Jubilation in the deluge
—Barb and Ty Belknap
Overlooking the Continental Divide trail at 11,000+ feet
near the Cumbres Pass and Chama.
After the last winter storm of the season the truck was stuck in frozen mud and a snowdrift outside our house. We had pretended to be snowbound for two days, but after cross-country skiing around the neighborhood we knew that the roads were clear where the pavement begins, a quarter mile away. It was one of those rare occasions when four-wheel drive was actually necessary. I-40 was still closed, though, and driving up Las Huertas Canyon for a ski was out of the question, so we took the tram up to Sandia Peak to take advantage of the reported two feet of fresh powder.
Even though it's nearby, we've only downhill skied up there a few times because the terrain isn't that great and snow conditions are usually crummy. This time it was a different story. It's hard to imagine a better day on the slopes, as the last of the storm clouds cleared and blue skies unveiled a view of snowy mountains and high desert as far as the eye could see. Snowboarding in that much heavy powder feels a lot like flying through a giant Slurpee—unless you get stuck, in which case digging out is an exhausting chore. Skis didn't float as well, but we both enjoyed the changing conditions as the mountain got more tracked up and the Slurpee changed to mashed potatoes.
Were these perfect conditions—whatever that means? It certainly capped off one the best winters we've seen in a long time. Snow is the key, of course, mixed with the right blend of weather, ability, and willingness to part with hard-earned cash. Luckily, we had had the foresight to buy Skier Plus cards for a $10 discount on lift tickets at Santa Fe and Sandia. The close proximity also saves money on hotel rooms and gas. We skied locally many times, and it never seemed to get old, because fresh snow makes every turn a new adventure. Another inexpensive option is to drop the kids at the ski area and go cross-country skiing for free.
In February we completed our annual stress test through another colossal snowfall: a four-day cross-country ski trip to a yurt in the Cumbres Pass of Colorado near Chama. Packing forty to fifty pounds uphill at eleven thousand feet gets a little harder every year. But, hopefully, as the bumper sticker says, "You don’t quit skiing because you get old—you get old because you quit skiing.” There was no time for aging this winter. You just have to get smarter, pack lighter, go slower, and stay longer. Suffice it to say, we survived and had a great time in spite of the few-and-far-between, well-hidden trail markers.
Skiing back down to the car from the yurt would have been easy, except for the eighteen to twenty-four inches of fresh powder that was still falling. We got lost for a while but weren’t too worried; we had practiced building a snow cave with an avalanche shovel the day before. The trail markers were buried, but the terrain funneled us in the right general direction and eventually we could follow the sound of snowplows and a mischievous GPS arrow to the parking lot. It snowed all the way home.
This winter brought record levels of moisture, caused mud slides in California, floods in Arizona, and jubilation in the Belknap house. We had an occasional incidence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD); allergies will be bad this spring; mosquitoes will flourish this summer; and deer mice will be spreading a big batch of hantavirus; but we all need the water (to drink).
Our jubilation may be shortsighted in view of the predictions of extended drought, but the snowpack means good runoff. The Taos Box flow rate is increasing every day. The Salt River is at record levels in Arizona. The Bureau of Reclamation is planning to release five thousand cubic feet of water into the San Juan River throughout May. All this probably means next month’s Time Off may be a repetitive boating story, but with a lot less running aground. At least we won't have to report on the acequias running dry. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.
Karl Moffatt nets a trout in the San Juan River.
Rainbow trout just before being released back into the San Juan River.
Off-season fishing on the San Juan
—Karl F. Moffatt
There's a reason savvy travelers love the off-season and the same goes for those who love to fish, especially on the fabled San Juan River in northwest New Mexico.
“I really like the winter fishing here because you don't have the crowds and you can fish pretty much anywhere you want,” says Mark Wethington, a state Game and Fish Department biologist stationed on the San Juan River at Navajo Dam. “And what's so nice about New Mexico, you get a lot of really nice sunny days between November and March.”
I met up with Wethington during a recent later winter fishing trip to the San Juan. He was out counting beaver dams and I was chasing trout; we both had little or no competition on the river that day.
And, sure enough, the day started out sunny and warm, and the fishing was fine. But as can be expected on the San Juan in the winter, the wind kicked up, the clouds rolled in, and it turned cold, as did the fishing.
