If you have seen one of those sailing dinghy
races, you would know what I mean. Suddenly you
are immersed on chaos, you see boats everywhere,
skippers yelling orders, everyone jockeying for
a favorable position in the starting line...well,
that is pretty much the scene in the Texas hole
at eight in the morning. Boats everywhere, the
guides trying to place their drift-boat along
the right seam in the current, rowing up-current
to repeat the desired drift, using their x-ray
vision to place the right microscopic nymph at
the right place in the equally microscopic leader,
tied by a microscopic knot. I am sure you get the
drift (no pun intended!). The San Juan River is a
wonder to behold; the quality waters are loaded
with no less than 15,000 trout's per mile, mostly
rainbows, but with a good number of browns, and
here is where the story begins.
The Texas hole at 8 AM. Every single guide attempting
to place his or her drift-boat along the predominant
In general, I approach fishing the San Juan the
following way. If I have some business in Albuquerque
or Denver, I know what needs to be done. I will try
to get a rental car and send some e-mail to Abbe's
Flyshop in Navajo Dam to get a room in the motel.
Then, I will reserve a couple of day floats and most
of the pertinent homework has been done.
The start of the quality waters in the San Juan River
as seen from the top of Navajo Dam.
There I go in my peregrination to the trout fisherman
Mecca. And a peregrination it is. I have been doing
this for the last twenty years, every four or five
years according to the opportunities brought by my
job. Through the years, the San Juan River, and
principally the village of Navajo Dam, have changed
a great deal as compared to the early 80's. Even
Abbe's Motel looks the size of a small town, such
as that one encounter in that neck of the woods. Abbe
himself does not age much, or at least is not as
notable, although now he has retired.
So here we are, a stormy late April morning after
a seven-hour drive from Denver (four hours from
Albuquerque, NM) and after a pleasant nights rest
at Abbe's. I love Abbe's gas fired heaters; they
warm the room so fast, and put you to sleep with
a low, continuous, noise reducing sound. I already
had my breakfast at Abbe's restaurant by the fly-shop.
An overdose of French toasts that I am sure will be
enough fuel to power a full day float through the
quality waters. When I saw the river this time, I
was very impressed by how low it was. The Texas hole
that usually looks like a good size pond, looked like
one of those ponds people put Koi carp for ornament
in large gardens. My guide this time was Johnny Lopes,
a veteran of almost two decades guiding in the San Juan,
and a bit of a philosopher. Johnny will not shy away
from any discourse, from politics, through history
and ethnography to conservation. That Friday he was
into the influence of the Spanish culture in the
The side of Abe's flyshop and motel. Mighty large
rainbows there, sometimes you have to hug the trout
to land it!
Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.
But Johnny's forte is his amazing ability to control
the drift-boat, keeping you at the right distance
and direction to the intended target, being it a
trout, or a seam in the river current. Johnny saw
the clouds converging to a point in the northwestern
horizon, and asked me if I had brought the pants of
my raingear. I told him no, and he said that I was
going to get wet. Well I did not; it was hail that
fell on us for about 15 minutes. To compensate for
that, fishing was great all day long. There was a
prolific hatch of midges and small mayflies. The
midge was about a size 24 and the dark brown mayfly
about a size 20. The bugs were everywhere, but
strangely, there were no trout working the surface.
Instead of the trout, there were thousands of swallows
working the hatch. The most beautiful birds, about
the size of your hand and with brown, white and purple
in their backs. They were working the hatch pretty
much the same way the guides where. They will bunch-up
at the head of the pool (the Texas hole) and fly close
to the water picking-up bugs to the end of the current
seam. At this point they will start flying high, turn
over their shoulders and return to the head of the pool.
I wonder who learned from whom, the guides from the
swallows or vice-versa.
The swallows having a party of the heavy mayfly
hatch during the stormy weather.
The way you fish the San Juan River is by doing
the San Juan drift. That is, nymphing with
indicators and really tiny hooks. Of course
there is consistent surface action, but the
majority of the trout are taken with nymphs.
You know that in order to get the nymphs to
where the trout is feeding, lead or tungsten
beads are attached to the leader. The problem
is, of course, that casting an 8 foot leader
with a two foot tippet, two nymphs, and two
lead beads, is not trivial. It requires
seriously wide open loops. Unfortunately,
thousand of flying swallows and tiny nymphs
dropping from the sky, might lead to some
unfortunate interactions between number six
tippets and birds wing-feathers. The tangles
were predictable, even when the birds were
extremely fast and maneuverable, most of the
times avoiding the fishing lines. I caught four
of those little rascals. I like to remind you
that retrieving line from the sky does not
qualify as fly-fishing, unless you are playing
a flying fish. None of the birds were harmed in
any way though, they were untangled and immediately
released, flying away to join the marauding platoon
picking-up bugs from the river surface.
That day we fished two nymphs both on 24 hooks,
a princess and a CDC split-tail as a trailer
one-foot under. We used two of the smallest
lead reusable beads. All on a number 6 tippet. We
experimented with the length of the leader-tippet
under the strike indicator, and the best length
was about 8 feet. Note, that the best strike
indicators for the San Juan are just a small
piece of polypropylene, such as those you can
purchase on hobby or crafts shops for macramé.
