San Juan river fly fishing in New Mexico by Mike Mora

San Juan River Fly Fishing in New Mexico with Mike Mora

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San Juan River Fly Fishing in New Mexico with Mike Mora
San Juan River Tips & Techniques

 

 

Fisheads of the San Juan River

Here are some tips and techniques I have learned to use on the San Juan.
I'll organize these better soon...


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San Juan Style Nymph Rig

Increase your chances of hooking up by fishing with two flies instead of one:

  1. Tie onto your fly line a 9 foot tapered leader ending in 5X.
  2. Attach another 12 inches of 5X to the leader with a double surgeon's knot or your favorite leader-to-tippet knot.
  3. Attach the first fly (I like to use the San Juan Worm or another attractor type pattern) to the end of the 5X.
  4. Tie an 18 inch section of 5X or 6X to the bend or eye of the first fly (I prefer tying to the bend of the first fly with a simple clinch or improved clinch knot.
  5. Now pick your favorite fly for the conditions you will be fishing in and attach it to the end.
  6. Attach any weight needed 12 inches above the top fly and above the knot you created when you tied the first piece of 5X on (this prevents the weight from slipping).
  7. Smash the barbs down on both flies.
  8. Attach your indicator about 1.5 times the depth of the water you will be fishing and go fish!

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Strike Indicator Selection, Placement and Usage

Many fisherman place little emphasis on strike indicators. However, the placement, size, color, and type are all extremely important factors. I prefer the polypropylene yarn (Macramé yarn from craft store) type of indicator greased up real well with floatant (usually floats most of the day with Gink floatant worked into it). I feel the poly yarn indicator is the easiest to see and are the best for detecting the often very slight takes of the San Juan trout.   Of course, brighter yarn is easier to see, but sometimes the fish shy away from it.  Bright yarn is good under murky water conditions or when fishing fast/heavy water, but I most often prefer using white or black as these two colors don't seem to spook fish as easily.  I typically mix white and black and try and put the black piece towards the bottom.   Using these two colors helps me see the indicator under all conditions of glare and ambient light.  You also may want to use a much smaller indicator when fishing slack water situations and spooky trout. The yarn indicator should be cut to the desired length and teased out with a brush to fluff up before adding floatant (I use the velcro on my chest pack to fluff the yarn).  I use a simple slip knot to secure the indicator on my leader.  Using a slip knot allows fast and easy repositioning of the indicator (which is a must for the serious fly fisherman).  I usually place the indicator about 1.5 times the depth of the water for a typical nymphing situation.  There are even times when I use the indicator suspend the flies at a certain depth to ensure proper presentation to the fish.   Having watched literally hundreds of fish over the years spit out my fly without ever seeing the indicator move, I can say without a doubt that indicator placement is critical to your success.  Too much slack line between the fish and the indicator and you will rarely see your takes unless the fish hooks itself.  Too little line between the fish and your indicator can lead to too much drag or unnatural movements.   Experimenting is fun though!   Just as critical is you ability to detect a strike indication.  San Juan fish are very good a taking your fly and spitting it out very quickly so watch for even the slightest twitch or hesitation.  I watch my indicator very carefully and strike at practically any pause, twitch, or even a strange feeling. 


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General Approach to Fly Selection and Rigging

The most productive type of fly fishing on the San Juan is nymphing. During non-hatch periods and early in the mornings, try using worms, leeches, midge larva, and baetis nymphs dead drifted and fished with enough weight to get the flies to the bottom until there is an obvious hatch and feeding fish (you'll notice the fish change from holding right near the bottom to hovering mid depth or just below the surface). As the fish rise in the water column to feed, lighten up on your weight and move the indicator down closer to the flies.  Watch for surface activity which could mean dry fly fishing but be careful, many are fooled into tying on a dry fly at the first sign of a rise. However,  San Juan fish are notorious for feeding just below or in the surface film (noted by only seeing the fins break the water and not the head).  Observe the bugs that are hatching and try to determine what stage of the insect they are feeding on (larva, pupa, emerger, or adult).  Match your fly selection accordingly.  With a two fly rig you can cover two of the stages at once to determine what the fish are doing.   Sometimes you might even have to take the weight off and sight cast to rising fish with your emerger patterns.  You will often have to switch to a smaller tippet 6X-7X to fool these selective fish. A good combination during a baetis hatch is a Gray RS-2 and Chocolate Emerger (size 20-22). If it is a midge hatch, think very small (size 24-26) and try to match to colors of the natural pupa (typically olive, brown, or black).  If there is not real hatch, stick with the other constantly available food sources in the river (worms/annelids, leeches, scuds, midge larva, etc.).


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Playing and Landing a San Juan Fish

If I had a dollar for every fish I've lost on the San Juan, I'd retire and move to the river! Playing and landing these monsters can be challenging to say the least. Here is what I've learned over the years:

First, a landing net is critical. I prefer one with a very wide mouth and a deep net. I've seen too many 25" fish flop out of the standard small stream nets. I also prefer a rubber net basket to versus all the other types out there.  Yes, a rubber net is heavier to lug around, but I believe it hurts the fish less and hooks rarely get all tangled up in it. So now that you have the right net, you must learn how to get the fish close enough to use it. This is the hard part. Small tippets and hooks sizes in the 20's make things tough, but these tips will minimize the chance of losing a fish.

1) Always keep tension on the line through the use of the rod. Even a little slack for a second is enough for the fish to work the fly loose.   Especially those educated "head shakers" of the San Juan.

2) Hold the rod tip at a 90 degree angle to the pull of the fish to keep tension on the rod. Never let the rod lay flat in the direction of pull. This puts all the tension on the tippet and almost always results in a break off.

3) Let the fish run when it begins to fight hard. This is why you have backing. Of course, "Hard" is a relative term that you will learn through experience.

4) If at all possible, keep the fish out of the faster/deeper current. This is where bubba likes to take all of his victims.

5) Use side pressure to force a fish in a particular direction.

6) Land the fish in medium depth water. San Juan fish go nuts when forced into shallow water.

7) When you get the fish close enough to land, in one quick and smooth motion, raise the rod high in the air with the tip up and quickly swipe the fish up with the landing net as it nears the surface.

Don't over play a fish. It can kill it. In general, if a fish comes to the surface it is ready to be landed. Now that it is landed, please quickly remove the barbless hook. Try not to handle the fish or keep it out of the water if possible. If you must have a picture for a trophy fish, wet your hands first and don't even think about keeping the fish out of the water longer than you could hold your own breath!  Once the hook is removed, hold the fish in the current and let it swim off under its own power. If the fish does not swim off, gently move the fish forward and backward to revive it. It will swim off when it is revived.


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Seasonal Hatches of the San Juan

Here is a brief discussion of the seasonal hatches that occur on the San Juan, some day I'll get around to a more detailed presentation of the aquatic life on the San Juan:

    Midges - All year round, but often are especially dense in mid to late Summer. Usually 2 significant hatches per day. One mid morning and one late afternoon. Occasionally with variations in the weather the morning hatch will shift to the afternoon. Midges hatch throughout the river, but the heaviest activity is usually closer to the dam where the water is cooler. Fly sizes 20-28.

