By Kent Danjanovich
Now from reading my articles for the past 15 years, you have probably picked up that I kind of like to fly fish. So, when I’m not chasing salmon and everything else in Alaska or northern pike and everything else in Canada, you just might find me searching out a good piece of fly water somewhere in the west.
I have a bunch of buddies in southern Utah that share the same kind of passion as I do in the fishing world and discovered the magical waters of the San Juan River some 25-years ago. Since then, they have put together a group every February to again make the trek to one of the very best tailwaters in the country.
Now I could write about this great destination from a lot of different angles, but as you can see, this article falls into our Adventures on a Budget section, which may seem like somewhat of an oddity for such a world-class fishery, but that is another reason why this special place is exactly that – “Special”.
The San Juan River in New Mexico is a tailwater flowing out of Navajo Dam from the bottom of Navajo Reservoir. The reservoir covers about 200 miles in length from just over the border in Colorado below Durango, to about 20 miles outside of Farmington, New Mexico. The conditions make for pretty consistent year-round outflow temperatures, which is why the fishing on the San Juan is quite consistent year-round! Yes, a true tailwater.
When the river was impounded in 1962, the water temperature mixed with the nutrients in the river made the perfect storm that resulted in a bug factory. Trout were stocked and immediately began to thrive. With nonstop food, trout eat constantly and grow big. This quality water section below the dam is low-gradient and easily floatable year-round. Add to that, the beautiful desert canyon scenery and it becomes a very unique fly fishing experience. The state of New Mexico realized this and the first three miles of the tailwater are a part of Navajo State Park and incorporate special catch and release fly only regulations.
Before I get into a sample of a day of fishing, let me fill you in a little bit about what you can expect the cost of your trip to be. Like any adventure, you can “live like a king” or “cut corners where corners can be cut” to save a few bucks. This trip certainly can have a little of both.
Our trip from St. George, Utah covers about 825-miles round trip. We usually travel three or four to a vehicle, so shared gas costs are somewhere in the $30 a piece range right now. On our trip this past February, we had a total of 12 in our party.
We stopped at Costco for the big stuff and at the local grocery store in Farmington for the rest of our food items for breakfasts, lunches and snacks. We then reserved seating at the Fishheads Fly Shop Cafe for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.
As far as accommodations, we rented a four-bedroom house that sleeps five and four motel rooms with two beds in each. The price on the house was $275 and the rooms, $104 each, so about $60 apiece per day (three nights). The house has a full kitchen, allowing us room for our groceries and cooking area, TV and plenty of room for everyone to get together to watch a ballgame at night.
Now to finish on the expenses part of the story, it really all depends on what you want to do and what type of experience you want to have during your stay. If you are a first timer, I would definitely recommend doing a guided float trip to get a little more acclimated with the river and its secrets. The cost of a half-day guided drift boat trip is $310 for two fishermen, which includes your 4-hour float trip, flies, rods and reels included. A full 8-hour float trip includes lunch, flies, rods and reels (if needed) for $425 for two fishermen. The guides on the San Juan are excellent and it is definitely a river that can kick your butt, so a little expertise will go a long way for you in the future, believe me! (P.S – and don’t forget a good tip at the end of the day when you have a boat load of photos of big fish on your phone to take home to show your buddies.)
Lastly, fishing licenses can be bought online or at the fly shop, with a 5-day license and stamps costing $34 for non-residents. Throw a few flies and strike indicators on top of that for your ‘on your own’ time on the river and you are about set.
Ok, now on to the fishing side of the story. February 2019 was a little fickle all across the country. Out west, our cold and snowy weather seemed to wait a little longer than usually to finally show up and wouldn’t you know it, our four-day, three-night trip found us driving from sunny (cough! snow covered St. George!) through miserable conditions all the way to Farmington. The temps greeted us at about 35 F, dipping to 22 F that first night.
Three new inches of snow made for a winter wonderland the next morning as we made our way to the put-in near Texas Hole below Navajo Dam. Eight of us would be floating on this morning and my partner would be Patrick Gass, a newbie to the San Juan, but an old acquaintance of mine from St. George. We quickly put our 5wts together, equipped with floating line and our guide, David, soon had us rigged with strike indicators and nymphing setups.
It didn’t take long for both of us to hook into our first fish, Patrick’s a beautiful 15-inch rainbow and mine a sleek San Juan brown trout. Only a few hearty soles could be seen wading into the waters around Texas Hole as the clock ticked past 8am, but I’m sure by nine, it was surrounded. Fish could be seen surfacing here and there as we crossed our fingers that the weather would hold as long as possible.
We slowly started working our way downstream, leapfrogging the other boats as we each worked some of the best sections of the river. Although we stayed with our nymph rigs throughout the day, other guides tried a variety of options, from streamers to leaches to jigs and even a few with dries.
After we broke for lunch, the wind started to pick up and the snow returned, making for a little tougher go in the afternoon. We still were able to land quite a few fish, but that chilly, wet wind made for some cold fingers and tough drifts. Mending your line was also trying at times, with the lower than normal flows on the river (only 280 cfs) and winds blowing upriver as well. But you know what, by the time we got back to the house at 4:30pm and had a chance to hit the shower and change cloths before dinner, the only things I could remember were all of the great fish we caught and the good company that we enjoyed on the day – and did I mention the great prime rib dinner wasn’t bad either!
Day 2 found myself and fellow Sportsman’s News Pro-Staffer, Rick Rosenberg, loading into our drift boat with our old pal, Bubba, longtime guide on the San Juan and the surrounding area. With the temps still cold and the wind expected to blow in the 20+ range, our outlook wasn’t too good. Bubba decided that it was going to be a green maribou jig day and rigged both of us up for a little straight-lining, with no indicators waving on the whitecaps (well not quite). This technique would have use using a variance of quick strips, then pausing to let the jig drop to the bottom. This hopefully would result in the fish pinning the jig against the sandy bottom, resulting in resistance leading to a solid hookset.
With the wind expected to really start howling by mid-day, we decided to stay in the upper section of the river in sight of Texas Hole most of the morning. But by eleven, although cold, the wind hadn’t gotten any worse, so after we took a little break for lunch and a hot cup of soup, we headed down stream to brave the elements.
By 1:30pm, we had made it about three-quarters of the way through our drift and the lower section had started to slow down for us, so Bubba made the call to blow through the rest of the drift and go back to the top and finish out the day there. And what a good call it was.
We again launched the drift boat and floated over to the other side of the river. After Rick and I each hooked into a couple of good fish, Bubba re-positioned us back across on the opposite side of the river and told me to cast slightly upriver on an angle. After two quick strips, my fly line went taunt and I set the hook. As soon as I felt the resistance, I turn to Rick and Bubba and said, “This feels a little heavier than the rest”.
Bubba grabbed the net and watched in earnest. With the water a little colored from the turning over of the reservoir, it took a few minutes for us to get our first glimpse of my prize – a gorgeous, hanging bellied 22 ½ inch San Juan River rainbow. Bubba eased the net under her and with a grin from ear to ear and gave me the biggest high-five of my life. I had finally experienced for my self the excitement of hooking into a true San Juan River monster. Wow!
Well, there you have it. A tall tailed fishing story about a world-class fishery that a fisherman from any walk of life can enjoy, really just about any time of the year. The San Juan River is a cool place and can be a very affordable adventure so do yourself a favor and consider making the trek out west to one of the prettiest wild places you will ever see. And oh – the fishin’ isn’t too bad either.
Fishheads San Juan River Lodge
Land of Enchantment Guides