November 25, 2018
Winter light. I post-holed through the the ice, where the slough crossed the trail for the last ten yards, before heading up the hill. At the shallow end where the ice was the thickest, little shards shot across the surface with the sound of breaking china, reminding me of that crazy girlfriend I had at one time, who chucked my finest tableware across the kitchen at me in a fit of rage—something I can smile about now, but wasn't so funny at the time. The most dangerous girl in the world—seems I could never keep her happy for too long. On the way to the top, I paused on the switchback, noticing that the moon was already up—full and bright. With my wading jacket zipped all the way to my chin and covering the three layers below, my body began to warm again from the exertion of the hill and my breath fogged against the cold. Back at the car, I stowed my rod, net, and pack, and turned the heat on full blast, swapping hands against the heater vents, and headed down the valley towards home with the faintest of pink light still in the west, highlighting the darkening outline of Manzanares Mesa. A decent morning on dries, then swinging streamers in the late afternoon to solid takes of San Juan trout, calls to my attention, that being alone, is not the same as being lonely.
Winter light is the scourge of dry fly fishermen on this river. With the combination of using much smaller flies and a sun that sits lower in the sky and thus traveling through more atmosphere, even on the brightest of days, it's often hard to see fish; and more often than not, impossible to see a size 24 or 26 imitation on the water. Throw into the mix a bunch of rising fish and you've got yourself an outstanding recipe for frustration; or worse, a good dose of public humiliation. This past Monday, I encountered just such a scenario. When I rounded the corner that separates the side channel from the main river, I could already see rising fish. Above the little island that sits in the bend, I saw an old dude, that I recognized, had my favorite spot on lock-down. It was only 10:00 with the sun not yet high in the sky, so I found another run below and positioned myself looking back toward the bank where I could see my fly, and occasionally the fish, at least on most drifts. I managed a few good fish out of the spot, until they grew weary of my offerings, so I headed up into the flat that separated me from the island. By now the sun was higher in the sky and looking across the water I could make out a lot of dimples of rising fish, but the reflection off the mesa in the background had turned the surface into a bronze mirror, making my fly virtually invisible. I caught a few, but it was not what you would call epic. Crossing and looking back in the other direction was out of the question—too deep to stand over there. I decided to push on upriver where conditions might be a little more favorable. At the bend, I stopped and chatted with the gentleman that held my coveted spot, and while I was there, fish began to rise on the other side, which is where they always seem to rise—on the other side. Anyway, I started noticing BWOs on the water, big ones, and the fish started to get in to them, with big, splashy, audible, Stevie Wonder kinda rises. I kept talking with one eye on those fish, thinking, "You're not gonna wade all the way over there, are you?" I tried to ignore them, questioning if what I saw even existed at all, but in the back of my mind knowing that the approach had to be on the other side, because of the light—winter light. I started seeing big fish in the faster stuff, and hell, everyone knows that fish rising in fast water is the easy game. Well, next thing you know, I'm right over there. Yep, just went right on over, just like that. By now the sun was a little higher, and looking at the run where all these fish were boiling, the surface looked like a sheet of hammered stainless steel. I couldn't see my fly. I missed a bunch of fish—late hookups that came unbuttoned, watching a natural I thought was my fly and totally missing the take, you name it, it happened. I managed a few after much flogging of the water— it was not pretty. When the hatch petered out, I waded back to the other side under the watchful eye of my nemesis above the island and offered a half-hearted, "Well, that didn't go like I had planned." When you are fishing small dry flies in winter light, you're pissed off at the whole world to begin with, adding public humiliation to your woes, while spending all your mental energy on convincing yourself that you're actually having fun, doesn't help.
Well, other than this wretched winter light, things are actually pretty good on the old San Juan. We've got fish and bugs a'plenty and pretty reasonable weather, if you layer up a bit. Although gone are the days of the big size 10 and 12 dry files, there's still rising fish out there if you're willing to play the game of tiny bugs and 7x tippet. Nymphing is the way to go if you don't have the patience of Job and you're looking to put numbers on the board. The standard San Juan midge patterns in sizes 24 and 26 in darker colors in the upper river, with baetis imitations anywhere below Texas Hole will produce fish. The best hours are between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm, when the water is the warmest and the bugs and fish are more active. The flows are low at 284 cfs and likely to stay in that range throughout the winter and the water clarity is still very good, although we're probably living on borrowed time with that, since next week looks to bring us some much colder temperatures. I only did a few hours of streamer fishing the other evening, but it produced quite well and I am looking forward to some more experimentation in the upcoming days, swinging some heavily weighted meat in the faster, deep riffles and tail-outs. My color choices were brown, grey, and olive, but that was because my streamer box that hasn't been used in some time, left a little to be desired in the way of selection of the cone-heads I like. I do love that aggressive take on the swing. Well, load up the car and pack yourself some leftover turkey sandwiches, my friends, it's worth the trip, especially when you consider we're about 10 ten degrees warmer than anywhere else you can fish right now— you won't be disappointed. If you would like more information or need to book a guide, give us a call at 505-632-2194.