Friday, May 18, 2018

Low Water Fishing 
by Taylor Streit   

     The smart fly fisher pays attention to fishing conditions and plans accordingly with both long and short-range goals in mind. It starts with arriving at the right stream––at the right time. Romantic notions often cloud rational thinking in this area and if you had a blissful day on Old Skuttlebutt Creek last year, that doesn’t mean it will be any good this season. Our guides at Taos Fly shop and the Reel Life in Santa Fe don’t fish Skuttlebutt when it’s gonna suck.
     Knowing where not to fish is obviously critical, too. This is pretty cut and dried in a low water year. The smaller streams are out. Sure you can still catch trout in your favorite little creek but more mileage will be needed because the trout will be ganged up in the few pools capable of harboring them. Also, you will likely spook the others in the pool once you hook one—so you’ll end up catching very few for your long walk. Many smaller streams may even suffer fish kills later in summer, although nature is practiced at dealing with extremes and they usually recover quickly. Even in the terrible drought of 2002, a fork of the Chama river went totally dry but was repopulated by aquatic insects and trout the very next year.
     Fortunately, we have a number of waters that stay relatively healthy because they have other sources of water than those supplied directly from on high. That would include streams that are below dams and those that are spring-fed. Spring-fed creeks are scattered across the state and would include most of the streams in the Valle Caldera national refuge, and the lower Red River and the Rio Grande.
     Yup, you heard right, the Rio Grande is a huge spring-fed creek and superb fishing in a low-water year! The springs are what make the Rio so rich and this year’s fishing has already been excellent. In low water years the spring water becomes the bulk of the Rio’s flow and this cool clean water makes for a healthy aquatic environment.
     Easier accessibility is another plus in low water years. Much of the Rio has excellent fishing terrain in the form of huge basalt boulders. Wading between these great rocks is impossible in higher flows but in low water the trout become much easier to get at. Of course we hope for summer rains but there is a negative element when there are downpours on the loose soils of the San Luis Valley. When that happens the Rio Grande will get muddy and then fish poorly for a week or so.
     A new factor of considerable importance is the addition of river otters to the Rio Grande scheme. They were introduced about 10 years ago and with no predators and an abundant food supply their populations have gone through the roof. It would appear that up to this point they have been prospering on crayfish, carp and chubs. Such ‘trash fish’ are competition to the trout and the otter seem to be doing the Rio some good here.
     Unfortunately, this is not the case in the spring-fed lower Red River where the otter have been dining on their favorite food––spawning trout. There was zero spawning activity in the Red last year and this is a big deal because this is the most important spawning ground for big wild trout in the state. Smaller waters like the Red do not hold ‘trash fish’ and trout are much easier for the otter to corner in the more confined water course of this narrow stream. The otter influence here is mostly a winter thing and good populations of smallish brown trout and stocked rainbows will be found in warmer weather.
     The Pecos Drainage amounts to a lot of stream, but there seem to be sufficient fishermen to accommodate all the space, so try and fish there on weekdays. Be sure to hit the Stonefly hatch in early June, because unfortunately, except for that spring fishing, the Pecos will probably not fish well this season unless big rains materialize.
     Another very important river for New Mexico fly fisherman is the Conejos just over the border in Colorado. Large trout eat dry flies here and insect hatches are prolific and predictable. Expect green and brown drakes starting in June and stoneflies around that time as well. Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) and caddis can hatch throughout the summer. Although the river is a tailwater much of the flow is from natural streams and those streams will be very low. The trout here suffer in low-water years unless lots of supplemental water is released into the system from Platero Reservoir. (And that is strictly an irrigation thing as water in the west is not used for the benefit of fish.)
     The free-flowing Chama River has been fishing very well the last couple of years. We do a lot of guiding in this great stream and we were about to write the season off as a big-time bummer! But screwy weather ain’t always a bad thing and an insane rain event there this spring has all of a sudden put a lot of water in the system. Fishing should start there in late May.
     Below El Vado Dam there are some very nice-sized trout and they are going to get even bigger as the water below Coopers El Vado Ranch was declared catch and release. Fish downstream with a cone head Slumpbuster and then fish back up with a Poundmiester nymph. Look for flow releases of under 200 c.f.s. for the best fishing.
     The Abiquiu section of the Chama has had decent fishing the last couple of years. This is primarily an offseason fishery (late fall and spring) and although the bulk of the action is for stocked trout there are some big wild browns as well. They are particular about their hidie holes and the help of a guide will be about the only way the average angler will latch onto one of these special trout.
     A couple of other Northern New Mexico waters that hold up well under such conditions are the tailwaters of the Cimarron and Costilla Creeks. Their respective reservoirs have decent amounts of water so fishing should be OK throughout spring and summer
     Remember to check the weather forecast and New Mexico streamflows on line before you head out the door. And here’s my last tip: Make it a good day by calling it a hike—just bring a fly rod along. If you do well, call it fishing.

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