September 6, 2021
"And worse I may be yet. The worst is not, so long as we can say, 'This is the worst." That line from Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear came to mind just the other day as I reflected back on a recent road trip and now stared at the waters of the San Juan and noted an improvement in the water clarity. Maybe, we have seen the worst. It's an odd sight these days, this river, when you view it from its release just beneath the dam—one side being released from the power plant side, gin clear, the sort of water we are accustomed to seeing here this time of year, the other side, from the spillway, milky, glacier gray, reminiscent of some rivers I've fished in Alaska. It's better than no improvement at all, and I'll take it. At least you can fish the clear side in the upper river, until it inevitably mixes downstream to create a concoction that gives you about two-and-a-half feet of visibility. Overall, one third less calories, and gluten-free, I would call it. Even the mixed stuff is better than what we've had in recent weeks and good enough to fish a dry fly in, if you can find some fish in skinny water. And, there's actually some midges in the afternoon and some fish rising to them. On a trip to Colorado a few days ago, I stopped by a river where I've had some pretty good fishing in years past. The banks were infested with grasshoppers. Unfortunately, the water was high due to ramped up releases from the reservoir in an attempt to put more water into drought-stricken Lake Powell. The water was off color as well, partly from a big slide upstream caused by recent monsoons, the same monsoons that recently caused mudslides that blocked 46 miles of I-70 near Glenwood Canyon in an area left vulnerable from a burn scar from wildfires. The hopper fishing should have been great—it wasn't. I caught four fish in an afternoon and the wading was tough. We're going to have high flows here on the San Juan during November and December as an effort to put more water into Lake Powell, as well. Almost all of the small streams I visited on my trip were too low due to the drought, the tailwaters all running high, trying to put more water into the big reservoirs downstream. Lately, I worry a lot about the trout streams of the West— stream closures due to drought and record high temperatures, wildfires, mudslides, the increased flows on tailwaters—man's attempt to stave off the whims of a pissed-off Mother Nature. And worse I may be yet. I truly hope not.
The flows here are presently at 743 cfs and most likely to hover somewhere in that range for a bit, due to a low and dropping Animas River that needs a helping hand from the San Juan to keep the combined flow downstream between 500 to 1,000 cfs. Warmer temperatures and the low probability of rain in the near future don't appear to offer much in the way of relief for the Animas. Actually, the likelihood of the flows on the Juan going up stand a better chance versus being decreased in the near future, is my best guestimate. Anyway, as you probably guessed from my comments above, the big issue here right now is water clarity. That said, it has improved somewhat if you fished it any over the last few weeks. Up higher, you have a clear line of demarcation between clear and silty. A true, Big Two Hearted River. Downstream, especially where the two mix together at the Texas Hole you've got a blend of both that results in about two-and-a-half feet of visibility. How you fish it totally depends on your location at this point in time. Fish the murk up high and it's gonna be streamers. The clear stuff on the upper river where there is a clear separation—the usual small San Juan nymphs and assorted midge dries and terrestrials. Down lower in the mixed water, annelids, larva, eggs, and streamers, with an occasional chance to fish some dries if you can find some fish holding in skinny water where they can see a bug on top. The conundrum with the release gate on the power plant side of the dam is still the root of the problem with the clarity issue. We are still awaiting repairs that could take several more weeks, before the release can be totally switched back to that side—the side where the "purty" water comes from. From what I understand, the flows from that side can't exceed 500 cfs until after the repairs are made, the difference above that, is being made up from the spillway side—where the "ugly" stuff comes from. At least now, there seems to be less than 100 per cent of the ugly stuff like we had a few weeks ago and the river is fishing noticeably better. Still, it's hard to sit here and not bemoan how great the whole river would be fishing right now if the entire thing was crystal clear like normal, especially while the clock is ticking down on summer. Unfortunately, there's nothing that can be done about it, other than wait. In the meantime, all is not lost. The river is still fishing pretty decent. Other places have their problems too, as I discovered last week as I embarked on my, "Sleep in the dirt/Drink brown whiskey/And stare at the campfire/Tour. At least I don't have to drive all over hell and creation to find that out, now.