I usually don’t drink before noon, but my fifth day of waking to freezing temps sent me reaching for the bottle of Bulleit. The aroma of eggs, bacon, and coffee eventually pulled me from the tent, and I was greeted by the sharp calls of northern flickers.
Everything that wasn’t insulated had frozen – vegetables, water, sunblock, camping soap, even toothpaste. And the most arduous, unpleasant task, the one we faced every morning, was thawing our rigid waders and boots in front of the fire.
Camping and fly-fishing in the dead of winter, when temps are coldest, nights are longest, and storms are strongest, may not sound fun, especially to non-anglers. Why spend every day tromping through snow, breaking ice from rod eyelets, and enduring freezing temperatures only to maybe land a fish?
Why not just drive to Arizona for some warmwater largemouth? It seems so simple to us: Because we’re two obsessed anglers, and the only thing we love as much as fly-fishing is the beauty of the snow-covered backcountry.
My boyfriend Ben and I moved to Laramie, Wyoming, in September 2015. That fall, we explored the sagebrush sea, hiking in the Snowy Range, and fly-fishing the waters of the Cowboy State.
But when winter delivered its first layer of snow, our outdoor pursuits faded. We found ourselves reading books, drinking (more) beer, tying flies and daydreaming. We drove hours seeking open water on the North Platte or along northern Colorado’s Poudre River, but dwindling daylight and icy roads conspired to keep us troutless.
What we needed was a two-week trip of nonstop fishing. What we needed was New Mexico.
Northern New Mexico’s San Juan, Rio Chama and Rio Grande rivers are all a reasonable road-trip away from our southern Colorado hometown of Durango, where we grew up. The San Juan below Navajo Dam has one of the country’s most popular year-round Gold Medal tailwaters.
“Come winter, I prefer a bonefish flat in the Bahamas,” says Tom Knopick, guide and co-owner of Duranglers fly shop in Durango. “But if you’re sticking around here, then the San Juan has the best winter fishing in the area. There are decent hatches every day throughout the season.”
I knew the “Juan” had plenty of 20-inch ‘bows and browns, but landing one can be difficult – even during the summer, without frozen fingers. The big fish are bastards, and they eat tiny bugs: annelids, midges, and blue-winged olive mayflies. To get one can require a flawless presentation and a size 22 to 28 fly.
Still, the splendor of the San Juan in winter outweighs the challenges. “It’s awesome when big fat snowflakes are falling,” says Knopick. “Everything is quiet, there’s nobody else on the water, and you have rising fish in front of you.”
We fished the Juan with friends and family. The first three days were quiet, with only the sound of our lines whishing through the air. But on our last day we caught several rainbows and one brown in a section of the river we hadn’t previously explored.
When the sun disappeared behind the juniper-lined horizon, air temperatures plummeted, and we headed home to thaw out in front of a woodstove.
On New Year’s Day, we said goodbye to the Juan and hello to the Rio Chama for five days of winter camping and fishing.
Starting in south-central Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, the Chama flows south to New Mexico’s El Vado and Abiquiú reservoirs, then continues southeast until it meets the Rio Grande near Española.
But it was the water below El Vado Dam that stole our attention – an area home to the state-record brown (20 pounds, 4 ounces) that was caught by G. T. Colgrove of Decatur, Texas, in 1946. Colgrove’s Chama fish has never been bested. Carl Trubee of Roswell, New Mexico, came close, when he found an 18-pounder during the fall of 1964. And a 32-inch, 14-pounder was recorded in 1966.
Today, the Chama Valley is less New Mexico desert than lush green mountainscape. Area creeks and rivers pour off the Rockies and feed two of the state’s largest lakes, Heron and El Vado.
Exploring the Rio Chama below El Vado, it took us a day to discover its secret: stocker holes full of rainbows gobbling our psycho prince-nymphs. Among the thicket of ‘bows, I landed two small browns on foam-back emergers.
We spent hours searching for the river’s behemoth browns, but it wasn’t our time. When daylight disappeared we returned to our sleeping bags. The next morning, we awoke to a silent landscape blanketed by three inches of fresh snow. Everything was frozen, including the river.
