Thursday, October 5, 2017

Float Fishing the Rio by Taylor Streit

Float Fishing the Rio
by Taylor Streit

In Colorado, the Rio Grande is an excellent river to float-fish––it has a lot of the medium-speed, even currents that suits the style of fishing and there are roads paralleling the river and numerous places for put in/take outs. This all-important ease of access is not the case once the Rio enters New Mexico, because except for a short portion above Pilar the river runs through a roadless canyon.
      We have 50 miles of exceedingly wild river that requires considerable effort to drift and much of it is simply too rowdy to drift fish. But as the saying goes “if it was easy everybody would be doing it.” It’s highly unlikely that you’ll see another fisherman in this country—let alone one that’s in a boat. So if it’s solitude and a lack of competition that you’re looking for, this is it.  
      The upper-most section (Ute Mountain run) starts at the Colorado border. Running through a shallow but precipitous canyon here, the Rio is dominated by Ute Mountain just to the east. This worn volcano casts a lonely spell over barren ground that receives little rain. And Bajadas—or “ways down”—between the cliffs are few and far between. To further reduce crowds of anglers, trout numbers through here are not good, and near the state line there may be no trout. (That’s because most of the water traveling through this wasteland has already done duty in the vast agricultural farms of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, and is return irrigation water with marginal oxygen.)
      Some 10 miles downriver there is a big gain of spring water from a huge spring and that increases trout numbers. Such springs escalate as the river falls faster and further into the earth until the river is an actual  rampage of rapids at “Wild Rivers.”
      This upper Rio may be low on trout but it’s full of pike, carp, and solitude. And there could be a world record pike there because people have caught them over 50 inches long! And since it is just about never fished— who knows what lurks in these miles of desolate pools.
      Some of this area could be driven to but it is too big to fish or sightsee on foot. Floating it is the way to go and you might see all sorts of critters: bighorns, elk, deer, lions and bears––and lots of hawks and eagles. I’ve read somewhere that it has the highest number of nesting raptors of any river in the U.S. Oh, and there are no ugly cows—but there are ugly rattlesnakes.
      There are a couple of hitches to the float: the first being that it is too far to do in a day so you have to bring camping gear. Being forced to spend more time in this magical place is a high class problem, but there is a second snafu: although the put-in is a snap at the Labatos Bridge just in Colorado, there is no easy take out and you have to carry your boat and camp gear over two hundred vertical feet up Lee Trail. If you are planning to do this, look to the excellent book The Rio Grande by Paul W. Bauer. It has nary a word about fishing but is written from a rafter’s point of view with superb maps and info. That book or google earth will also show you where the fast water is; and that is where the trout are, so you would want to pull over before you go through a rapid and fish it while you’re checking it out. (One thing about float is that you don’t get to fish this prime fast water as you go through it.)
      The trout are pretty uniform in size here, averaging about 16 inches. Most will be browns. As they are rarely fished for, they will usually eat a streamer and that type of fly is perfect for covering a lot of water quickly. A bead head crystal flash wooly buggers in black or olive is a good choice as that pattern is a good fly for carp in the slower waters between the fast zones. For pike, use an eight-weight fly rod with an 8-inch-long chartreuse streamer tied on with a foot of wire leader.
From Lee Trail to La Junta the Rio is known as "Wild Rivers" and is unfloatable. Period. And exclamation point! (No, don’t even think about it--many have died finding this out.).
At La Junta, the junction where the Red River and the Rio meet, you will want to put-in at the Cebolla Mesa trail by the John Dunn Bridge in Arroyo Hondo. This float is also referred to as “Middle Box” and is the best float-fishing trip on the Rio.  Although not severe overall, there is a short, class-three rapid at Horse Thief Shorty, and it is wise to have a proper boatman take you through. It’s also too long to do in a day, so you need a decent sized boat to carry the camp gear. Since such a craft is too big for humans to haul down; boat, whiskey and gear need to be taken down by one of man’s best friends--the horse/mule.