    Baetis - All year round, but usually scarce in the winter. Best hatches are in the Spring and late Fall with pretty good action throughout the Summer as well. The Spring Blue Winged Olive hatch is my favorite. Hatches can occur from the dam on down, but the best action is on the lower half of the quality waters where the water is warmer. Fly sizes 18-24 dry and 16-24 nymph/emerger

    Caddis - Spring and early Summer is usually the only time to get some good Caddis action in. The lower quality water and on down into the regular water and lower river is the best bet. Last year in early July we fished the lower quality section and encountered a huge late afternoon hatch with at least 3 different types and sizes of Caddis hatching. The fish were going nuts! One caddis species that hatches on the lower river can be up to 1.5 inches long (too bad it doesn't last longer)!  Fly sizes 12-20.

    Stonefly - Spring is the time for the stonefly hatches. Again, the lower on the river you go, the better and the bigger. The best hatches will occur below the quality section. If you catch the hatch at the right time, the fishing is phenomenal. But the high water conditions of early spring may hinder fishing this hatch. Fly sizes 8-14.

    Terrestrials - An annual ant fall occurs each Spring, but is very short lived. The fishing is great if you catch it right. The hoppers and beetles come out all summer. The hoppers seem to work better the lower on the river you get. Fish the grassy banks, but don't neglect an occasional cast to the middle of the river and try a little twitching action from time to time. Watching the violent takes is great! Fly sizes - 10-14.


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Matching the Action to the Hatch

The action or movement that your fly makes when floating through the water has everything to do with whether a particular fish will take the fly. The fly should imitate the motion of the real insects that are hatching for the best success. Water depth, water speed, leader size, line control, strike indicators, and the amount of weight you use will all affect the action of your fly. Here are a few tips on how to fish certain hatches and situations on the San Juan based upon the fly you are using:

    A baetis emerger like the Pale Morning Dun will wiggle quite a bit as it swims through the water periodically pausing on its way to the surface for emergence. You must learn to imitate this action through line control. Start with an upstream cast and make mends as necessary to get the fly to the bottom and on a good drag free dead drift. Towards the end of the float, just before you normally would pick up a re-cast give a slight twitch to the fly and slowly lift the rod tip to cause the fly to raise to the surface. Be prepared, you could get a strike at any time. This technique is especially effective during a hatch and often works well at the tailout of a riffle or run where the water goes from deep to shallow rather suddenly.

    For leech patterns it is important to get the fly to the bottom as quickly as possible. A few bumps on the bottom are good indication that you can now begin twitching and in many cases stripping the fly in. Experiment with the rate of twitching and retrieval and you will soon find what works best. Sometimes very slow is the key. Other times, faster is better. Regardless, hang on, because I can't even count how many times I've had fish break the fly off on the strike even using 3X! Trout are suckers for a fat leech pattern dancing in their general vicinity. This technique is especially effective during the times when the sun is off the water (early, late, and overcast days) and usually works better in the slower sections of water.

    As for midge patterns, I've had the best luck with a simple dead drift technique. Often, any movement will ensure that the trout will refuse the offering. The exception is dry fly midging, where an occasional slight twitch can draw a strike and sometimes the lifting technique described for the baetis can work for midge pupa too (but much slower lift).

    The worm, scuds, larva, and annelid patterns are again best fished by getting them immediately to the bottom and then dead drifted for as long as possible.

    The terrestrials and Caddis adults are great candidates for twitching since the real insects actually exhibit quite a bit of movement on top of the water.  Try skating a caddis over the surface during a good caddis hatch.   Sometimes you need to experiment with how fast to twitch or skate to get the fish to strike.  Watch the naturals and try to duplicate the action.


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Catching Brown Trout on the San Juan

Rainbows, Cutbows, Cutthroats, and BROWNS!

These are the potential trophies that await you in the riffles, runs, and pools of the San Juan River.  In fact, the San Juan is best known for its large rainbows and cutbows that cruise the upper stretches of the river However, if you want to catch some spectacular brown trout, the further down the river you go, the more prevalent they become.  The water temperature slowly rises from a chilly 40 degrees near Navajo Dam to levels better suited for browns by the time you reach the end of the quality water.  In recent years (2001-2004) the browns have moved further up into the quality waters as a result of drought conditions that forced many browns out of the extreme lower river section where water levels and temperatures became unsatisfactory.  Last year I caught browns almost 4 to 1 vs rainbows in the stretch from Lunker Alley through Baetis Bend and down into Death Row.  Many of them were hard fighting fish in the 15-19” range.   However, given the excellent flow predictions for 2005, I believe the browns will most likely make their move back down river this year.

Browns are no longer stocked on the San Juan and have been naturally reproducing in the river for many years now.  The stretch between the Cottonwood Campground and the Hammond Diversion nearly 11 miles downriver is home to numerous wild brown trout and the quality water restrictions are no longer imposed.   From the end of the quality waters to the Gobernador Wash just below the Rainbow Lodge there are several public access options that allow the angler to fish for browns.  However, the remainder of the lower river between Gobernador Wash and the Hammond Diversion flows through privately owned land and can only be accessed via special permit or via boat (with no stopping or anchoring allowed).  The privately accessed section of the river is best fished with a guide who knows the river well as it can be a very temperamental section of the river and navigation of the river without trespassing can be very difficult.  For the wading angler, there are public access options at Cottonwood Campground, Pump House Run, and the Aztec Bridge.  There are several nice riffles below the bridge to Aztec (access from south side) and then the water converges into a long deep channel for the remaining section to the wash (access from across bridge and down in the Navajo Dam residential area).  There is no doubt that many large browns cruise this run. Bait fishing is allowed here and I've seen many anglers with stringers of 16-20" browns.  One nice advantage to fishing the lower river is that if you are willing to walk more than 100 feet from any of the popular access points the crowds dwindle significantly. 

The insect population in the lower San Juan also changes with the increased water temperature and resulting habitat.  The angler hoping to catch a nice brown trout will change tactics accordingly.  For fly fishers, expect to see mostly caddis (June – August) and baetis (April – October) hatches, a few early summer stone flies, and some midges.   Terrestrials come into play here more than in the quality waters and San Juan Worms can be very productive at times.  Bait fish are also more prevalent in the slow, deep runs. Patterns like the Wooly Bugger, Muddler Minnow, and Sculpins fished deep and slow with an occasional twitch can bring some big browns to the net. Heavier tippets (3X and 4X) and more weight are the norm with the big flies, but don't be surprised to catch a 19" brown rising to an afternoon PMD hatch or an evening caddis hatch.  For bait fishers it is hard to beat an earthworm or grasshopper.   Spin fishers also have very good luck on Kastmasters, small Rapalas, and marabou or rabit hair jigs. 

One of my most memorable trips ever on the river was spent floating the river from the Gravel Pit at the end of the quality water down to the Hammond diversion.  I caught many fish that day and most of them came to the net on dry flies.  The fish were very healthy and extremely feisty browns in the 13-17" range with a few near 20" and one just over 20".   The solitude and beautiful, hard fighting fish were more than enough to keep me fishing the lower section several times each year.  I love browns!!!   Fall streamer fishing for large browns on the lower river is rumored to be fantastic.  If you can get access, you've got a chance at some of the big, bad 6 to 10 pound browns that live down there!  See you on the river

SJ browntrout map.GIF (29096 bytes)


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Dry Fly Fishing on the San Juan?!?

The San Juan is primarily known as a nymphing river but under certain conditions the dry fly activity can be awesome. Summer is one of those times. Starting in July, the river comes alive with various significant insect hatches. I'm not talking size 24 midge clusters either. The lower section of the river has been bubbling with Caddis, Baetis, and even Stonefly hatches! For those of you who cannot bear to dredge a nymph along the depths of the many channels, now is your chance.

