Updated: Nov 21, 2021
It was this time exactly last year when COVID hit, and was also the last weekend before the state shut down the river. I was at the Juan with a couple of guys for a long weekend. Three of us came from the Albuquerque area and the other two came from Denver. Everyone was catching up while being indulged in sudo-bragging and the usual tall tails while we were sitting around the fire having a beer and sipping on whiskey. The city guys always stand out by one single indicator - their phone. Caught up in telling a story, a good story that requires facial expressions and hand jesters, the phone never leaves the hand. All the while lit up and glowing with another conversation that isn’t pertaining to the one being told to us... another lifestyle. There was a little talk about current events and this unknown virus that seemed to blot and dab between fish stories. I can’t harp too much on the phone thing because one of the guys was getting information from his wife about school closures in the Denver metro directly relating to his children and the unknowns of this new virus. Everyone except me had government jobs and are connected nationally, so I get why their phones were blowing up. After I got over the annoyance part, it wasn’t so bad and the whiskey helped. As we parted ways for the night, the plan was made for a zero dark-thirty, lock and load, go fish, let’s get it on meeting. So basically, it was a wake up and head out plan. I was great with that... I instigated it. So I went to bed with a grin thinking of first light on the water. Well, that didn’t happen. Our guests from CO weren’t even up when we beat on the trailer door in the morning. Oh I get it, something like jet lag or changing time zones... no fat chance. Just laziness or vacation brain. This is about how the whole weekend went. I was asked to tie on flies, untangle knots, put them on fish and share my trail mix. I should have charged for guiding.... Ha! I did get into some large fish though. That kept my interest for sure. The Juan is a funny place. It’s the only place I’ve ever fished where I can tolerate other fishermen no more than 20-30 ft away. That’s just how this place is. Everyone wants the Juan experience at the same time. It’s more social fishing than what and where I usually gravitate to but you just get used to it. At least there weren’t any fat guys with cigars in drift boats yelling at me to get out of the way while their guide smiled and corrected them about etiquette. Not this time, anyways. Fast forward to now... It's Thursday night and my son has finally gone down for the night. My wife is wiped out, the dogs have given up, are passed out and I was exhausted from the week. But I’m leaving for a 3 day-er at the Juan in the morning so my excitement is there but buried a bit. I’ve been putting off organizing my flies amongst the stack of boxes on my tying bench. I’ve had great intentions to clean them out and add the new flies but it hasn’t happened yet. Going into the gear closet has been dreadful. Is this going to be one of those trips where I just throw everything into a duffle only to sort it out when I get there? That’s where mistakes happen. I don’t want to bum any forgotten supplies nor dig for those fresh bugs that are still in the coffee cup on the bench at the house. I’m meeting a close friend this weekend that I haven’t seen since October. He’s a great guy and an even greater guy to go stand in a river with. Okay, I’ll go check the spikes on my boots and toss them in the bag. I haven’t worn these G3’s in a year... Frankenstein boots compared to my Flyweights which I’ve worn the crap out of. Best boots in my opinion. Next I’ll put my waders in the bag and onto my packs. That was easy and the drudgery is starting to lift. Now to pack the rods.... for sure bringing my 5wt X with my Ross Animas and the Hardy. Also, I’m throwing in a new rod and reel setup I actually won form my local fly shop in December. 5wt Sonic pared with a nice Galvan reel. Okay, now I’m feeling enthusiastic... oh yeah... and don’t forget my rain jacket. The drive out was easy while under the veil of darkness. Traffic was light and other drivers seemed to be behaving and abiding. As sunrise broke, I was just outside of a little town called Cuba... a sleepy little town and very New Mexico. It’s my gas and coffee stop both to and from the Juan. The air was crisp with a slight chill. It had snowed here only a few days earlier and the remittance still lurked. Since I’m heading north, I wondered what conditions lie ahead. This is high desert and the next leg of the journey is in open country so it is completely unpredictable. Back on the road and coming up on Chaco canyon (one of the oldest inhabited sites in the US), I was in disbelief of a large fog bank just ahead. I’ve never seen this here. I grew up with fog banks in the Bay Area. It was quite the norm. I identified it as fog but living in Oklahoma for a stint, it reminded me also of a large wall cloud that is usually the precursor for hail and tornados. I teased myself with this for a second but as the fog enveloped the road, my mind shifted back to the task at hand, drive.
