How to Fly Fish the San Juan and be Successful

This weekend my Dad and I decided it would be a good weekend to drive from Albuquerque to Farmington, NM to fly fish the San Juan river. We left Saturday morning and fished through the afternoon, and fished all day Sunday. Our experience on each day was a little different because of the different locations at which we chose to fish. The difficult part about fishing the San Juan is technique truly does differ depending on where you fish, the quality of the water, and what the fish are biting.

San Juan River, NM February 2015 26.5 inches
San Juan River, NM February 2015 26.5 inches

First, I am going to tell you a little bit about the things you need to Fly Fish the San Juan. To fish the San Juan you need a light, long, soft, yet durable rod. I fish with this 9′ Sage Rod I got from my Dad. It is soft, that means it bends well with a fish on, it is light, but it is also designed to cast well through the wind.

I can tell you first hand that this rod is one of the best rods you can have to bring in quality water sized fish! I fought a fish for half an hour, on a drift boat, with a guide back in February with this rod. I tell you it was on a boat and with a guide because those conditions and that help make fishing easier. If I had been wading and without the extra pair of hands/ ability to follow the fish, I’m not sure I would have landed it. All of us (Dad, the guide, and me) believed that if I had not been using my sage, this fish would have snapped off my line.

Abe's Fly Shop 1791 NM-173, Navajo Dam, NM 87419
Abe’s Fly Shop
1791 NM-173, Navajo Dam, NM 87419

Secondly, flies are super important! On the way up it is important to  stop by a fly shop near the San Juan and ask them what seems to be working fly wise. My dad and I have always stopped at Abes. They are friendly, have a large array of flies, and they know what is doing well. At Abe’s, we bought about $80 worth of supplies including, leader, tippet, and teeny- tiny flies. I always find it kind of funny that these big fish can be caught on such tiny flies.

Water Filter Used to Drink From the River
Water Filter Used to Drink From the River

The last few things you need are waders, sunscreen, and drinking water. You cannot fish the San Juan without waders. Also, New Mexico weather is so ridiculous it can be hot sunburn weather in February all the way to the end of October. On that note, I am not good about drinking water when I fish, and I need to be better. One of the things that helped this trip was my Dad brought his water filter. This was nice because we didn’t have to weigh our vests down with bottled water. I was nervous at first, but the water tastes delicious, and truly is clean after filtering with this bad boy.

This trip to the San Juan was a lot different than our February trip. This time we waded both days, and we were not with a guide. I did not catch the catch of the week, but every fish I caught was over 15 inches. It was an absolute blast!

On Saturday, our first day, we decided to fish below the Texas Hole at the Muñoz campground/ day site turn off. It is easy to recognize this spot because at the parking lot there is a giant green pump house. This site does require quite a walk to the great fishing on the back channels. At this fishing site you have the choice to fish the main channel or the back channels. We chose to to fish the back channels, and we chose right.

Dry Dropper Set up with Tiny Flies
Dry Dropper Set up with Tiny Flies

While fishing the back channels at the Munoz site, I started with a dry dropper combo. I set the two flies 16-18 inches apart and used one split shot at the knot of the leader and tippet to give it some weight and get it to the bottom of the river to the big fish. Above that, I put on a small strike indicator. A strike indicator is absolutely necessary. You WILL NOT feel these fish bite. This is a lot of weight to cast out. The first few casts will probably be sloppy, mine were, but after a few casts it will begin to feel normal. The key for me is to be sure to pause when I bring my cast back behind me, so that the line can fully straighten before casting forward into the river. The picture here on the right gives you an idea of how small the flies are in comparison to my finger nail.

Midge Hatch
Midge Hatch

After a one mile walk and some wading, my Dad and I found a good spot with plenty of fish. The water quality was superb, we could see the fish at the floor of the river, which of course means, they can see us. The best part of the back channel spot we found was the bugs. You grow to love these annoying little creatures as a fly fisher. The midge hatch was going crazy the minute we got started fishing at 12:00. This picture doesn’t even do it justice, they were everywhere and the fish were going wild!

Notice how clear the water is, you can clearly see my boot.