My mouth was parched, and I could no longer drink beer and whisky to conceal dehydration, so we headed south to fish the water below Abiquiú Dam, hoping to find some sunshine. It stayed cold. By mid-afternoon, Ben’s teeth started to ache.
The Ojo Caliente Hot Springs provided the perfect solution. Ben and I arrived at the lavish resort with greasy hair and muddy waders. We felt displaced from our natural environment. But sure as shit, we got a hotel room, put on our spa robes, and strolled to the steaming pool.
The hot springs gave us time to consider our next move for northern pike. We left Ojo Caliente the following day and drove straight for the Rio Grande Gorge south of Taos. Santa Fe fly-fishing guide Hunter Doerwald has spent years chasing pike on the mighty Rio Grande.
“The river has so much to offer-carp, decent browns and rainbows and, of course, the pike,” he says. Steep walls plunging 800 feet into the canyon, the diversity of its fish, and the wildlife that call this designated Wild and Scenic River home make the Rio Grande a remarkable destination. “We watched otters passing through one day,” Doerwald recalls, “they were grabbing pike and eating them like candy bars.”
Ben and I had been looking forward to this moment since we left Durango. The clouds descended into the gorge and large snowflakes gently kissed my cheeks. We donned our waders, set up the 6-weight with a steel leader, smiled at each other and marched down the path toward the river. We were excited and eager-and nervous.
Ben attached a 5-inch yellow pike bunny to the end of the leader and began casting. The winter silence engulfed the gorge and snow continued to fall softly. Occasionally, Canada geese honked and hooded mergansers fluttered their wings, splashing water on the surface. In the midst of it all, Ben was casting a streamer into the deep unknown. It was surreal: silence before the storm, peace before the pike.
Then everything turned to chaos, when we finally spotted our water-wolf lurking near a drop-off. The fish investigated Ben’s fly, then disappeared. A couple minutes later, it showed up again, stalking and subsequently annihilating the streamer.
I helped Ben net the ancient fish. Its flaming gills, red-streaked fins, dappled sides, wide snout, sharp teeth, and volatile personality strongly separated it from any salmonid species we’d caught prior to this snowy afternoon.
“One of the highlights of catching pike is how incredible-looking they are. You see a lot of character in a fish whose eyes are bigger than yours,” says Doerwald. We removed the hook, took a couple pictures, and released it back to its lair.
Now it was my turn. I tied on a 4-inch yellow-and-chartreuse pike bunny, and after 15 minutes, a fish emerged from the depths and twice chased after the streamer before hitting it. I set the hook and the pike made a 60-foot dash. On the second run, it jumped and threw the fly.
Losing a fight is one of the marvels of fly-fishing. A loss gives us more respect for the fish, and we still feel privileged to have been challenged and out-competed. I continued casting until the snow became heavier and the sun extended its last rays for the day. “Just one more cast… Just one more.” Eventually, I had to turn my back to the pike and pack up the rod.
That evening, we found a cozy BLM campground farther down the road toward Pilar. It was snowing heavily and we feared it would pile high. During the night, Ben’s toothache persisted, and the combination of wet snow and his nauseating pain sent us home early. Later, we would find out that Ben’s tooth had died from trauma caused by eating a pickle. A pickle.
Still, despite the frozen beer, cold toes and impending dental bills, northern New Mexico provided an unforgettable fly-fishing trip.
Each river offered a unique experience in a different landscape. We traveled from the piñon-pine juniper woodland of the San Juan River to the ponderosa pine-gamble oak forest below El Vado Dam; from sandstone cliffs and massive basalt boulders below Abiquiú Reservoir to the magestic 800-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge.
Some days we caught fish; other days we didn’t. Neither outcome determined our day. We simply enjoyed being outside in the crisp air, immersed in the glow of the winter sun, accompanied by bald eagles, dippers, and herons.
Ben and I returned to Laramie with high spirits. We satisfied our winter fly-fishing needs, but also gained a new appreciation for fishing in the summer sun, with lazy days of dry flies, wet-wading, cold brews, hoppers and endless evenings on the river. I can only imagine what these three rivers are like when temperatures are the warmest, days the longest, and rainstorms the most refreshing.
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