August 2, 2020
August, arriving hot and sultry like some Tennessee Williams play. Close your eyes and Navajo Dam seems to have been transported back to '47, to the French Quarter, Brando screaming from the street. Stella!! After a brief respite from the sweltering weather of early and mid-July where the temperatures occasionally soared to over 100 degrees and the wind blew like a banshee, unleashed, every afternoon, we welcomed the arrival of the monsoons. Judging by the extended forecast, that season seems to have been short lived. A few evenings of rain, some overcast, cooler days, now apparently gone. Great while it lasted. Looks like we're back to hot for a while longer. Say what you will, gripe all you want—I still love summer, I'll take any day in July or August here, over a dark, cold day in January. All the more reason to wade just a little deeper into the cold, clear waters of the San Juan.
Well, this past week, due to afternoon rains that fell mainly in the watershed of the Animas River, we saw a drop here in the San Juan to around 500 cfs. Now, everybody's got their favorite flow rate to fish this river and I'm just thankful that we don't all have access to the knob that controls such things, lest a few of us find ourselves caught out in the middle of the river from time to time, suddenly over our waders. But for me, being the old, die-hard, dry fly fisherman that I am, I just don't think you can catch this river in any better of its glory and finery than when it's flowing anywhere between 500 to 600 cfs. Case in point, there was an instantaneous change in the number of rising fish on the day the flow went to 500 cfs, versus what you saw at the 700 to 900cfs flow in the weeks previous. Not to mention the number of fish not rising, now willing to eat a big terrestrial in the same areas where they had developed a case of lockjaw, days before. My only hope is that it continues to rain in the mountains for a while longer and the Animas continues to run a little higher; otherwise, we're going to see this river yo-yo right back up before you know it. Get it while you can. More so than anything, most of these so-called "rises" throughout the majority of the day are mainly fish eating emergers, just under the surface. On close inspection, which is easy to do right now because of the low, clear water, you are going to notice a lot more dorsal and caudal fins showing, than noses, these days. The good news is that there is a lot of them doing it, and secondly, most days it's going on for hours on end, or at least until the wind comes up, which thankfully, has been happening around 3:00 rather than at noon, like we saw back in July. So, it's good to see these fish get a little more active and come up off the bottom and look up a bit. Now, it's easy (especially if you like to fish dry flies) to get suckered in to the old habit of immediately rigging up with some 7x tippet and a size 24 midge adult or fore and aft at the first sign of numerous dimples on the water. I happen to know that because that's always my first inclination. My advice is to take a few moments and really study the rises for a while—are you really seeing noses and heads break the surface, or are you just imagining it, because you want it to be so? Do you actually see adult bugs on the water? Most likely, especially in the earlier part of the day, what you're actually seeing are fish feeding on emergers just under the surface, or in the film. On the one hand, it's a wonderful sight to behold when you witness all these dimples on the surface—it means the fish are actively feeding, that means they should be really easy to catch, right? Well, not so fast there, pilgrim. First of all, they're picky, because they can afford to be. The sheer number of natural bugs your imitation has to compete with now becomes both a blessing and a curse. Add in that the water is super clear, the flow is slower, your imitation has to be the correct color and size, your weight, depth, and drift has to be spot on—and now you got yourself a challenge my friend. So, what's a mother to do? Well, there are a few things that can help. If you are nympning, try the following things, (Warning: some of these suggestions can be hazardous to your mental health and may induce the use of bad language in some instances. Consult your doctor before beginning any of these regimens.) Start with the small stuff—try size 24 midge emergers—you might get lucky and get by with that— 26, and if you can handle it without losing your religion, 28s will probably work better. 7x fluorocarbon is gonna work better than 6x, but if you're one of those ham-handed guys that keeps breaking off on 7x, go back to 6x for the sake of the fish and your sanity. Next, use a small indicator—half of one of those palsa stick- on thingies is just about right (I know some die- hard nymph fishermen that use those tiny little dot stick- ons that are no bigger than a pencil point. Use a white, not colored indicator—looks more like a bubble or foam from a foam line, to a picky fish. Move the indicator way down the leader, so the fly is just under the surface. Use very little (size 8 or 9 wt.) or sometimes no weight at all works best. There you go, now have at it. For the dry fly folks, if you're fishing to these fish that are eating emergers, you'll get an occasional fish to eat a well-presented size 24 gray adult midge or a black, or gray, fore and aft from time to time, but you're gonna have to do a lot of casting in between. The only fly I have had any success on with these emerger-eatin' son of a guns has been a Morgan's Midge—the one with the tailing shuck that sits just below the surface. And you gotta use 7x with an across or downstream presentation, there is no deviation allowed if you want to catch fish. Good news is, it works pretty well most of the time. If you get too frustrated with that, you can find some low, faster water and bring up some fish on a terrestrial pattern—a size 14 PMX has been my best fly, followed by a size 12 foam ant as my second choice. Well, that's about all I got to say for now, other than the fishing has been good this past week at this 500 cfs flow. Let's just hope it stays there for a while longer.