Strangely enough, as I made my turn off through a little “cow punk” town, the fog lifted to reveal the canyon of the San River ahead. Gnarled rock cliffs, sage and juniper with a piercing blue sky greeted me on this two lane out in the middle nowhere stretch. Ahhh... the river valley of the Juan.
I was meeting my friend James in the parking lot of Texas Hole. One of the most popular spots on this river. The parking lot can sometimes resemble a tailgate party at a college football game. Also, for the most part, everyone is on their best behavior here. I spotted James’s truck with a Rainbrown sticker on the back window and found a spot next to him. After catching up for a bit, it was time to suit up and go find some fish. This was his first time here and I wanted to give him the Juan experience, so we started at Kiddy Hole. T Hole was shoulder to shoulder with guys wading and several drift boats anchored at the top and middle of the run. As the morning warmed up, so did the black midge hatch. My waders were covered with little black bugs and so was the water. It took a bit for the fish to start sipping off the surface but they eventually did. I re-rigged for a dry dropper set up with high hopes but was refused several times. Picky fish here... they have a constant conveyor belt of food so I tried not to take it personally about the refusals. So back to two midge set up one brown and the other black. This seemed to be the ticket with my wool indicator pausing for a second during the drift, time to set the hook. Not much of a fight and more like a surrender. The size and weight deemed the hen to be in the upper teens if not a solid 20” and resemble a Mardi Gras football. The release was quick with a slow descend back into the feeding lane. She’d been caught many times before and probably knew the less of a fight, the sooner back to gorging on little bugs. After getting my rig back together and now glancing around, I noticed this spot was filling up with other people. It’s difficult to find a secluded spot on the Juan so I convinced my friend that we need new water. It’s easy to fall into the trap of Kiddie and T Hole meaning you can spend the entire day in one spot presenting to the same fish. Not to mention that the large ones drafting at your feet is enticing as hell. We dredged through all the braids to get to the back channel. Finally water that looked like a river. My fish brain sparked and my adrenaline shot. My target was up stream about 20 yards, a large rock in the middle splitting the water. River left was a deeper channel but right had a better feeder lane, so I went right. First cast was short and not even at the rock yet. I wanted to see if anything was feeding in the shallows in the back eddy. I was checking the water clarity as I mended my line through the drift. That’s when I saw the the silvery flash and my indicator vanish.
The tug of the line is definitely the drug. It snaps you from one mode into another.
Coming from stalking, mending the perfect dead drift, studying line float and almost being in a trance while watching a little piece of wool as your only line of hope and communication float through the zone, into immediate action... snapping you out of the trance and into the fight. The line tension and the quick pursuit to control and stabilize the situation for our comfort or our comprehension. Enter the chess game between predator and prey. Action and reaction is the dialog with anticipation of the opponent and let us not to forget navigation of the terrain. Constantly scouting structure so the fish doesn’t get hung up on any thing causing a break off or death by snag. The game is to catch and release, no harm no foul but it’s a bit of a contradiction, don’t you think? All the while trying not to bust our asses on unforeseen rocks.
The hen was heavy and dark in color. She also had been a veteran of this river but spunky unlike the others that live in the pools. She gave fight and took my Galvin reel down close to the “warning track” before I could apply the breaks with my palm. I only have one “ click & paw” but I treat them all the same by instinctually palming as the drag. Maybe some weird habit I guess.
As the hunter being directly connected to the prey and trying to navigate scenarios, the next issue is the fact that she was quickly heading down river into deep fast water. Enter responsibility for my actions.
I scrambled down river with her all the while trying not to bust my ass on the rocks, keep the rod tip up and an eye on the indicator. I was attempting to get below her so I wouldn’t be dealing with current and her hefty weight. We got parallel twice before she’d take another run down river which meant another scramble. Finally I got below her enough to control the situation and move her towards shallower water and eventually my net. It always amazes me here on the San Juan as I pulled the fly from her jaw, how small these midges are, size 24 to be exact. But that’s the unique beauty of this place. Set aside how much pressure this place gets on a daily and yearly basis and look at the consistency of food, environment and water temperature here.
Nowhere else in the world is it like this. That’s what I love about understated New Mexico.
Have some time? Plan a trip here and see for yourself. -Fish on