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Dumbest fish in America

6/30/2009

Lifelong angling buddies, Ed Weber of Rochester, N.Y., and Gary Giudice from Norman, Okla., are fly fishing their way up the spine of the Rocky Mountains following mayfly hatches. They started in the White Mountains of Arizona and will end on the Bow River of Alberta, Canada. This blog follows their trip.

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NAVAJO DAM, N.M. — The San Juan River in northern New Mexico is the home of the biggest, dumbest trout in America. Rainbows big as boxcars, browns as slow as the village idiot.

Damn, I love the San Juan! Fools me into thinking I'm really good at this trout fishing game.

The river is finally down to summer levels and the best fishing of the year. Not all the big fish have moved out to the deeper haunts. Many still hang out in shallow areas and feed. They feed all day. They never stop. They can't.

The water temperatures run in the mid to high 40s. No mayflies or other bugs you may think as trout staples are to be seen. Minnows and other baitfish are sparse. The only thing left is a tiny little midge.

These are very small insects that are only a bit larger than the "no see ems" of the North Country. Size 26, if you tie flies to match them. A size 26 fly has a hook gape about the thickness of a quarter. Two or three of the things will fit on your little fingernail.

It is as hard for me to tie one on my leader as it is to tie it in my tying vice. But these trout gobble them up. You have to wonder how many calories are in a midge. It has to be more than you think because the fish are fat as pigs.

The San Juan of New Mexico flows out of Navajo Dam and remains fairly constant all year except for spring runoff. For this part of the Rockies, that's past.

This part of the state is high mesa country with little rainfall. The river offers a good break to the dessert-like landscape. High brown and red bluffs on both sides, green bottoms with willows and salt cedars and the river, sky blue, running through it all.

The highway bordering the river is not crowded. First an oilfield truck, then a pickup pulling a drift boat then an RV. Not much else passes by. The little town of Navajo Dam has plenty of fly shops offering free advice and pricy flies and other gear.

There's good places to eat, several RV parks and motels. My traveling partner Ed Weber and I stayed at Abe's. They have everything rolled into one, including guides. I'm not really recommending them. It's just the first place we saw. Flies are far from cheap and the guides a little snooty for my taste. We didn't need a guide and we tied our own flies, but still.

Ed, my long time buddy, can figure trout out quicker than anyone I know. We were on the river less than 30 minutes and he had two ways to catch the bigger rainbows and browns that live there.

We were told that the trout populations in the San Juan ran about 40,000 fish per mile! Many of them in the 18- to 20-inch class and some of the brutes a lot larger.

Ed could almost catch a fish over 18 on command. During the last two days we caught 10 or more over 18 inches and lost at least that many, all on size 26 midge nymphs. Plus we caught countless smaller fish on the nymphs and similar dry flies. Trout fishing anywhere in the country rarely gets better than an average day on the lower San Juan. What a fishery!

Here's what Ed figured out. First he took the water temperature. This told him that the midges he was seeing were probably the diet mainstay of the trout. It also told him that we would mostly catch rainbows. We knew the water had fallen in the last two weeks, so he thought that most of the fish would be in the river rather than the shallow braided water along the edges.

We saw few rising fish, so that told him that nymphs would be the ticket. Now all he had to do was find water that suited his fancy. A stout walk from the parking lot, Ed found what he needed and we started catching fish almost immediately. Damn, he's good.

How can a trout see a fly this small that's going by them in the ripping current? I can hardly see it in the palm of my hand!

Tippet size recommended is 6X. This stuff is the size of baby hair. It breaks at about 3 pounds of pressure. These fish are running up to three and four pounds, and when you factor in current… well that's high math to me but suffice it to say every fish hooked should break your line.

But if you're careful, they don't. Sometimes, I don't care how good you are or how careful, you will break some off. These big fish are blessed with very sharp teeth. If any one of them touches the leader, it's over. The fish wins with a little bit of bling to show for its troubles.

Rules of the river must be obeyed. Here, there are several that anglers should note. Enforcement officials take their job a bit more seriously than some feel they need to, but they are the river keepers. They are one reason the place fishes so well and folks come from all over the world to give it a try.

Barbless is not only a good idea anywhere but here it is law and could get you a healthy fine if ignored.

There's another rule here that's almost comical, but it wouldn't be too funny if you get caught doing the San Juan Shuffle.

Here's the deal. A less-than-ethical angler might get upstream from a good run then shuffle his feet, disturbing the bottom. This stirs up all manner of midge larva, and the fish downstream start actively feeding and gathering around in large numbers.

Catching them is a simple mater of drifting a nymph through the feeding frenzy. This kind of fishing makes the river keepers and more ethical anglers angry. Count on a ticket plus the dirty looks.

If you love to fly fish for big trout and you've never fished the San Juan, you owe it to yourself to go. Drop everything you're doing and go right now. Tell your boss there's a death in the family. Tell your family that lousy boss sent you out of town on business. Just go!

The San Juan is a magical place with big fish that are easy to catch. The long-gone Anasazi Indians thought the spirit people lived around the area. I doubt that. If it were true, the guides wouldn't be so snooty.

We're moving North now. I think we'll fish the high country creeks around Durango, Colo. All the good major streams are still high with late Spring run off. But the alpine creeks will be pretty, and so will the fish.