In Colorado, the Rio Grande is an excellent river to float-fish––it has a lot of the medium-speed, even currents that suits the style of fishing and there are roads paralleling the river and numerous places for put in/take outs. This all-important ease of access is not the case once the Rio enters New Mexico, because except for a short portion above Pilar the river runs through a roadless canyon.
We have 50 miles of exceedingly wild river that requires considerable effort to drift and much of it is simply too rowdy to drift fish. But as the saying goes “if it was easy everybody would be doing it.” It’s highly unlikely that you’ll see another fisherman in this country—let alone one that’s in a boat. So if it’s solitude and a lack of competition that you’re looking for, this is it.
The upper-most section (Ute Mountain run) starts at the Colorado border. Running through a shallow but precipitous canyon here, the Rio is dominated by Ute Mountain just to the east. This worn volcano casts a lonely spell over barren ground that receives little rain. And Bajadas—or “ways down”—between the cliffs are few and far between. To further reduce crowds of anglers, trout numbers through here are not good, and near the state line there may be no trout. (That’s because most of the water traveling through this wasteland has already done duty in the vast agricultural farms of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, and is return irrigation water with marginal oxygen.)
Some 10 miles downriver there is a big gain of spring water from a huge spring and that increases trout numbers. Such springs escalate as the river falls faster and further into the earth until the river is an actual rampage of rapids at “Wild Rivers.”
This upper Rio may be low on trout but it’s full of pike, carp, and solitude. And there could be a world record pike there because people have caught them over 50 inches long! And since it is just about never fished— who knows what lurks in these miles of desolate pools.
Some of this area could be driven to but it is too big to fish or sightsee on foot. Floating it is the way to go and you might see all sorts of critters: bighorns, elk, deer, lions and bears––and lots of hawks and eagles. I’ve read somewhere that it has the highest number of nesting raptors of any river in the U.S. Oh, and there are no ugly cows—but there are ugly rattlesnakes.
There are a couple of hitches to the float: the first being that it is too far to do in a day so you have to bring camping gear. Being forced to spend more time in this magical place is a high class problem, but there is a second snafu: although the put-in is a snap at the Labatos Bridge just in Colorado, there is no easy take out and you have to carry your boat and camp gear over two hundred vertical feet up Lee Trail. If you are planning to do this, look to the excellent book The Rio Grande by Paul W. Bauer. It has nary a word about fishing but is written from a rafter’s point of view with superb maps and info. That book or google earth will also show you where the fast water is; and that is where the trout are, so you would want to pull over before you go through a rapid and fish it while you’re checking it out. (One thing about float is that you don’t get to fish this prime fast water as you go through it.)
The trout are pretty uniform in size here, averaging about 16 inches. Most will be browns. As they are rarely fished for, they will usually eat a streamer and that type of fly is perfect for covering a lot of water quickly. A bead head crystal flash wooly buggers in black or olive is a good choice as that pattern is a good fly for carp in the slower waters between the fast zones. For pike, use an eight-weight fly rod with an 8-inch- long chartreuse streamer tied on with a foot of wire leader.
From Lee Trail to La Junta the Rio is known as “Wild Rivers” and is unfloatable. Period. And exclamation point! (No, don’t even think about it– many have died finding this out.).
At La Junta, the junction where the Red River and the Rio meet, you will want to put-in at the Cebolla Mesa trail by the John Dunn Bridge in Arroyo Hondo. This float is also referred to as “Middle Box” and is the best float-fishing trip on the Rio. Although not severe overall, there is a short, class-three rapid at Horse Thief Shorty, and it is wise to have a proper boatman take you through. It’s also too long to do in a day, so you need a decent sized boat to carry the camp gear. Since such a craft is too big for humans to haul down; boat, whiskey and gear need to be taken down by one of man’s best friends–the horse/mule.
Now getting all this together is a rather complicated affair but this is being done by Taos Fly Shop and they are doing trips in spring and fall. Fishing can be temperamental because the dates need to be locked in; and fishing conditions are always unpredictable on the Rio. (Hey, that’s fishing– the experience of floating wild water is grand either way.) But this hunk of river has great numbers of trout, as it has many wide rifles that are insect rich, and this water is much simpler to fish then the crazy currents of the rest of the canyon.