Here are some hints to make your San Juan dry fly fishing a success: 1) Baetis and Caddis hatches are the primary hatches you should look for and they occur most heavily on the lower quality waters and on downstream past the bridge to Aztec. 2) The Caddis and Baetis sizes can sometimes be quite large compared to your normal San Juan dry selections so be prepared. 3) Often, the best presentation for the pick San Juan risers is to approach the fish from upstream and cast well out and above the rising fish and then pull the fly into the feeding lane of the fish so that the fish sees the fly first! 4) Don't be fooled by the ever-present boils that are actually fish feeding on emergers and not the adult stage of the insect. Try tying an emerger pattern to the bend of the dry in this situation. 5) Also be careful to select a pattern and color that closely represents the natural. Obvious, you say, but many forget that the dark gray baetis that you see floating by may be a cream or olive color from the vantage point of the fish. 6) Above all, replicate the action of the natural. Most of the time this will require a good, drag-free float. Other times, a slight twitch might draw a strike.


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Fishing the Slow Periods on the San Juan

Fishing the San Juan can be very challenging at times. There are definitely some slow periods between hatches when fishing is relatively slow. It is hard to predict when the slow period will hit and how long it will last, and it can be very frustrating. You can look at these slow periods either as an opportunity to eat, sleep, or otherwise rest, or you can look at it as a challenge. Since eating and sleeping is obviously secondary to fishing the San Juan, here is what I do when I hit a slow period.

Tip#1 - Change to a bigger and/or brighter fly. Often, the inactivity is mostly due to the fact the fish are simply not actively feeding so go to an attractor pattern. Forget the size 24 midge pupae and go with a big leech or worm.

Tip#2 - Fish slower and deeper. When the fish are not actively feeding they will move out of the riffles and runs and into holding spots. It is critical to get the fly down to the bottom and in front of the fish.

Tip#3 - Be patient. You will not catch as many fish, but if you are patient and persistent, in many cases, you will out fish those around you.

Tip#4 - Be observant. Watch for feeding activity to reoccur and be prepared to change back to the small stuff. Sometimes hatches don't last long.

I like to tie on a big bunny leech pattern and San Juan worm combo and dredge the slower and deeper pools. In fact, one of my favorite slow period tactics is to strip leeches through the almost stagnant water where you can see fish holding but not necessarily feeding. You can often find large concentrations of big fish in slack water during slow periods. Remember, think quality, not quantity. You may end up with one for the wall!


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Winter Fishing on the San Juan - Be Prepared

Winter Fishing on the San Juan

Fishing the San Juan in the winter months (Nov-Jan) can provide some extra challenges. So here are a few tips to help make it a little easier.

When choosing your attire, be prepared for the coldest of conditions. A good pair of thermals and combined with plenty of clothing layers is a good start. For warm feet try a polypropylene liner sock with one or two pair of wool or wool blend socks on top for insulation. Cover you head for sure and be ready with a face covering on the worst of days. Good wool or neoprene gloves are a must for the days when ice forms on the rod guides every other cast. And don't forget a rain jacket for those snowy days or to help cut the wind chill down. The biggest key to staying comfortable is to make sure you don't get wet!  There are so many neat new materials out there on the market today.  Some for  wicking, some for insulation, some for wind blocking.  The price tag can be a little shocking on some of these materials, but I've found it is well worth it.  Since I've bought my polypropylene liner socks, wool blend insulator socks, fleece wading pants, breathable waders, polyester underwear, wind proof / water proof jacket, and face mask, there are few storms that can keep me from the river!

The baetis hatches are usually insignificant if any hatch at all (except on very warm winter days). The midges still hatch, but the hatches start later in the morning and can be very sporadic throughout the day. Fish begin spawning and their colors are beautiful. Put all this together, and it leads to a new strategy. Worms, eggs, and leeches in the morning and mostly midges for the rest of the day. Another hint is that the San Juan Worms change colors in the winter and a good portion of them are a light tan, light flesh, or off-white color. There is also a very distinct slow period almost every day when the fish won't seem to hit anything. The time it starts and its duration varies some, but it usually happens for 1-2 hours in mid to late afternoon. See my previous tips on how to handle the slow periods.


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Locating the Fish

Some of you are already laughing. It's easy to find fish in the San Juan. They're everywhere! Yes, but the key is finding the fish that you have the best odds of catching. For instance, often if you find a pod of fish feeding on size 30 midges in very slow, clear water, unless you have really small hooks, really good eyes, and a lot of patience, you should opt for an easier set of targets. Just because you can see the fish doesn't mean that they are as good as any fish to try for. Often, if you can see them that easily, they can also see you, and they will taunt you for hours.

One of the required tools for a serious San Juan angler is a good pair of polarized sunglasses. If you own them, you'll agree, if you don't, you'll be amazed at how this tool combined with some other tips will increase your hookups. Invest in some!

Of course, there are always exceptions but here is what I like to do. Whether you are leeching, worming, or fishing emergers or pupa during a hatch, I have found the best way to catch fish is to search for fish that are holding in fairly fast currents or at a drop off. I define a drop off as a place where there is a sudden change in water depth, say, from one foot to 3 or 4 feet. They are easily identified by a color change from clear to the bottom, to a greenish color where you may not be able to clearly see the bottom. San Juan fish love these spots because the food drops in front of them at a fast rate and there are hundreds of them all over the river. Some of my favorite drop offs are in the lower flats area. The depth of the water gives you some camo from the fish, and the speed of the water makes the fish less critical of the fly since it does not have much time to decide whether to eat it or not. During a hatch you can often see (with polarized glasses) dark shapes holding right at the edge of the depth transition. When there is not a hatch, you won't normally see the fish because they are hugging bottom, you may need some extra weight, but, rest assured, they are there. A worm will usually get a strike. My next favorite water to fish is the head of any riffle where the conditions are similar to a drop off, but the water depth usually is less dramatic. Fish love to move into riffles during hatches to feed and this is a perfect time to try your emerger for those dark shadows that are lined up at the head of the riffle. Obviously, these tactics won't work all the time, but they do work most of the time, and they will help you concentrate your efforts. I spend over 80% of my time on the river fishing these tactics. Try them and see.


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Murky Water Tactics on the San Juan River

Each year on the San Juan, there are two events that you can count on that cause murky water conditions. These two events are: 1) The high flow release in the Spring to accommodate runoff, and 2) The turn over of the lake during the Winter months. You can never predict exactly when either of these two events will occur or how long they will last since they both depend primarily on weather conditions. However, they can usually be predicted to occur within a month or two of June and December respectively. Besides these two primary events, other less predictable events like heavy rains, sudden flow changes, and alternating flows from the spillway to the power generation tubes and vice versa can also create murky water. Although the later events are much less likely to keep the water murky for long periods of time, if you are only fishing the river for a day or two, the consequences can be significant.

Before getting to the tactics behind successfully murky water fishing let me first say that some of my best days on the San Juan have been during murky water conditions. That said, I can also tell you that I might not have caught even 10% of those fish if I hadn’t changed my tactics. I’ve talked with countless fly fishers at the end of a murky water day only to find that their success was less than desirable. Still, there are always a handful of fly fishers that seem to be doing much better than the rest. I hope that you can use some of these suggestions to improve your murky water hookup rates on the San Juan.

