The other morning I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep; I couldn't get back to sleep because I kept thinking about all these big fish that magically appear after high water, in a couple of secret side channels that I discovered years ago. I've spent days down in that swampy jungle tossing Chernobyl ants, foam hoppers, and even damsel flies, to big trout that ate them with reckless abandon. Normally I don't go out on the mornings when I have to work later in the afternoon, because it makes for a really long day, but for special occasions such as this one, I'll make the rare exception. So, I grabbed up all my stuff and headed down there. Now I'm not a superstitious man, but I do believe there are omens in fly-fishing that we would all benefit from, if we just paid better attention to them, and this particular morning was just one of those times. It all started with the mosquitoes —I mean, I knew they were bad down there, but come on. Then, came the rest. After spending ten minutes wandering around in the muck without seeing a fish, I finally spotted one. My first backcast went right into some willows behind me and my fly snagged right into the tallest one in the bunch. I beat through the muck and the mosquito infested bushes to retrieved it. I should have turned around right then and there and gone home. I didn't; I retrieved my fly, and as I did so, I felt a little wind knot in my tippet. One of those omens told me to change it out, but I didn't listen. Instead, I did what most overanxious fly-fisherman do—I went into that old internal monologue where you tell yourself it'll be okay because it's 5x and all, and everything will just work out fine, when you know all the time, that, that just ain't so. Anyway, when I walked back to where I'd came from, that fish was gone. I spent another ten minutes slogging through the muck, before I saw the next one. I didn't flub the next cast, in fact, it was about perfect and the fish just cruised over and ate that big foam ant like he didn't have a care in the world. When I set the hook, the fly popped off and disappeared with the fish. I pulled my line back and looked at my tippet that had broken right at that wind knot—another omen. A few seconds later my fly popped up from the depths of a big green pool and sat on the surface mocking me. I really should have gone home then, but I didn't. I didn't because I'd fished here on other years, after high water, and there were always big fish in there—so I spent the next hour-and-a- half looking for them. They weren't in there and the weren't in the next channel over that I slogged through, either. All in all, besides hooking a few small fish, the whole morning was pretty much a bust.
I tell this story, because as fly-fishermen, we are all subject to the influence of our preconceived notions about fish behavior and fishing conditions. We are a hard-headed lot that rely on past experiences as our guide, often to our own peril. We assume, sometimes a little too often, that the past is a direct prediction of the future. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially on this river. Just when you think you know all there is to know, just when you think you've got this river all wrapped up in a nice little bow and in your back pocket, it'll hand you a case of humility that can't easily be forgotten. Although there are some generalities you should always use as a guide, don't assume just because things were a certain way in years past, they're gonna be that way for all time. I'm finding this out more and more these past few weeks, when I'm looking for fish, where fish always used to be, only to find them elsewhere in places where I've rarely seen them before. This year, the rules of fish behavior don't seem to apply as much anymore.
That said, you're gonna have to work a little harder to find them for the next little while. You're gonna have to walk and look, and walk and look some more till you find them. Don't worry, they're out there; I just think they've been pushed around by all these changing flows, so a lot of them aren't just where you'd think they should be just yet. You'll find them, and when you do, they'll eat a fly right now without a lot of hesitation. The flows here are right around 500 cfs, and while the water is a bit clearer than it was, it's still not San Juan gin clear. I'm having trouble spotting fish below three feet of depth, so I'm targeting those fish in skinny water or the ones holding higher in the water column, with terrestrial patterns, with pretty good results. It helps when you can find rising fish and there's plenty of those in the afternoons, if you look around a bit. I have found that once they start rising to the midges, they'll totally ignore the terrestrial patterns, but they'll eat midge cluster patterns really well and a lot of them will eat big imitations, like dead chicken patterns. As for the nymphing, these fish seem to have made the transition from the big, junk stuff of high water, back to small bugs, pretty quickly. Leave those size 18 red larva in your box until this winter when the lake turns over again and try them in smaller sizes—more like 24. Standard midge pupa patterns like zebras, mono-midges, and bling midges in size 24 and smaller should be go tos, especially earlier in the day. Think midge emergers, like crystal flash and scintilla midges around 11:00 when you start to see more fish active in the subsurface. You can get by with 5x tippet, especially where fish are holding deeper, but I can't help thinking that you may gain a little advantage if you switched over to 6x. It sure couldn't hurt. Anywhere from Texas Hole and below, throw in a few baetis nymph patterns, like rootbeers, foam-wings, and cdc RS2s. Overall, the river is fishing good right now and as you do your homework and locate where the fish are, it's just going to improve over the next couple of weeks. It's an exciting time to be on the San Juan right now and a lot of these fish are pretty gullible after not seeing a fly for a month-and-a-half, so get out if you can, before they smarten up soon and we're back to 7x tippet and size 28 flies. if you would like to book a guided trip or need more information, give us a call at 505-632-2194.