent courtesy
to me, they circled so I could get a second look - and
then went on down the river. This, I decided, was to
be my reward for the day of learning. The trout could
come tomorrow, or on the next trip; today, I was
The way back to the car involved a short wade across
a shallow riffle that plunged into a long deep hole.
Across a section of the riffle a beaver had begun
an ambitious project that, if completed, would create
a significant tailwater in its own right. The partly
ponded area provided a reflecting pool for the tamaracks
and the sandstone cliffs. The sun was perfectly behind
me. Halfway across the riffle, I paused and looked
upstream. There was no visible trace of the hundred
or so neighbors that lay around the bend and I fumbled
in my vest pocket for my camera. I tucked my rod under
my arm so that I could use both hands and then
accidentally dropped the rod into the water at
Looking quickly down I could see that I was in no
immediate danger of losing my prized Classic, the
water was only about 6 inches deep, so I braced
the rod against the current between my feet and
proceeded with the photo and the gaze. The Brassie
trailed downstream. I shot several frames with my
slide film and then decided to shoot some prints as
well. Taking care, I stowed the cameras so that
they might avoid the fate of the rod.
After one last look at the scene, I picked up the
rod and began to reel up the slack. The rainbow
that had taken the dragging Brassie had been
waiting for most of a minute for me to get to him.
After I got back to a tight line he obliged with a
worthwhile run, an acrobatic battle and then beached
himself in the shallows by the beaver dam. Right at
20 inches. I took another picture and clipped my
Brassie for a souvenir.
At the head of the trail Ken and Larry were waiting.
"What the heck were you doing down there? We were
watching from the trail. Were you hung up or something?"
"Just working on a little local knowledge," I
replied - proudly. Indeed. ~ Harry Briscoe