Common sense is a good initial approach when attacking the murky water problem. The water is murky and the fish are going to have a harder time seeing those size 26 midge patterns, especially in faster moving waters. In fact, under murky water conditions, fish often seem to remain dormant despite sometimes strong hatches. So when it comes to fly selection under murky water conditions, I always use this general rule of thumb: Bigger and Brighter!!! My most successful days under murky water conditions have always been with flies like bright SJ worm patterns, egg patterns, bright midge larva patterns, flashy midge patterns, or big leech or baitfish imitators. Fish 1 or 2 sizes bigger in you favorite midge patterns and break out the bright and flashy attractor patterns. Reduced visibility usually means that you can also get away with larger tippets like 5X instead of the typical 6X and 7X. Of course, just because you are fishing an OJ followed by a size 18 flashback WD-40 doesn’t mean that you have solved the puzzle.

Murky water can effect the fish in many ways. Often, fish will abstain from their normal feeding lies and stay hunkered down near the river bottom to conserve energy. Coupled with the fact that the murky water won’t allow you to visually see the fish, that means you need to read the water and find the likely holding areas. The fish often seem to move from your favorite honey holes to new places. Don’t be afraid to move around and search them out. Once you find them, it will be well worth it. Under murky water conditions, areas where there are significant drop offs, tailouts, and large current seams offer ideal holding areas. Further, you may have to add more weight and move that indicator up to get the fly down to the fish. Of course, you will also want a nice drag free float too. Don’t forget, the fish can’t see as well and might not be actively feeding so you will have to get that fly right in their face as a rule. When you find a suspected holding area, fish it thoroughly by covering all the water and making sure you are getting down deep enough. Sounds a little tough, but after a little practice and confidence building, you’ll be the one hooking up 3 to 1 or better compared to the other guys.

Here are my favorite San Juan murky water patterns that I use every Spring and Winter:

Orange or Red SJW (12)
OJ (16)
Red, Orange, or Pink Midge Larva (20)
Red Hot (20)
Princess (22)
Disco Midge (18)
Black or Brown Bunny Leech (10)
Chartreuse, Oregon Cheese, or Orange Egg (16)
Orange or Yellow Sparkle Egg (16)
Gray or Olive Flashback WD-40 (18)
Flashback Pheasant Tail (18)
Black or Brown Flash Wing Midges (20-24)


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Deep Water Tactics on the San Juan River

Learning how to fish the deep waters of the San Juan can be truly rewarding.  I can say without question that some of the biggest fish I have caught on the San Juan have been holding right on the bottom in deep water.  In fact, more often than not, the deep water fish that I hook have an unusually large girth and will be significantly heavier than the average San Juan trout.  I sometimes call them football fish!

My definition of deep water is 6ft and deeper.   This is the depth where many fly fisherman seem to have a trouble catching fish.  There is a lot of water on the San Juan that fits this profile.  The Texas Hole and most parts of the main channel are good examples.  So what can we do to increase our hookups in deep water?

In deep water situations where the fish are holding on the bottom, you must present the fly properly to the fish near the bottom.  This means several things.  First, you must have enough leader to get the fly down to the fish.   Sounds simple, but I constantly see fisherman casting a 7 ft leader in water that is deeper than 7 ft.  If the water is 8 ft deep, you better have at least 8ft of leader and probably more to account for the angle of the line in the water as it drifts down river.  In general, the faster the water, the more extra line you will need.   I've also seen fisherman fishing with a leader that is long enough, but they don't have nearly enough weight to get the fly down and their strike indicators are often placed too far down the line to allow the flies to sink to the bottom.

Practical Application:  In the Texas Hole or main channel, if I think the fish are holding bottom, this is how I rig up.  I take a 10ft leader and tie on the first fly.  I then add 18" of tippet to the bend of the first fly and then tie on the second fly.  Next, I select enough weight for me to occasionally "tick" the bottom of the river.  I place the weight about 12" above the top fly.  I place my yarn indicator right at the fly line to leader connection so I get as deep as possible.  Once I occasionally "tick" bottom and a I am still getting a good drag free float, I know I am on track.  Remember too that sometimes fish will be holding slightly off the bottom.  In these cases, experiment a little with adjusting your weight and/or indicator placement until you get some hookups.

Mending your line is also a critical to getting the fly down deep.   One popular method for fishing the deep/fast water of the San Juan is to cast upstream and as soon as the fly hits the water, lift the rod tip up high and throw a large upstream mend.  If you do it right, not only your line, but your leader as well will be mended upstream to the point that the fly is leading your whole rig on the way down river.  When done correctly, it allows your fly to sink quickly before the current takes over and prevents the fly from getting to the desired depth.

Finally, on to fly selection.  Yes, the San Juan fish feed on nearly microscopic flies most of the time and these typical small SJ flies will work well when fished deep.  However, if you are after size, my experience tells me that those football fish sitting on the bottom got fat for a reason.  My best deep water flies are as follows:

Extra large San Juan Worms in burnt orange, red, & brown ( 8-10)
Black, Brown, or Gray Bunny Leech (6-10)
Black, Brown, or Olive Bead Head Buggers (6-10)
Gray or White Zonkers (6-8)

Look for current seams, drop offs, and tailouts to try these tactics out and send me an e-mail and let me know how much you enjoy your next football fish!!!


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Fishing the Baetis (BWO) Hatch on the San Juan River

The Blue Winged Olive hatch is my favorite hatch on the San Juan river.   If you are looking for the best dry fly fishing of the year, then the BWO hatch can be your answer.  In fact, the fishing can be outstanding during a good hatch if you use choose the right tactics.  Let's look as the answers to some common questions about this hatch.

What is a BWO?  The BWO is a type of  Baetis Mayfly that follows the typical life-cycle egg, nymph, dun, spinner.  During the nymph stage, it crawls along the rocky bottom of the river.  When the conditions are right for a hatch, the nymph will swim quickly to the surface and emerge in the surface film on its way to becoming an adult (or dun).  San Juan trout will often feed heavily on the nymphs as they swim to the surface and especially as they lay helpless during emergence.   These 2 facts are an important part of successfully fishing the BWO hatch.

When do they hatch?  You can find BWO nearly all year round on the San Juan, but they really become a factor in the Spring and Fall.   The hatch typically starts to ramp up in March and can be in full swing by late in the month or early April.  Likewise, when the hot temperatures of Summer start to give way to the cool Fall afternoons of late September and October, the hatches can be significant.  The best BWO hatches seem to occur during overcast conditions any where from 11:00 am until 2:00 pm.  I often try to plan my Spring trips with cloudy weather in mind.

What fly patterns work best?  The Baetis (BWO) on the San Juan are typically quite small.  They are best imitated with a size 20-22 pattern.  The real baetis nymphs on the San Juan are cream colored on the bottom and brown on the top with distinctive black wing case protruding back from just behind the head.  An effective pattern I have used to imitate the nymph is a tied with brown hackle fibers for a tail, cream rod wrapping thread for the body, gray dubbing for the thorax, and 2 trimmed black goose biots for the wing case.  The rod thread gives a nice segmented look.  I also take a brown waterproof marker and mark the top of the body to match the natural.  A chocolate brown or gray RS-2 or foam wing emerger is often an excellent pattern to use to imitate the emerger or pre-emerger.  As for the adult BWO, or dun, a parachute BWO or parachute Adams is often the pattern of choice.   However, I've had days on the San Juan where I would have paid $10 for another olive sparkle dun!