Now getting all this together is a rather complicated affair but this is being done by Taos Fly Shop and they are doing trips in spring and fall. Fishing can be temperamental because the dates need to be locked in; and fishing conditions are always unpredictable on the Rio. (Hey, that’s fishing--the experience of floating wild water is grand either way.) But this hunk of river has great numbers of trout, as it has many wide rifles that are insect rich, and this water is much simpler to fish then the crazy currents of the rest of the canyon.
      This seldom visited area is most pleasant because the banks are by and large, flat and grassy, and old ponderosas tower over some excellent campsites. There is one lonely—and very long riffle area––where mountain lions like to hang when the high country is snowbound. Their tracks are often seen in the mud along the bank and kills are sometimes found hidden, just above the river.
      This section of the Rio has no low water limitations and can be floated in fall when the Rio is low and prime (no dragging the boat over long shallows but there will be bumping over rocks). Another choice time—although spotty—is April during the caddis hatch. Conditions are temperamental and can range from high water to snowstorm––but when things go right…well, they can go way-right.
      Years ago, I was down there in early spring when a big wind was huffing and puffing upstream. Clouds of caddis were sailing by in vast swarms. They skittered and skimmed across the flat water but once the insects hit the choppy riffle they would stumble and bounce across the little waves. All the trout that lived in the long pool below came to feast and were slashing at the insects with such zeal, that a spray formed over the riffle. In this ensuing mist, a mini rainbow was created over the water. You don’t see a “trout splash” like that every day!
      As I mentioned, the take-out for the Middle Box float is the John Dunn bridge 10 miles north of Taos. It is the only vehicular access to the river between the Colorado border and the Taos Junction Bridge—which is 15 miles downriver of the Dunn Bridge (or JDB).
The river here is rafted extensively from spring to early summer from here. It is a fabulous and famous float and there are several rafting companies who float “the Box.” They take thousands of sportsmen here and running the “Taos Box" is big business. The length of this float is full of trout but high flows are necessary to make it through—but beware, the fishing absolutely stinks in high water. And even if it did fish when high, you’re way too busy flailing about the raft and yelling “Oh, my God” in the Class 5 rapids to think about making a cast. I’m sure that the right boatman in just the right craft could float fish much of the water during lower water periods. But this is very rarely done and the entire box could safely be called unfished.
      The only easy float of the Rio starts at the Taos Junction Bridge and is an agreeable mid-speed current. There is a Class 2 rapid but otherwise it is gentle. There is a put in/take out (Lone Juniper) about 4 miles down that makes for a good half-day drift. Although this water is all paralleled by road it is an entirely different experience to float-fish it, then to wade-fish it. This is good Smallmouth Bass and Pike territory and when in the slower sections it is wise to fish for those species with a separate rod rigged especially for them. The trout will be primarily in the faster water.
      Starting at Lone Juniper and taking out at Quartzite is another half-day float. (Starting at Taos Junction Bridge to Quartzite is a full-day float.) But there is a rapid about one mile above Quartzite that is tricky business and comes on just as one has gone over the irrigation dam. (Which is a start in itself.) It seems near impossible to walk a boat by this short Class 2 and 3 rapids…so duffer boatmen beware.
      From Pilar (Quartzite) to county line is about a 7-mile float. It is rowdy water and there is one section that is downright scary. It is floated a great deal; both commercially and privately. Hopefully, I have already made the point, but it bears repetition; that floating and float-fishing are two entirely different animals. The water here is just too fast to float-fish effectively because of the Class 3 and 4 rapids--and for most of the distance all hands need to be employed, so someone’s head doesn’t get bashed on a rock. Trying to catch a fish would be a bit silly here (although I have done it with Capt. Nick Streit on the oars). This is a serious commercial rafting piece of river and is 4.5 miles in length. The takeout is at the large BLM facility known as County Line.

      Below there is some very nice riffle water but the take outs are tricky, and/or non-existent in a large boat. Fishing from a one-man boat that can be carried would make this float doable. There is a B.L.M. take out where the Embudo joins the Rio. As flash floods often contribute silt from the Embudo, trout fishing deteriorates below there anyhow.
      A good day of float fishing does not have to be for miles and miles. Especially if one is alone and is in a craft that can be gotten in and out of easily and then pulled along behind on a rope. You’re likely to see other anglers in all this lower area so remember to be courteous and not too uppity. Try and hug the opposite bank and don’t fish in the other sports water. And try not to act too uppity in your effortless passage. And also remember that those landlubbers and clumsy wading fishers have probably not caught near as many fish as you. Because--I have forgotten to mention this fact-- floating allows one’s fly to be seen by massive numbers of fish and almost always produces more fish than wading. So, tell the shore bound commoner—who is stumbling and bumbling his way upriver-- that you are having but marginal luck. Be kind, discretion in these matters is always wise.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Fighting and Landing Fish (Excerpted from "Instinctive Fly Fishing") by Taylor Streit

After watching people fight thousands of fish over my guiding career, I have an idea of why some folks land them—and why some don’t. A guide can’t do much to prepare people for fighting big fish; perhaps tie an old boot on and throw it into moving water to illustrate the mechanics of fighting fish, but that still doesn’t address the main problem. 