A nice rainbow, mind you, this is a boat net,
the opening is about 24 inches.
Following the swallows we went, the first strike
happened during the first drift down the current
seam. With a number six tippet you do not want
to horse your fish, remember that in the San Juan,
the average rainbow is 18 inches long. The problem
is that you do not want to play the fish too long
either, in order to avoid lactic acid build-up in
their muscles and unduly stressing the fish. So
you must use your best form and skills in combining
these two incompatible demands.
The wind was very high all day long, producing some
challenging casting conditions and lots of tangles.
In one occasion during a particularly poor cast, the
tippet hit my hat-covered head, went through the hat
material and landed hooking my bald-spot. I could not
dislodge that small hook because it was so difficult
to hold between my thumb and index finger. I finally
managed it, with no blood and no pain (just a little).
When the river is so low, it does not fish well.
Johnny Lopes told me that it made no sense to
continue downstream, as we were not going to do
any better, and that we should remain in the
Texas hole all day. So we continued with the
Texas hole dance all morning, connecting to
large rainbows in almost every drift along the
current seam. Note that I say connecting; what
happens is that with such small hooks, losing
1/5 of your hooked fish is not unheard off. We
did lose our share, but it was not too bad.
Ahh, the joy of catching large trout with small
nymphs! Never try to horse them into your net
before they are ready, not much of the trout
mouth is held by a nymph on a no. 24 hook.
At noon we stopped for a shore lunch (the usual
ham sandwich or fried chicken) at one of the
pretty spots overlooking the imposing yellow
mesas of the four-corner region. Fishing during
the afternoon was pretty much the same, except
that I hooked a large trout that took me almost
to the backing. I hate when that happens as I
usually loose the fish. Not this time my friends,
I patiently worked back the fish with a slow and
soft pumping of the rod, and landed the fellow.
All along the day, I was most curious of a father
and son team in another drift boat. The young boy
was about the same age as my son (8 years) and the
kid was always hooked up. He was doing so well. I
must confess that I really missed my kid that day.
At the putout everyone was happy and as true fisherman,
concocting all kind of stories of the large ones
that they landed. The casual conversation surrounding
the landing of trout over 25 inches (very unusual)
was overheard coming from at least two boats. It
so funny how easily grown man can distort the truth,
just a little bit, just enough as to match our ego.
The take-out point, and end of the quality waters.
What a pity that the quality waters are not extended
to the bridge by the village of Navajo Dam.
The next day (Saturday) was a different story. The
day was bright and sunny, not much in terms of wind,
and of course not much in terms of fishing either.
My guide that day was Brian Capsay. He has a
fly-fishing business in Durango, not far from the
San Juan, at the other side of the Colorado border.
Brian, as Johnny, is a smart, knowledgeable and
hard working young man. What he lacks in experience,
he more than compensates for in enthusiasm. The first
four hours in the Texas hole yielded two trout hooked
and one landed, and that was pretty close to lunchtime.
After the mandatory fried chicken, we took off down
river with the expectation of more action. I remember
Johnny's comments the previous day and was a bit
apprehensive, but the Texas hole was not yielding
much action either, so there we went. When we
reached dead man row, we saw a couple of trout
working the surface, although there was no visible
hatch, at least to my eyes. My vision is not what
it used to be and I needed to place a large attractor
(size 14 or so) about a foot from the midge I was
fishing in order to see the vicinity of the fly
(fishing "the zone"), and where my fly is drifting.
We had no action, and after chasing the trout for
about half an hour, we gave-up and continued down-river.
The same thing happened in the so-called lower flats,
some sporadic surface action of no consequence. This
time the atmosphere at the putout was a bit more somber
than that of yesterday. Apparently the trout in this
river are sensitive to low/high atmospheric pressure
variations as in lakes. Well, I did not get skunked
(although it was a close call!); besides I had a great
float in terms of company, conversation, and the
ever-present flora and fauna of the San Juan. If
you are a nature lover such as I, you will be
delighted with the sights of mule deer, elk, and
muskrats, brush jays, red tailed hawks, hares,
bull snakes and a whole bunch of other interesting
The author with a typical (no kidding, it is the
typical size) rainbow from the San Juan River
quality waters. This photo was taken in the mid 80s,
when the river was full. At that time you were allowed
to handle the fish. Now a days, with the severe fishing
pressure, the guides shy away from this practice.
If you feel the urge to fish a tail-water, pick the
San Juan River, one of the best rainbow fisheries
in the US. Call the very affordable Abbe's flyshop
and motel (www.sanjuanriver.com, 505-632-2194, see
if Johnny Lopes can guide you). If you are spending
some time in the region, or you are travelling with
your family, visit Durango, Colorado. It is a wonderful
town with something to offer everyone. If you have
your fishing rods ready, and would like to try the
Animas River, go and visit Brian's flyshop
(firstname.lastname@example.org, 970-946-6494) and have
a float down the Animas. ~ Jorge