What tactics and techniques work best?  There are several things to consider when fishing the BWO hatch on the San Juan.  I always try and anticipate the hatch by watching for the right conditions (time of year, air temp, clouds, time of day, etc.).  If you anticipate the hatch, you can effectively catch numerous fish on nymph/emerger tandem rigs fished deep just before the hatch as the bugs are becoming active.  Remember that the nymphs swim quickly to the surface and the trout often key in on this stage of the hatch.  Consequently, a deep dead drift that is left to swing out and up with the current at the end of the drift can be a deadly technique.  As you notice the numbers of adults increasing on the surface and the fish begin to work the top, change to a dry/emerger tandem rig.  A chocolate foam wing or gray RS-2 trailed 18" behind a parachute Adams can bring sweet rewards.   Especially in the riffles!  If you are after the challenge of dry fly fishing, this is a great opportunity.  During the BWO hatch you can always find current seams or flat water where numerous trout are rhythmically sipping duns as they float by.  In the flatter and quieter water, you will have to be more stealthy.  6X tippets are a must and often a downstream presentation will bring better results (fish sees the fly before the line).  The fish also will often refuse a fly if it is presented too far above the rising trout (too much time to look at it).  Presenting a fly about 2ft above a rising trout seems to be a good comprise between too close and too far, but make sure you experiment a little until you get it right.  Also notice that the San Juan trout are lazy and as a rule, will not move more than an inch or two to take a fly so precise casting is a must.  Pick a single fish out.  Watch it closely and try and get a feel for the time between rises.  When you are ready, place the fly 2 ft above and directly in-line with the fish and watch closely for the take.  Set the hook lightly and hang on!!!


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Fishing the San Juan River Midge Hatch

The midge hatch is the arguably the most important hatch on the San Juan River and it is undoubtedly the most predominant hatch on the river.  The nearly constant temperature underwater ecosystem of this tailwater provides an ideal environment for these tiny insects. Because of these ideal conditions, midges in many shapes, sizes, and colors are constantly available to the many trout that inhabit this fine fishery.  As strange as it may seem, growth rates in trout of up to 1.5 inches per month are largely attributed to these tiny insects which are typically only 4 to 8mm in length! Let's look at the answers to some common questions about the San Juan midge hatch.

What is a midge? San Juan midges are largely from the Diptera family of insects. The life cycle of a midge starts when the adult female deposits eggs on the water. As the eggs hatch, larvae swim to the bottom of the river to live in the silty bottom or other aquatic vegetation. The larvae often become dislodged from the bottom because of foot traffic or river flow changes and drift down stream to become easy prey for hungry trout feeding near the bottom. As larvae change to pupae, they lose the worm-like shape and start to develop more of a taper and there are often some rather interesting color changes from the larva to pupa transition as well. Midge pupae wiggle to the surface where they will often hang vertically in the surface film while beginning to emerge. It is during the swim to the surface and the surface "hang time" that the midges are most vulnerable and accessible to feeding trout. During emergence, the adult midge will split the skin of the pupa and slide out. The adult will then briefly rest on the surface of the water before flying off to begin mating. After mating, the female starts the cycle over by laying eggs on the water and dying shortly after.

San Juan midges come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. The larvae can be black, brown, cream, tan, olive, red, orange, or pink. The larvae are thin worm-like creatures with a segmented appearance and taper at both ends. The pupae can be gray, brown, olive, cream, and tan. The pupae typically have a nice fat head and wing case which is dark gray or black followed by a short tapered body with a slight segmentation. Emerging pupae often develop a shiny translucent color when air is trapped between the skin that is separating from the body. The adults can be gray, brown, olive, cream, and tan. The adults have 6 long thin legs and a pair of gray wings that lay flat along the length of the tapered body pointing backwards. The underside of the adult midge is almost always a much lighter color than the top. And if there weren't enough combinations already, each of these midges in the various stages can range anywhere from 4 to 8mm in length.

When do they hatch? San Juan midges hatch all year round. However, Summer hatches can be some of the thickest of the year. My experience has shown that midges usually aren't very active before 8:30am. Around 8:30-9:00am you can almost always count on some sub-surface midge activity getting started (the adults may not be visible until later). There are typically at least 2 midge hatches during the course of a day of fishing on the San Juan. The first hatch usually occurs mid-morning around 10am and can last for several hours. The second hatch will almost undoubtedly occur within an hour of the time the sun goes down below the ridge line (anywhere from 4pm - 6pm depending on the time of year). The morning and afternoon hatches can be totally different types of midges and you will often get hatches in the Summer with 2 or 3 types of midges hatching at the same time! Cloudy days will seem to have a positive effect on the hatches and will often bring fish to the surface in search of cluster of these tiny insects floating down river. I've even witnessed some rather large hatches long after the sun has gone down while fishing by moonlight.

What fly patterns work best? Because of their small size, you will rarely match a San Juan midge with anything bigger than a size 20. In fact, most of the real midges are best imitated with size 24-28 hooks! Given the numerous color combinations and the various stages, your San Juan midge box can be quite extensive. I'm not going to tell you that you have to have every size, shape, and color that is referenced in this article. You can catch San Juan trout successfully using the patterns for each of the stages in just a few of the most predominant colors and sizes. However, the San Juan fish can be very picky at times and will consistently refuse a size 22 but absolutely hammer a size 24. I firmly believe that size and shape are more important to the San Juan fish with color being a secondary but still important consideration.   Here are some of my favorite midge patterns for each stage of the life cycle.

Larva Patterns:

Red, orange, cream, tan, & olive thread larva (size 22 3XL curved nymph hook like Daiichi 1270). Can also be tied with micro larva lace or flexi floss.
Red hot (size 22-24)

Pupa Patterns:

Olive, brown, gray, cream, & tan thread pupa with black head (size 22-28)
Zebra Midge in brown or black with clear bead (size 22-28)
Black Magic (size 22-28)
Miracle Midge (size 22-28)
Olive, brown, gray, black, & tan WD-40 (size 20-28) with and without flashback
Disco Midge or Desert Storm (20-28)

Emerger Patterns:

Black and Brown emergers with flash wing and wire rib (size 22-28)
Trailing Shuck Midge (22-28)
Chocolate or Gray Foam Wing Midge Emerger (22-28)
Brown herl emerger (22-28)
Black, gray, & olive CDC midge (22-28)

Adult Patterns:

Black, tan, olive, gray standard single adult (22-28)
Black, tan, olive, gray parachute midge with foam post (22-38)
Black midge cluster (16-22)
Griffith's Gnat (16-22)

What tactics and techniques work best? There are several things to consider when fishing the midge hatch on the San Juan. First, you must be willing to spend some time paying attention to details if you want to increase your midge fishing success. Hatch times, pre-hatch conditions, insect size, insect color, insect stage, fly selection, and presentation techniques are of utmost importance. If you pay close attention to the fish, you will usually be able to anticipate the hatch. San Juan trout typically start the day hugging the bottom of the river and laying particularly still. At some point during the day, you will see an obvious change signifying an important pre-hatch condition. Trout that were previously laying on the bottom will move up off the bottom and begin to feed by moving slightly to either side as the midges become active and float by. This is a signal to start trying your pupa patterns. If you have a seine, you can sample the water and find the right color and size to use.

Next, select your fly or flies and rig up using 6X tippet. San Juan fish are definitely leader shy when fishing the tiny midge patterns. 6X is required to increase your hookup rates. Your next 2 details are weight and strike indicator placement. Put enough weight on to get the flies right to the level of the feeding fish. San Juan fish will not move far to take a midge pattern so presentation accuracy is critical. Place your indicator wisely too, taking into consideration the depth and flow of the water so that you don't have too much slack between the flies that can lead to missed strikes. Of course, you can also place the indicator too close to the flies and ruin your presentation as well. A little experimentation and practice will pay off quickly here.