Stay Calm 

And that problem is that anglers lose their cool. Often an angler doesn’t have any cool to begin with and breaks off his prize when the fish’s instantaneous run triggers the fisherman’s not-as-instantaneous response. At this critical point, the fisherman might freeze and clamp down on the line, heave, trip over his own feet, fall, flounder, scream, and, sadly in extreme cases of great-sized trout, get hauled in and drown. The dimensions of the fish that causes such a state of insanity varies from one angler to the next. The beginning fly fisher may come apart with any size fish, but it may take a trophy of dangerous proportions to unnerve a seasoned angler. Rest assured that no matter how cool the customer, there’s a fish out there that will rattle him. It’s why we fish, isn’t it? 

Delightfully, the best way to learn how to overcome this affliction is by getting into the ring and duking it out with the lunkers. A bruiser at the other end of the line gets a lot more attention than an old boot, and the learning curve is steep when the stakes are high. Just one day with a good guide on a river like New Mexico’s San Juan will teach you a great deal about fighting big trout. 

Prepare for the Big Fish 

You can do a few simple things to prepare for hooking and fighting Mr. or Mrs. Big. 
First off--whenever in large trout territory, always use fluorocarbon tippet, check leaders for abrasions, and never, never leave wind knots because they decrease the strength of your leader by half. If you check for knots often, you may be able to undo them before they become too tight to untie. After they become that tight, the leader is compromised, and you should cut off and replace the tippet. 

Check to make sure that hooks are sharp and not bent. If a hook is out of shape, don’t try to bend it back. Discard and replace the fly. 

Before fishing a likely spot, examine the proposed battleground in case you should hook “the Big.” Be aware of snags, routes downstream, and places to beach a monster. 
Don’t fish with excess line hanging out of your reel. Use just the amount you need so you won’t have a lot of slack to deal with if you hook a big. Loose line has a habit of wandering around rod butts, reel handles, and other appendages. 

Use Your Drag 

Oddly, there are people who have “opinions” about the drag on a fly reel, and I was once asked if it is legal to use the drag. And someone else told me that when he was a boy his father would forbid him to fish for the rest of the day if the father saw the son using the drag!

Barring moral objections to using the reel’s drag, after the fish is on, it is important to get it onto your quality reel’s drag system. This is a critical point in the fight. If you loop the line between the middle and fourth fingers, you can keep tension on each end while reeling in. Doing this gives you a loop that can be watched and maneuvered as line is reeled in. This process does, however, require dexterity with the fingers and is a tough operation for the inexperienced fly fisher to perform. Often a fish will be accommodating by running off with all the slack. You can augment this by backing up. If you start at midstream, back up onto the bank and in a position where you can follow the fish downstream. If you reach the shore with the fish on the reel, you’ve won half the battle. From the bank you will have greater mobility as well as a height advantage. If one side of the stream has obstructions that the fish might tangle in, get onto the other side so you can steer the fish away from the trouble. 

And beware that fish break off when screaming reel handles come into contact with clothes and hands, so keep the reel out away from your body. If your reel has a good drag, don’t even touch it until it’s time to wind line in. 

And when a big fish takes off, keep the rod tip high. This position keeps the angle of the line as vertical as possible, and that angle keeps fish or flies from fouling on a rock.

When a good fish is hooked, anglers are often too cavalier. Focus on the fight. Stay on top of the fish and keep your arms way up in the air. Doing this is more important than people realize because it keeps the angle of the line as vertical as possible so there is less chance of getting fouled on the bottom. 

When a fish heads for a snag, you may have to apply real muscle to turn it.
Anglers give too much credit to a fish by thinking it heads for a snag so that it can wrap the leader around it. The creature is merely scared to death and looking for a hiding place. For mathematical reasons beyond my understanding, a fly rod has much more power held sideways than overhead. To steer a fish, turn the rod in the direction opposite that in which the fish is swimming. If the fish is going right, the rod should be horizontal and on your left side. 
In the late Jack Samson’s (he was a Santa Fean) wonderful biography, Lee Wulff, Lee talks about landing large fish quickly. “If you can convince them that they don’t have a chance they will give up a lot sooner.” You do this by getting the jump on ’em and using maximum pressure from the start. But only experience teaches you how much that is. Furthermore, although guides go nuts to see fish fought forever, beginners should go easy if conditions allow. I have seen a multitude of fish lost because the fisher had no idea how much heat to apply. You can put a lot of steady pressure on monofilament. The sudden stresses are what “pop” the line. 