So we hiked back to the parking lot where the conversation turned to the much anticipated resumption of the annual spring release of irrigation water from Navajo Dam.
Several years of drought has severely reduced the amount of water typically sent downstream each spring and the river, the fish, and the bugs they eat have suffered some because of it.
“But we'll get a big flush this year,” Wethington said. “And it'll really benefit the river by pushing downstream a lot of the sediment that's been deposited over the last four years. It's needed and should really improve the aquatic life and fish habitat.”
The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam, is expected in April to start increasing its release of water from the dam from a current level of 350 cubic feet per second to a high of five thousand cfs by May. It will be maintained for several weeks at that level until dropping again to 350 cfs.
The big flush, a man-made version of nature's own spring runoff, would blow out the river and mark the beginning of the official fishing season on the San Juan river.
The drift boat guides, the tackle shop owners, and the summertime anglers will be wringing their hands with glee. The flush is expected to stir things up good, including a lot of bottom-hugging lunkers.
But for me there'll be no more long days of hiking and fishing the river without fear of heatstroke. No more hanging out in the parking lot at the end of the day having a cold beer and realizing you don't have any ice and really don't need it. It'll be the end of no waiting for a table at the cantina and dinner served up hot, fast, and friendly.
And there'll certainly be no more rolling into the campground at dusk and having my pick of the sites and finding a pile of leftover firewood to boot.
Those are some of the primary reasons for fishing the San Juan in the winter, but there are others, too. Like just lying down at streamside and letting the winter sun warm your face while layers of wool, canvas, and rubber keep the cold and wind at bay. Or letting the dog roam free without worrying someone might think she's a stray and take her home while I'm not looking.
And then there's the occasional thrill of a big brown trout snatching my drifting-egg pattern off the bottom and running clear upstream and across to the other bank in a big show of strength.
And one more thing, maybe the best, is watching a snow squall roll in. As the water darkens, the bugs begin to hatch, and the fish begin to rise. They come up slowly, sipping the fluttering bugs off the surface, and now you can tie on a dry fly.
It's what fly fishing the San Juan is all about. Big fish on small dry flies smack dab in the middle of the winter.
I guess the only real problem I can think of with winter fishing on the San Juan is there's rarely anyone else around to witness your good luck.
But with the winter season on the San Juan coming to a close, it's now time to wait out the spring runoff and then head off into the high country to hit those streams.
Sneakers and shorts, lighter tackle, longer days, and plenty of bug repellent. A whole different scene, but by August's end I'll be thinking of the coming fall and looking forward to heading back to the San Juan River for the winter.
If you go winter fishing on the San Juan River:
- Try to drive up in clear weather and don't worry about it once you get there. From Placitas it's about a two-hundred-mile trip through a lot of remote rural country. Make an adventure of it by coming home the back way through Dulce, Chama, Abiquiu, Española and Santa Fe. It tacks about fifty miles onto the drive back, but will make for a more scenic and memorable trip. Read the map!
- Everything you need for fishing—including gear, equipment, food, and lodging—can be had at Navajo Dam; that's all they do there. Check it on the Web, and bring your checkbook. Otherwise, take everything you've got and sort it out there. You will need waders, a vest, and a fishing rod of some sort. You should probably buy your flies there. Leave your filet knife at home, it's catch and release in the upper section; you can keep one over-twenty-inches in the special trout water of the middle section, but have to stop fishing once you do. Standard regulations take effect somewhere in the Cottonwood Campground area.
- Don't skimp on clothing. It can be sunny and warm one minute and windy, cold, and wet the next. Dress in layers; wear good thick winter socks, long johns, and fingerless wool gloves. Carry a windbreaker or raincoat and an extra sweater. Wear a respectable hat and polarized sunglasses, and don't fall in the water. It’s cold.
- Take food and water. Stay hydrated; drink plenty of water before you need it. A purifier makes life on the river easier. Carry energy bars, beef jerky, peanuts, fruit, and a Snickers bar to keep the motor humming. Be moderate with caffeine and alcohol.
- Don't be afraid to camp out; it's not as cold as you think, and once you're in a sleeping bag, you'll warm up fine; just wear a stocking cap for good measure. Bring some wood, because there's nothing like a roaring campfire to warm those tired bones and lift the spirit.