As the midge activity begins to build and the hatch starts, the fish will typically move even closer to the surface and may change preferences for the particular stage they are feeding on. San Juan fish have a particular fondness for pupa that are hanging in the surface or very close to the surface. Watch closely for this change and be willing to change your indicator position and weight accordingly to get the flies to new level of the fish. Don't be fooled by the tail only type rises and think that they are taking adults. Fish feeding on the rising or hanging pupa will not break the water with their heads (that comes later when they are feeding on adults). Imitating the rise of the insect to the top of the water by allowing the drift to swing out can be effective at times. You also may need to take the indicator off and fish an emerger and pupa on or near the surface by sight fishing. Sight fishing is one of the most effective ways to fool the picky San Juan trout. Find a feeding fish that you can see clearly. Present your fly in the fish's feeding lane and watch for a slight head shift or an opening of the mouth (usually easy to see if you look for the white). If you think your fly is close, set the hook gently and be ready.

Finally, if the conditions are right, you may see the fish start to poke their noses out of the water as the hatch thickens. This is a good sign that they are feeding on emergers and adults at the surface. Try a dry / emerger tandem rig and present the flies delicately with the same techniques described for the BWO hatch last month. Good luck and have fun!!!


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High Water Tactics on the San Juan River

When I think of spring on the San Juan, certain predictable thoughts always pop into my mind: mild temperatures, green colors are back, wind, and HIGH RIVER FLOWS!  High flows are typically scheduled by the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) to compensate for the runoff created by the warming of the previous winter’s snow pack.  However, further considerations such as water rights, irrigation, Colorado Squawfish, and other politics often play a part in the decision process.  I chose to address the topic of fishing high water during May because historically, the San Juan river flows are higher than normal for at least part of the month of May if not the whole month.  My personal definition of “high” water on the San Juan is any flow greater than 1500 cubic feet per second (CFS).  At flows above 1500cfs, special tactics become more important to the angler in search of San Juan trout.

Where did the fish go?  One of the first things to happen on the San Juan when the water rises during higher flows is the fish move from their current holding positions to find shelter from the fast currents.  Remember that trout do not want to expend more energy than they need too.  They would rather find the most comfortable position in the river where they have to move very little to get their daily intake of midges, baetis, annelids, and other bugs of the day.    That is how they get so fat!!!  This is probably the most important thing to keep in mind.    I’ve seen many fly fishers during high water trying so hard to get to the middle of the river or wade out to one of their favorite low water spots.  Not only is this dangerous under high water conditions, but it is usually a waste of time and energy.    Every time I fish high water on the San Juan, I would estimate that about 50% of the fisherman are standing right where the fish would have been (or are) holding given the current flows.

When the water reaches about 2000CFS, there are several new channels formed on the San Juan.  These channels, along with newly formed pools and back eddies in the main river are the places where the trout move.  Of course even some of the favorite holes like the Texas Hole and Kiddie Pool still hold plenty of fish, but you won’t find them out in the middle.  Instead, these fish will be hugging the banks and hiding in newly created back eddies.    

Now what do you do?  Once you’ve figured out what water to fish, the next step is to rig up and hook some trout.  Fly selection during high water can be a little different than during the rest of the year depending on water clarity.  If the rising flows have created murky water conditions, see my tips for fishing murky water from back in January 2000.  If the water is clear, fly selection doesn’t change much except for one general area.  Annelids!  When the water rises, many annelids (a.k.a. Worms) of various sizes and colors are forced out of the muddy banks and into the drift.  As such, one of the most productive attractor patterns during high water is a San Juan Worm or even some smaller annelid patterns (like an OJ).  Colors that work best seem to be various shades of orange, red, and brown.  The second fly can be your favorite midge larva or pupa pattern or maybe even a baetis nymph depending on the time of day and the hatches that are occurring.

With your flies selected, the most important thing you can do now is make sure you use enough weight and adjust your indicator depth to get the flies down.  With the high water often you will be fishing in faster currents and deeper water than you may be used to so don’t be afraid to add weight to get those flies down.  I know you will be rewarded if you do!

While many find the high water intimidating to their fishing skills, it can actually be one of the easier times to fish the San Juan.  The reason is simple.  Thousands of fish forced to seek refuge in back eddies and along the banks where they are even more accessible to anglers.  The only thing that makes it hard is when all the fisherman are standing where the fish are!  Please remember that wading during high water can be extremely dangerous so use caution and common sense.  In many cases you probably won’t even have to go out from the banks more than a foot or two to find the fish.  Don’t be afraid to explore the new channels and back waters.  Good luck, be careful, and have fun!


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The San Juan River Ant Fall

The annual San Juan River ant fall can be an exciting time for anglers eager to take large trout on big dry flies. Each year, typically in June, San Juan trout and anglers alike are given a special treat. Soon after the first big rain of the season, hundreds of large Carpenter Ants are driven from their underground homes. Among these ants are many flying adults that take to the air. Whether flying or not, many of these juicy critters somehow find their way to the water and end up helplessly floating down river. Technically, this is not a hatch. Call it what you want. The bottom line is if you are lucky enough to be there when it happens, you are in for a great day of fishing!

Put yourself in the trout's place for a moment. Every day you feed almost endlessly on tiny size 26 midges with an occasional baetis to fill your stomach. All of the sudden there is a steady supply of 32oz. steaks floating helplessly overhead. I know what I would do! Combine that with the fact that once eaten some biologists have stated that there are some toxins in the ant that make their way into the trout's system and produce a sort of euphoria. They just can't help themselves!

What does all this mean? Well, it means that if you pay attention to the weather and watch the fishing reports closely, you might be able to participate in this small window of opportunity. The fall will typically only last for a week or so depending on weather, but the fish sometimes will take ant patterns for up to a week after the fall. The fall can start at any time during the day and will sometimes last for hours. The ants fall all up and down the river, but the North bank of the river seems more productive. The bottom line is to be observant. These ants are big, but they do not fall in large densities as a rule and they are sometimes hard to spot on the water. Watch carefully and you will be successful!

What flies and tactics do I use? Just about anything big and black will work when the fish are keying in on the ants. The real ants are nearly an inch long and are all black. Nothing special required to match the "hatch" here. A simple black ant pattern in size 10-14 is a good choice. The quick sight foam bodied ant is a favorite among local fly shops and a black caddis or black stimulator will also do the trick. I like to fish a foam body ant behind a black caddis or black stimulator. The caddis will allow you to quickly locate your flies while the foam body ant is a little harder to pick out sometimes since it rides low on the water. Use a 10-12ft 5X tapered leader to make your casting easier. Delicate presentations are not as critical with these conditions since the real ants typically fall to the water with a nice splat! However, I prefer fishing down and across to rising fish so as to present the fly to the fish first (before the line and leader).

The ant fall is not a technical challenge for fly fishers. Simple patterns and normal dry fly tactics will produce. The big challenge is being there at the right time. Good luck and have fun!


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Summer Tactics on the San Juan River

Summer on the San Juan River Quality Waters typically generates the heaviest angler traffic of the year.  The increased fishing pressure combined with hot temperatures, clear skies, reduced hatches, and lower flowing gin-clear water often creates some challenging situations for the San Juan angler.  To maximize your time on the water and keep hookup rates high, several adjustments to your equipment and tactics are needed.