This seldom visited area is most pleasant because the banks are by and large, flat and grassy, and old ponderosas tower over some excellent campsites. There is one lonely—and very long riffle area––where mountain lions like to hang when the high country is snowbound. Their tracks are often seen in the mud along the bank and kills are sometimes found hidden, just above the river.
This section of the Rio has no low water limitations and can be floated in fall when the Rio is low and prime (no dragging the boat over long shallows but there will be bumping over rocks). Another choice time—although spotty—is April during the caddis hatch. Conditions are temperamental and can range from high water to snowstorm––but when things go right…well, they can go way-right.
Years ago, I was down there in early spring when a big wind was huffing and puffing upstream. Clouds of caddis were sailing by in vast swarms. They skittered and skimmed across the flat water but once the insects hit the choppy riffle they would stumble and bounce across the little waves. All the trout that lived in the long pool below came to feast and were slashing at the insects with such zeal, that a spray formed over the riffle. In this ensuing mist, a mini rainbow was created over the water. You don’t see a “trout splash” like that every day!
As I mentioned, the take-out for the Middle Box float is the John Dunn bridge 10 miles north of Taos. It is the only vehicular access to the river between the Colorado border and the Taos Junction Bridge—which is 15 miles downriver of the Dunn Bridge (or JDB).
The river here is rafted extensively from spring to early summer from here. It is a fabulous and famous float and there are several rafting companies who float “the Box.” They take thousands of sportsmen here and running the “Taos Box” is big business. The length of this float is full of trout but high flows are necessary to make it through—but beware, the fishing absolutely stinks in high water. And even if it did fish when high, you’re way too busy flailing about the raft and yelling “Oh, my God” in the Class 5 rapids to think about making a cast. I’m sure that the right boatman in just the right craft could float fish much of the water during lower water periods. But this is very rarely done and the entire box could safely be called unfished.
The only easy float of the Rio starts at the Taos Junction Bridge and is an agreeable mid-speed current. There is a Class 2 rapid but otherwise it is gentle. There is a put in/take out (Lone Juniper) about 4 miles down that makes for a good half-day drift. Although this water is all paralleled by road it is an entirely different experience to float-fish it, then to wade-fish it. This is good Smallmouth Bass and Pike territory and when in the slower sections it is wise to fish for those species with a separate rod rigged especially for them. The trout will be primarily in the faster water.
Starting at Lone Juniper and taking out at Quartzite is another half-day float. (Starting at Taos Junction Bridge to Quartzite is a full-day float.) But there is a rapid about one mile above Quartzite that is tricky business and comes on just as one has gone over the irrigation dam. (Which is a start in itself.) It seems near impossible to walk a boat by this short Class 2 and 3 rapids…so duffer boatmen beware.
From Pilar (Quartzite) to county line is about a 7-mile float. It is rowdy water and there is one section that is downright scary. It is floated a great deal; both commercially and privately. Hopefully, I have already made the point, but it bears repetition; that floating and float-fishing are two entirely different animals. The water here is just too fast to float-fish effectively because of the Class 3 and 4 rapids– and for most of the distance all hands need to be employed, so someone’s head doesn’t get bashed on a rock. Trying to catch a fish would be a bit silly here (although I have done it with Capt. Nick Streit on the oars). This is a serious commercial rafting piece of river and is 4.5 miles in length. The takeout is at the large BLM facility known as County Line.
Below there is some very nice riffle water but the take outs are tricky, and/or non-existent in a large boat. Fishing from a one-man boat that can be carried would make this float doable. There is a B.L.M. take out where the Embudo joins the Rio. As flash floods often contribute silt from the Embudo, trout fishing deteriorates below there anyhow.
A good day of float fishing does not have to be for miles and miles. Especially if one is alone and is in a craft that can be gotten in and out of easily and then pulled along behind on a rope. You’re likely to see other anglers in all this lower area so remember to be courteous and not too uppity. Try and hug the opposite bank and don’t fish in the other sports water. And try not to act too uppity in your effortless passage. And also remember that those landlubbers and clumsy wading fishers have probably not caught near as many fish as you. Because– I have forgotten to mention this fact– floating allows one’s fly to be seen by massive numbers of fish and almost always produces more fish than wading. So, tell the shore bound commoner—who is stumbling and bumbling his way upriver– that you are having but marginal luck. Be kind, discretion in these matters is always wise.
by Taylor Streit