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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!

Fly Fishing Knots and the Dry Fly/ Dropper Fly Set Up

Take a look at the video to see how to tie a couple of important fly fishing knots. I will be going over the double surgeon’s knot and the clinch knot. These are the two knots I use most frequently and the only two I am absolutely confident teaching people to tie. After learning these two knots in the video, read on about the dry fly/ dropper fly set up, and when it is a good option to fish with.

The Dry Fly/Dropper Fly set up is not as difficult as it sounds. Yes, its an extra hook in the air you have to worry about casting, but it also gives fish a bigger menu. The dry fly can be used as a strike indicator or as a floating meal for fish feeding off of the top. The dry fly alone is how I do most of my fishing in the smaller mountain streams here in New Mexico. The dropper fly is a smaller, weighted down, sinking fly that is great for catching the big fat lazy fish who feed off of the bottom. Using a small dropper and a strike indicator is how I caught my massive 26.5″ rainbow trout on the San Juan in New Mexico. The dropper is usually a tiny bead head nymph of some sort. I’m not kidding, its tiny! I caught that 26 incher on a black bead head smaller that my pinky nail.

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

Both the dry fly, and the dropper fly can be used independently. as I’ve said, but they can also be used together in what many people call the dry/dropper combo. The combinations that I use most are the dry fly and emerger combo, and the attractor dry fly and nymph combo. When you are not sure what the fish are biting, you are getting sporadic and infrequent bites, or simply not landing any fish on the dry fly alone, this is a great time to try the dry fly/ dropper fly combo in any of its forms. It is also a great way to fish when the fish are only wanting to eat tiny flies. It is really important that when you are fishing a dry dropper setup that you have floatant to keep your dry fly on top of the water. You do not need to add a bobber or other strike indicator, that is more weight on your line than you need. Your dry fly is your strike indicator.

When you are making the decision to two-fly it, you need to assess what type of fishing situation you are in, and then make decisions about the way you want to fish. For example if you are wading near the bank into some faster moving water, you will want to set your dry fly closer to your dropper on the tippet. When there is a strong current, having your dry fly and dropper 8-12 inches (20-30cm) apart gives you a lot more control. This is also a great option if you are casting toward shallower banks. The harder part is when you are casting into deep, slower moving, wide water. In this case, you will want to have 18- 24  inches (45-60 cm) of tippet in between your dry fly and your dropper. While there is less control of your line, there is no fast moving water to misguide and entangle your line, just be sure that you are casting up stream.

Before all of this, you have to decide which type of flies to use. The best way to do this is to pay attention to what is hatching, and what is in the water. Take a moment to turn over a rock and see what is there and whether any adult aquatic insects are emerging (emergers) toward the surface. If you can’t see an active hatch, emergers, or other signs of surface life. Then use the attractor fly and nymph combination  since the nymphs are not usually on the surface. I hope this gives you a beginners introduction to the dry dropper combo. The best way to learn is to get out there and do it. That is the best way of learning to fly fish–DO IT!

Most of the places I fish and write about are locations that really only need single dry flies. I am still learning and gauging when it is the appropriate time is to use each method of fly fishing. Like everyone else, I’m still learning more and more every time I get my line in that water. If you have more questions than the ones I’ve addressed please ask your question in the comments, and I’ll answer to the best of my knowledge! I’m truly loving writing and sharing my fly life with all of you! Stay tuned, and please follow the blog by leaving your e-mail so that you can get an update when I’ve posted something new!

10 Fly Fishing Must Haves To Get You Up and Fishing

Gear is the second most important part of fly fishing. The first and most important is the respect and love of the outdoors. If you love the outdoors and respect all that it bears us, then you have the first key ingredient to becoming a successful fly fisher. After you have that down, you do have to invest in your new found hobby, and buy some pretty important gear. It is no secret that fly fishing is an expensive hobby. Lucky for me, I started young enough that my dad was the person who took the hit to his wallet. However, I have mastered finding good deals for myself and my Dad when it comes to gear.

First and foremost I am going to start by telling you the places where I find the best gear and deals. Number one on the list is  Orvis. Orvis always has a sale, and their women’s waders are SUPER reasonable compared to places like Cabelas and Bass Pro. Number two is Charlie’s Sporting Goods, right here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Charlie’s is not only local, but they are also great about keeping up to date with the local fishing, what is biting, and where the fish are. I LOVE supporting them. Third is Bass Pro. I can almost never find women’s outdoor clothing for a reasonable price, but Bass Pro always has a sale rack that has decent clothes and accessories for a decent price.

Now, not all of the gear I have is from these top three locations. My Dad and I have found gear all over the internet, even E-bay! I am not going to tell you about all the gear I carry, because it is six years worth of gear, and some of what I started with isn’t what I use currently. What I am going to share with you is my list of the top ten “must haves” for beginning a fly fishing journey.

Number 1 Rod and Reel (w fly line)

My Favorite! Sage Rod!
My Favorite! Sage Rod!

My first rod was not this sage. It was a much smaller rod, and it is still the one I use most in the small New Mexican streams, but this is my all time favorite rod. It is technically my dad’s, but I have commandeered it! This baby is what I use when I fish the big river in

New Mexico, the San Juan . This 9′ sage rod is the best rod, and I have chosen this particular rod to post, because it really is a perfect, use anywhere, rod. Just keep your eyes out for sales because sage rods are no joke! Sage rods can get all the way up in the $700 range! Yikes! The picture here shows the rod info in case people are wondering dimensions.