Summer hatches on the quality waters are mostly midge hatches that occur mid-morning (9-11 am) and late afternoon (4pm - dark).  Long gone are the cool temperatures and cloud cover of spring and the associated heavy baetis hatches.   In the summer there are brief hatches of BWOs, PMDs, Caddis, and there is the ever-popular ant fall.  However, these are all very short-lived hatches that can be hard to predict.   Consequently, the serious San Juan angler stocks a fly box with tiny, almost microscopic, midge patterns in various sizes, shapes and colors to fool the San Juan trout.  The midges are the mainstay of the San Juan trout’s diet and that is no secret to most anglers who have fished the San Juan or similar tailwater fisheries.  However, when summer rolls in and the water is low and crystal clear, the San Juan trout suddenly seems to be a lot pickier than just a few months earlier.  In fact, often times your orange San Juan worm “attractor” pattern becomes more of a fish “repellant”.  Fish see it coming from several feet away and head for cover.

What do I do now?   To be successful under these conditions you must adjust the typical 2-fly attractor/midge rig to account for the new summer environment.  The first thing to go is the large, bright attractor patterns.  Replace that San Juan Worm with a size 22-24 midge or baetis pattern on 6X tippet and follow with the tiny midge of the day.  The tiny midge of the day will vary from time to time and is certainly different depending on which section of the river you fish.  Generally something size 24-26 is as large as you want to go for best results.  A good pupa pattern like a thread midge, flashback WD-40, or a GEM is always a good start.  Experiment with different colors until you find the one the fish are keying in on.  You’ll see a pattern for different parts of the river after you’ve been at it for a while.  During hatches, midge pupa and emerger patterns are typically the most effective with occasional short periods of dry fly activity on cloudy days.  6X tippet is as big as you want to go for the finicky trout of summer.  Yes, you can sometimes get away with 5X, but you’ll get far fewer hookups.  Keep in mind that by mid summer, many of these San Juan fish have been caught several times and the low/clear water gives them an extra good look at your offering.  Don’t forget to adjust your indicator too.  Big and bright indicators will often spook many of the fish at shallow to medium depths.  Replace that indicator with something half as big in black or white (or both) to reduce your chances of spooking fish and take a stealthier approach to slack waters and low flowing side channels.

Don’t sweat the small stuff!  The summer is not all midge fishing.  Early morning and late evening leech fishing can also be productive.  Try buggers and bunny leeches in dark colors stripped through deeper holes and slack water for some surprising results.  It would also be oversight to underestimate the terrestrials of the San Juan.  Small beetles (14-16), hoppers (10-16), and ants (12-22) can be excellent producers of big, healthy trout.  There is nothing like hooking into a 19” fish after a violent attack on your hopper pattern while it is being twitched from the grassy banks!

Make the day enjoyable.   Here are some other critical things to remember when fishing the San Juan in the summer:

  • Protect yourself from the dangerous rays of the sun and drink plenty of fluids during the day.

  • Bring a raincoat for the afternoon thunderstorms and be prepared to get off the river to avoid being struck by lightning!

  • Mosquitoes are thick in June/July and sometimes into August so have your bug spray handy.

  • Be prepared for the crowds and bring along your best fly fishing etiquette.  Be courteous and respectful to the river and other anglers.  There is plenty of good river to fish.  There is no sense in generating “River Rage” and creating a lose-lose scenario!

Have fun and enjoy this precious resource while it lasts!


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Low Light Tactics on the San Juan River

Low light fishing on the San Juan is one of the most productive times to be on the river. Of course, low light conditions occur every morning and every evening just before the sun rises and just after it sets. Most fisherman have been raised on fishing with the knowledge that somehow, the fishing tends to be better early and late. However, during heavy overcast days, the same sort of conditions can also occur. It is the low light condition that triggers these good periods of fishing and it is most certainly related to water temperature. It is also related to the fact that fish are not as worried about seeking cover from predators when the sun is off the water.

On the San Juan, I have found that just as the sun starts to light the sky to the point that the stars are no longer visible, the fishing picks up. The same can be said of the hour or so just before the last light fades in the evening. During these times, I can often be found fishing slow pools and backwaters in search of the often large fish that are typically not seen during the middle part of the day. During low light conditions, fish are often feeding on leeches, worms, baitfish, and other large meals that might present themselves in the river. Even an occasional mouse is bound to find its way into the belly of a large San Juan trout. However, without a doubt, the 2 most productive patterns that I've found for low light conditions are the leech and worm.

Because the light is low and the fish are not quite as spooky as normal, you can typically get away with heavier tippets. I tend to lean towards a 4x tippet as the norm. If there is enough light to see an indicator, you can use one, but most of the time you won't need it. Fish a tight line with casts across stream and slightly up and be ready to feel the take. Low light takes are often savage and unexpected so be ready. Use enough weight to get the fly just above the river bottom. I've said it many times before, but the importance of using the correct amount of weight is often underemphasized. Get that fly down to the fish!

Once your drift is underway and the fly is near the bottom, don't be afraid to give the fly some action. Fish will often key in on this action that represents the natural wiggle of a leech, worm, baitfish, or other escaping meal. To achieve the proper action, either use the rod tip to twitch the fly or strip the line in with short pulls. Be ready for the strike at any time, but especially as the fly drifts out at the end of the drift. Fish the tailouts of deep pools, slower backwaters, and other slow water for best results. Often the fish will be holding in shallow waters near the bank or at the tailouts of pools.

Here are my favorite patterns to start and end the day with:

Gray or Black Bunny Leech (8-10)
Black or Brown Wooly Bugger (8-10)
Burnt Orange Chenille San Juan Worm (8-14)
Realistic Worm (6-10)
Orange or Tan Chamois Worms (8-10)
Gray Zonker (8-10)

Try these under low light conditions sometime and see if you can catch Bubba! Among the many benefits to low light fishing is big fish and more solitude. Sometimes the early bird does get the worm! Good luck.


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Low/Gin-Clear Water Tactics on the San Juan River

With the cool Fall afternoons just around the corner, San Juan anglers begin to once again dream of prolific baetis hatches and hundreds of large trout just waiting to take a well-presented dry fly.  It's a good thing too because the late Summer fishing on the San Juan can certainly be challenge!  Daily temperatures in early September are still near 90 degrees.  The water is typically gin-clear and can be low at times.   The hatches can be slow and the fish are weary from the Summer beating they've taken from thousands of anglers.  Many fisherman begin to be frustrated by the "slow fishing" under these conditions.  However, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of success.

Remember, these fish have been subjected to fewer hatches (mostly midges) and more fly fishers during the Summer months and they have seen just about every midge pattern imaginable by now.  Those that were willing in July to take a size 20-22 midge pupa on 5X will often not even give a head nod to the same presentation now.   Now more than ever, the fish are paying attention to detail.  That means you need to pay attention too!

You know the fish haven't stopped feeding because you can see the fish in the water going crazy for the midge of the day.  The first thing you want to do is think small and delicate.  Lighten the tippet up to 6X and try a size 26 midge pattern.   Of course you want to try and match the size, shape, and color of the natural so do your homework on the bugs!  As always, make sure you adjust the weight and indicator to get the fly to the level the fish are feeding at.

Sight fishing will be the most effective technique now.  Watch carefully for the white flair of the mouth or a gentle head turn and be ready to set the hook.   If you are getting refusals, don't waste too much time.  Switch to 7X.    Your presentation is more critical than ever in the clear, late season water.   Sometimes the fish won't even look at your fly unless it is the first thing they see. 