A fly may pull out or break off if a heavy fish gets into the current, so be sure and follow it downriver fast enough. Try to stay abreast of it in a strong current so that you are not fighting it and the current, too. The fish’s weight is greatly increased by the added force of the current. 

Concluding the Fight 

After the quarry has grown tired, you need to get its head above water and keep it there. This is when you finally have control, so don’t ease up. Keep the fish coming at you and try not to let it get its head back under the surface. With its head above water, it can either be beached or netted. 
Beaching a large fish works well if gravel bars or gently sloping shores are nearby. If the banks are steep or if you are in the middle of a large river, a net will save you many a prized catch. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Gear 101: #3 Flies


In the third installment of our 101 series we will tackle the very broad subject of flies, which can be broken down into two main categories, dry flies and wet flies.

Dry flies are designed to be fished on the top of the water and mimic the adult stage of a bugs life. Generally, they are fished on the surface of the water in a dead drift, riding the surface in a natural pace. However, other techniques can be employed depending on the fishing conditions. For example, dry flies can be pulled gently across the surface of the water so that they skim along the water instead of drifting, this technique is called skating. Or, you can intentionally pull the dry just below the surface of the water and fish it half sunk. Deciding which technique works best takes a combination of practice and an understanding of the behaviors of the flies you are intending to mimic and the behavior of the fish that you are trying to catch.

Wet flies are designed to be fished below the surface of the water and can be broken down into two smaller categories, nymphs and streamers. 

Nymphs mimic the pre-adult stage in a bug’s life cycle and like dry flies, are generally fished in a dead drift technique. They are cast upstream and allowed to sink, where they drift down river naturally being swept along in the current. Nymph patterns are tied in a variety of sizes and colors. Some nymphs are tied with beads which provide weight to the fly and allow it to sink faster and reach a deeper point in the river. Others are tied without beads, making them lighter therefore allowing them to be fished closer to the surface. Fish feed among the river from the bottom to the top. With study and practice you will soon figure out which nymph is best used in each condition. 

Streamers, like nymphs, are designed to be fished sub surface. Unlike nymphs they are most effective when they are pulled through the water, a technique called stripping. The streamer is cast out into the water and allowed to sink, but instead of just letting it drift naturally down stream as you would with a nymph, the streamer is pulled back toward you, through the water, as you retrieve your line. Most streamers are tied to mimic small fish and various aquatic insects and therefore the movement is the most important aspect. When fishing streamers try different styles of retrieve, alternating slow and fast strips to see what works best. 

This is a general explanation of how to start identifying different types of flies and how to fish them, if you want to dive deeper there are numerous resources available online that go into the entomology, or science, of bug life and can offer you a precise explanation of the different stages and behaviors for each species. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Gear 101: #2 Terminal Tackle

Terminal Tackle

In the second blog in this series we will be covering what we refer to as “terminal tackle,” or the materials that transition us from the fly line to the fly. This is a small category and includes two main items, leader and tippet.

The leader is a tapered length of nylon monofilament. Most leaders are sold with a pre-tied loop at the thick end, which makes attachment and replacement quick and easy. The leader attaches to the fly line and tapers down to a fine tip, and vary in both length and thickness. When you look at a pack of leader you will see two sets of numbers. The first usually corresponds to length, the most common being either 7.5 feet or 9 feet. The second number is followed by an “x” and refers to the thickness of the small end of the leader. These numbers inversely correspond to thickness, meaning a small number refers to a larger diameter. When choosing the right leader think about matching the leader to the flies you will be using. For example, a 3x leader is a good choice for flies size 6-10, a 4x leader is good to use for flies size 12-16, 5x for flies size 18-20 and so on.

Tippet is also made of nylon monofilament but unlike the leader, tippet is not tapered, instead it is a single diameter and comes in a spool. Tippet is generally used to rebuild your leader as you cut into it and shorten it every time you change flies. Tippet is also used to add a second fly to your rig. We often fish two, sometimes three flies at a time, and attaching tippet to the hook of the first fly and running a length 18’-24’ down to a second fly is a trick to add a seamless second fly. Tippet also comes in varying strengths and like leader you will see the spools range from 0x to 7x. The same rule applies here, where the smaller number refers to a thicker diameter and you should always have a variety of tippet spool on you so that you can quickly make adjustments for the conditions while on the river.