With your rod you need your reel and the reel needs to be hooked up with fly line. It is actually the fly line that is the most expensive. Orvis fly line is pretty pricey, but the brand White River is a great option. It is not the cheapest, but also not super expensive. My Dad has purchased Lamson reels more than any other reel, and they’re the reels that I have the most experience with. They average about $60. Not bad at all!

As a beginner, your best bet is to avoid buying everything separately and get a fly rod starter kit, you can find them starting off at about $60. They include the whole shebang: fly rod, reel, and fly line!

Number 2 Leader and Tippet

Now this is where it gets super fishy and complex, the leader and the tippet are really similar, but are for totally different things. The leaders are the monofilament strands that allow the fly line to connect to the fly. The tippet is the thinner strand that connects the fly to a dropper. A dropper is a smaller fly that will sink (ideally) beneath the water for the hungry fish at the bottom to gobble up.

LeaderThere is a lot to learn about what leader to use when. Here is how I remember it: fish in shallow water, like small New Mexican streams, are far more easily spooked by a fly line landing on top of them than a leader landing on top of them. Using longer leaders in shallow water is better. Not what you would expect, but true. Here is why New Mexico is really difficult, we have shallow water and small streams! Typically in small streams you want shorter leader, but if it is shallow you don’t want the fish to spook. I tend to always use a nine foot leader. When in doubt go to a local fly shop and ask which would be best.

Number 3: Vest and Attachments

Vest Forceps and Nippers

Trust me you want  need a vest to hold all the gear you will have for fly fishing. The attachments are easy, you are going to want forceps and nippers. Forceps tighten to your hooks to help you get a grip on the hook when you need to, for instance to get a hook out of a fish that your fingers just can’t get to. Nippers look and act like nail clippers. All you need to know about vests and attachments, is they are cheap. Places always have these items for really reasonable!

Number 4 Fly Box and Flies

This part is expensive, but simple. Buy a sale fly box from a place like Orvis and then go buy the most popular flies from discountflies.com. When you get close to the place you are fishing, stroll into the local fly shop and ask what the fish are biting and BUY THOSE. The shop owners usually know the secrets! Flies are serious business. Those little suckers sell for a buck and some change. Ya, a hook and fuzz costs that much, but hey, if it catches me a fish it is worth every penny!

Number 5 Wading Boots and Neoprene Socks

Simms Boots
Simms Boots

Now this is arguably not a necessity, but I feel that for safety reasons they are absolutely necessary. Wading boots are designed to keep your feet grounded on those slippery rocks. Simple water shoes and sandals do not have that. For this reason alone it is on my “must invest” list. Again with these, look for deals. Some boots can get pretty pricey. These Simms boots with metal spikes are my favorite (the other pair had felt bottoms). With wading boots you need neoprene water proof socks. These keep your feet dry and happy! Excuse my dirty boot picture, but now you know I do actually use them!

Number 6 Hat

Sun and water with a glare, trust me you want to keep the sun and your hair out of your face.

Number 7 Polarized Sunglasses

These help you to see the water so that you can gauge when a fish bites.

Number 8 Safety Gear

Coola Sunscreen from Birchbox
Coola Sunscreen from Birchbox

As my safety gear I always have waterproof matches, my Bear

Grylls flint and steel lanyard, and my Bear Grylls knife. Can you tell I think Bear and I should be friends? Along with this gear I also have sunscreen in my vest. I AM a girl, and I AM really picky about what sunscreen I put on my face and body. I love coola sunscreen. I actually received these cute samples in my monthly birchbox and stuck them straight into my vest.

Sun Bum Sunscreen
Sun Bum Sunscreen

I also have some oil free sun bum sunscreen for the body. All of these smell nice ( not nice enough to attract bugs) and are gentle on the skin. Lastly, you can’t predict the weather, always have a poncho in your safety supplies.

Poncho in a vacuum sealed bag to save space!
Poncho in a vacuum sealed bag to save space!

Number 9 A Giant Duffle Bag

This will keep all your gear in one safe place! Seriously, plan on it being giant. Here is the one that my dad and I use. I could fit in it!

Fly Fishing Duffle
Fly Fishing Duffle

Number 10 Floatant

FloatantThis is how you catch fish. Your dry- fly needs to stay on top of the water and not sink. Floatant gives those top-feeding fish a tasty looking morsel. To treat those fish to your fly, you need to keep it dry with floatant. After every 5-10 casts you will be adding floatant to your dry fly dry. I personally do not like anything but this powder kind. The liquid ones are a pain because you have to brush them on. Try finding the floatant that you can just shake.

Optional Number 11 Waders

San Juan Fishing in my Simms Waders--IN WINTER!
San Juan Fishing in my Simms Waders–IN WINTER!

Now Number 11 is ONLY if you are fishing a big river that may require you to get in the water waist deep. If this is your fishing location, invest in some waders. Orvis has waders under $200, which is an AMAZING price for waders. I am so oddly shaped (short, curvy, little feet) that my dad bought me some custom sized Simms waders as a gift when we first started fishing. If you can’t find your size AND you are truly serious about fly fishing then the Simms Custom Fit Waders are a perfect choice!

That concludes my top ten (eleven) must haves for fly fishing. If you are interested in fly fishing, my hope is that this list gives you an idea of the investment that fly fishing requires, as well as easy and reasonably priced options to help get you started. If you have questions leave a comment and I can respond to the best of my abilities. I hope I have sparked your curiosity to the wonderful world of fly fishing.