Don't be afraid to experiment with your fly patterns during this time of year.   You will still need to go small, but sometimes the fish will take some strange colors like flashy green or blue patterns.  Here are some of my favorite patterns for these conditions:

Thread Midge (26) - cream or olive body and black head
Flashback Thread Midge (26) - body with dark gray head and flash over wing case
Olive Tube Midge (26) - olive body, clear tubing slipped over and ribbed forward, black head
Blue Flame (24-26) - Gunmetal bead head, blue/green flashabou body
Black KF Midge (26) - black body, gold rib, pear flash wings, dark gray dub head

With lighter tippet, your favorite early morning patterns (worms, annelids, etc.) will still work well from time to time, but when the fishing gets tough, try these patterns out and let me know how it goes!


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Fishing San Juan River Riffles

Without a doubt, my favorite type of water to fish on the San Juan is a good riffle. The reason is simple. When fish are feeding in riffles, they are much easier to approach and much easier to fool. I define a riffle as a section of faster flowing water that is typically fairly shallow (less than 3 feet) with choppy surface action. The bottom is often rocky which, when combined with faster flowing water, produces the characteristic choppy surface.

Let's analyze the riffle further to discover why catching fish here can be so productive. We'll start at the top and work our way down. First, the choppy surface of a riffle allows the fisherman much more leeway with the approach and presentation. Fish holding in a riffle don't have a clear view of the surface so your presentation and your stealthiness are not as critical. The faster flowing water also mean the fish have less time to make a decision on taking the fly or not. As a result, the fish are not as selective as they would be in different conditions. As we reach the rocky bottom of the riffle, we find the perfect conditions for many types of insects. On the San Juan, the most critical insect to pay attention to under these conditions is the baetis (although much of the same applies to certain midge species). Baetis often begin their journey to the surface in riffles. Consequently, during a hatch, fish will move into the riffles to take advantage of the helpless insects caught up by the current and being swept into the fish's field of view at very fast rate. Of course, smart trout trying to conserve energy will not be found in riffles unless there is enough food present to make it worth their while. Bottom line: During the hatch, fish move into riffles and fishing can be extremely productive!

Here are some tips for fishing San Juan river riffles during the hatch:

At the first sign of the hatch, move to a riffle and watch closely for feeding fish. They will often be found right at the top of the riffle or at the edge of the riffle where they can take advantage of resting in the slower current seams. Also watch the bottom closely for any structure that would provide them even a little shelter from the current. In fast water you will often only see a quick flash or a dark shadow that suddenly appears and then fades away. Sometimes you will be amazed at how many fish are holding in water that seems too fast. Unless the fish are obviously taking adults on top, I always start by adding enough weight to float the fly just above the bottom and then lighten up depending on the level the fish seem to be feeding at. Early in the hatch, fish will stay near the bottom but as the hatch warms up the fish will begin to look up and that is when you lighten the weight up. It is also important to move you indicator down to a reasonable depth. If you have too much line between the fly and indicator, fish will take and spit your fly and you never even know it. Depth of the water plus 1 foot is what I usually choose.

Even though the fish are less picky in riffles you still need to select your fly properly and a 6x tippet is still a good idea. Here are my favorite baetis and midge fly patterns for fishing San Juan river riffles:

Baetis Hatch:

  • Gray RS-2 (22)
  • Chocolate Foam Wing (22)
  • Flashback Pheasant Tail (22)

Midge Hatch:

  • Black midge with gold rib and flash wings (22-24)
  • Chocolate midge with copper rib and flash wings (22-24)
  • Black bead head midge with olive body and black rib with white poly wing (22-24)

Non-hatch:

  • San Juan worm in natural or burnt orange (14)
  • Red midge larva (22-24)

Good luck. Have fun and hope to see you in the riffles!


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Fishing San Juan River Current Seams

San Juan River current seams are probably the most productive type of water that you can fish on the San Juan.  In fact, current seams on any river are likely holding spots for feeding fish.  A current seam is anywhere you get two different currents flowing next to each other.  The most commonly visible current seam is along the edge of a riffle or run where the current flow suddenly drops dramatically creating a very visible “seam” in the water.  Another commonly visible current seam is created when some obstruction like a large rock or log breaks the flow of faster moving water.  Still another example is what is often referred to as a “back eddy”.  If I was forced to fish only one type of water on the San Juan, it would undoubtedly be current seams.  Riffles, runs, and flat water all have their attractions under various conditions, but current seams fish well under almost all conditions.

What makes the current seams so productive?  Current seams are productive simply because they provide a very efficient presentation of food to feeding fish.  A trout will hold at the edge of a current seam in the slower portion (thereby conserving energy), while in the faster water the food is coming by at a quicker rate.  This allows fish to move in and out of the seam to feed at a high rate while conserving energy at the same time.  Moreover, some types of current seams like a back eddy can actually serve to trap food in small area and provide a perfect environment for feeding trout.  You can see this by observing the “foam lines” in some runs and back eddies on the San Juan.  Watch carefully and you will notice that where the foam collects, there is also a collection of bugs.  And of course where the bugs are collected there will often be a collection of feeding fish!

How do I fish the current seams?  Fishing the current seam can be challenging at times.  The best approach is to try and get your flies and indicator to float right along the very edge of the faster water.  Sometimes this requires some tricky mending and as always, you must maintain a drag free float.   For a simple current seam at the edge of a run it is not too hard.  For a back eddy or foam line in heavy water there can be some real challenges!  The best approach I’ve found for back eddies is to get as close as you can to the eddy and use the length of the rod to hold the line off the water as much as possible.  In fact, I’ll often present the fly at one end of the eddy, lift the line off the water, and simply follow the eddy current with the rod tip as the flies float down, around, and sometimes back up at me again.  Strikes are often very subtle in back eddies and other current seams so be ready to set the hook and watch that indicator carefully.  Your fly selection should match the hatch.

Good luck and have fun!


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Fishing San Juan River Flat Water

Fishing San Juan river flat water is certainly one of the more difficult challenges for anglers.  Flat water is characterized by the moving, yet undisturbed condition of the surface of the water.  You will know you are fishing flat water when you can see a clear reflection of the other side of the river on top of the water.  Flat water is typically deeper water where the effects of the river bottom terrain are less obvious.

Because the surface of flat water is undisturbed, fish have an extremely clear view of everything above them in their field of vision.  This means that these fish can see you easier.  It also means that they get a better look at flies, leaders, and indicators.  What this all amount to is that when fish holding in flat water are looking up towards the surface to feed, you will have to be a lot more careful with your presentation.

I’ve found that during a hatch, San Juan fish holding in flat water are certainly more likely to be “spooked” by an approaching angler.  As a result, keep your standoff distance much further from the trout and your profile lower when fishing flat water.  I’ve found the long upstream or downstream approach to be better than the across approach. You will also need to match the hatch a little closer since the fish are getting a much better look at your flies.  You may also have to lengthen and lighten your tippet to successfully fool these wary trout.  I often take my indicator completely off or reduce it to a small wisp of yarn when fishing flat water.  You should also be careful when you pull the line off the water to make your next cast.

Here are some of my favorite flies for fishing flat water baetis and midge hatches on the San Juan:

  • Gray RS-2 with CDC wing and split tail (22-24)
  • Olive or Gray Sparkle Dun with trailing shuck (20-24)
  • Thread midge pupa in olive, brown, or gray (22-26)
  • CDC midge in black, olive, or tan (24-26)

Give it a try and have fun!

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San Juan River Fly Fishing

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