Munoz Fish in the Net
Munoz Fish in the Net

Although the fish were biting off the top more and more as the hatch continued, I was not tempted to switch to a dry fly. I was getting plenty of bites from the bottom. We fished for 4 hours, pretty much in one area. In that time I caught and landed 5 fish. That is not too bad considering the fish I was catching were big fish! Every fish I caught was taking on average, 8-10 minutes to bring in. I have a lot of patience once I hook into a fish. I let them tire themselves out rather than reel them in quickly. My Dad is the opposite. He lets them run a bit and then gets them in quick. I like  love fighting a fish. I am pretty good at it, and love the feel of that line zinging out as the fish runs and the sound of the reel spin when I am reeling. Letting the fish run and taking my time is how I have become a successful fisherwoman on the San Juan. Stay tuned for a video of me fighting a fish!

At around 5 we finished fishing and decided to begin the long walk back to the car. We could not find anything but game trails to follow, which led to us bushwhacking our way through reeds taller than me, and bogs stinky as can be. Eventually, a very sore Mike and Kylie arrived at the car and decided that we needed beer. My Dad had a fantastic idea that we should drive from Farmington to Durango and get dinner and beer at Steam Works Brewery.

You can what alcohol percentage I opted for by the small glass.
You can guess what alcohol percentage I opted for by the small glass.

They had my favorite type of beer, a sour beer. Their sour beer is called the Ale Sabor and it was AMAZING! At a pretty high percentage of alcohol, I felt all my soreness go away after 2! I could have drank the whole barrel it was so good! The food was equally as fantastic. We had the nachos as an appetizer and I had the fish tacos, which were magical. After dinner we went back to out hotel in Farmington and prepared to wake up early the next morning and fish some more.

Day 2– Sunday

On Sunday, we decided that we should fish somewhere else, and continue learning how to fish the San Juan. We still had enough of our teeny tiny flies to keep fishing. Our starting point was at the Texas Hole, WHICH WAS PACKED! The Texas Hole is the most popular fishing spot at the San Juan. It is where every guided trip starts, where all the boats can take off, and has something like 10,000 fish in less than 1/2 a mile (according to a guide we used). We were not able to fish this spot and decided to go above the Texas hole into the braids. I did not have any luck in the braids. I waded on, finally my Dad and I got to the main channel and we were able to find a good spot. We could see the fish in the shallows right ahead of us. I was practically on the bank fishing. I was using roll casts so as not to get snagged in the bushes and trees. Suddenly, my Dad started catching fish before me. Let me make myself clear– this is miraculous, he never catches a fish before me! As you can imagine I was pissed! I could not figure out what he did that I wasn’t already doing. His answer was just as frustrating. He told me “I guessed. I just lift my rod every few casts to make sure I don’t have a fish on.” Yes, my Dad caught the first fish by guessing. At that point I too tried this ridiculous strategy. I had zero luck. My Dad caught two more.

My Dad, proud, rubbing in his first catch.
My Dad, proud, rubbing in his first catch.

Completely frustrated I set up a cream colored dropper on my line, and decided to cast into a little bit deeper water right off the shallows. I saw my strike indicator stop moving just a tiny bit and set the hook! BAM! Fish on!

Fish Number 1 on Day 2
Fish Number 1 on Day 2

Here is the crazy thing, the strike indicator never left the surface of the water. It barely moved, in fact, my clue was the strike indicator DID NOT move. I could not figure out how the fish could do this. The size of this fish and the size of the flies gives me the answer. These big fish simply wrap their mouths around the fly and when they open back up, the fly isn’t in their lip because I didn’t set the hook. Their big mouths can just gulp bugs.

In a sense you do have to guess which strike indicator movement is a bite. On this second day of fishing, the fishing was so much harder, and before I caught this fish and figured out what to look for, I was so frustrated. Day 1 we caught a big fish an hour. Day 2 I had caught 1 fish in four hours. Now I was ready for them! I had figured out the strike indicator clues, and I was ready to catch fish.

My plan worked and I hooked into a big fish! I was fighting the fish so long my Dad took the chance to video tape it on his phone so that I could post it here. The video quality and filming isn’t the best, but my Dad’s commentary is pretty funny.

Fish Caught after a fierce and exhausting battle!
Fish Caught after a fierce and exhausting battle!

Lastly, I want to recommend Rainbow Lodge and Resolution Guide Service for anyone interested in taking a guided trip to the San Juan. Steve Gill is the amazing guide that we used back in February. He was so unselfish and knowledgable about fly fishing the San Juan. Also, I am pretty sure there is a picture of me and my record fish on the wall!

Thanks Everyone for taking the time to read, and hopefully watch the video. Please continue to share and tell people about my blog. I love seeing new readers everyday!