Lastly, we should mention that you have an option to purchase leader and tippet not only in nylon but also in a material called fluorocarbon. The benefit of buying leader and tippet made of fluorocarbon is that it is stronger, invisible in the water and sinks faster than nylon. You will pay a pretty penny for these improvements but will likely forget the sticker shock when you successfully land a monster.   

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Gear 101: #1 Rod, Reel and Line

GEAR 101

Nobody is born a professional. At one time or another we all stood as ignorant ‘fishermen and fisherwomen to be’ staring at gear that meant nothing to us, oblivious of what anything was, much less how it all fit together. For some of us this moment was when we were too young to remember, for others this moment is now. This is the first in a series we are calling “Gear 101” and it is aimed at those of you among us who are at this precise point, the very beginning.

#1 Rod, Reel and Line

These are the three most important components in the sport of fly-fishing and they are designed to work in conjunction with one another to perform one task: get the fly from the end of your fly rod out to the river where you want it to go. The process of getting the fly out to the water is called the cast and is often the most challenging aspect to the beginning angler, a subject we will cover in detail later in this series.

For now, let’s skim the surface of how these three basic tools go together.

 The modern fly rod is made from graphite, a mineral that is both strong and lightweight. The rod is made in a taper, thicker at the butt end where the reel is attached and slowly slimming up to a fine tip. Most fly rods are made to break down into either two or four pieces. Guides, which are small circular shaped metal pieces, are attached to the rod. The guides serve the purpose of holding the line and allow it to run smoothly along the rod as you cast. At the butt end of the rod is the reel seat, which is a metal nut that threads along the base of the rod and tightens down onto the reel to hold it into place. The last component to the rod is the cork handle, located just above the reel seat.

Fly rods are given a “weight” ranging from 000 to 14 that corresponds both to the weight of line the rod is made to handle and the type of environment that it is best used in. For example, a 000 rod should be used with a 000 line and best for small streams when you are most likely going to catch small fish, a 14 rod is intended to be used in saltwater, fishing for beasts like Marlin. In addition to various weights rods also come in varying lengths. In the language of fly rods you will often see the specifics of each rod printed in a series of numbers on the butt end piece of the rod. These numbers are deciphered as such: weight, feet, inches – pieces. For example, a rod that has these numbers: 490-4 is a 4 weight, 9 foot, 0 inches, 4 piece. 

The modern fly reel is made up of two parts, the spool, which holds the line and clips into the frame, which houses the drag system and allows you to turn the handle to take in line. The drag system is a mechanism built in to most reels that regulates the rate at which the line is pulled off the reel, think resistance. The purpose of this drag system is to allow you to choose the appropriate level of resistance depending on the size fish you are hooked into. A larger fish needs more drag (resistance) as it will more likely put up a bigger fight. The more the fish has to work the quicker it will tire out and allow you to bring it to the net.

Most reels are made of either composite plastics, which are cheaper and less durable, or aluminum, which are lighter, extremely durable and more expensive. With the more expensive reels you often get more refined drag systems, which allow you to fine-tune your drag while actively fighting fish.

Fly line is the driving force of the entire operation. We often refer to it as the “engine” of the rod, as it is the weight of the line itself that bends the rod during the cast. In spin fishing the entire operation hinges on a weighted lure. This weight is used to pull line out as you cast, thus achieving distance. In fly-fishing we are casting the line not the fly. As you back-cast the rod bends with the weight of the line and on the forward cast the rod springs back and the line shoots through the guides, running freely out to the water.

Fly lines are made up of two parts, the core and the coating. The core is the strength of the line, engineered to provide the backbone and is most often made from nylon, which is braided in order to increase strength and durability. The coating is plastic and protects the core by being pliable and flexible throughout the many conditions you find on the water. The coating is also the place where line engineers have room to experiment. Through different techniques companies have discovered ways to taper, weight and aerate these coatings to provide a line precisely tuned for any fishing technique and situation.

There you have it, a surface explanation of the most basic tools of the trade. The depth to which you can continue to explore and learn is relatively endless as companies are constantly refining manufacturing techniques and materials. However, all you need is a rod, reel and line, oh yeah, and the fourth most important element is time, lots and lots of time.
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