Fly Fishing on the Rio Grande
by Taylor and Nick Streit, photos: Nick Streit
We have been fortunate to travel to some of the world’s best fly-fishing destinations, from Alaska to Argentina, and people often ask us where our top place to fish is. The answer usually surprises them, because although other rivers and lakes in far-off lands have produced more and bigger trout, the Rio Grande—when it is fishing well—is still our favorite place. The lonely river offers more than just the fishing. A truly wild world lies between its banks, where the angler is surrounded by nature in its rawest form, from the quiet to the chaotic. There are times when the water seems to leap around you; at others, it glides peacefully by. And, let’s not forget, you might just have a have a huge trout or pike attack your fly at any time, too!
The varied character of its surrounding canyon—and fish–helps keep the Rio Grande forever interesting to the fly fisher. Heading downstream from Colorado, there is about fifty miles’ worth of river to explore. In the upper part of the gorge, the river runs through a shallow but precipitous canyon, with ways down few and miles between. Trout numbers through this section are not great, but fish size is good, averaging perhaps two pounds. As these trout are rarely bothered by anglers, they tend to be more aggressive than their downstream cousins. They will take streamers and wet flies in the old-time style of fly-fishing so perfectly captured by John Nichols in his book Dancing on the Stones. Nichols describes “dancing” the flies on or near the surface with a dropper fly-tied to the leader with a blood knot. The result is a fly that extends out a few inches perpendicular to the leader and daps on the surface. This method covers a lot of water–keeping in mind that it’s best to fish close to the bank you are on. (A common mistake that fly fisherman make on big water is trying to fish the far shore. There are just as many fish on your side, and you will get a much better drift there.)
The next section down is the Wild and Scenic, west of Questa. This is where the canyon turns deep, and the river races through a jumble of Volkswagen-sized basalt boulders. Traveling and wading can be dangerous; this is for the fit, motivated and experienced fly fisher only! True guerilla fishing. To quote Taylor’s guidebook Fly Fishing New Mexico, it involves “making your way over, under and around huge slick boulders.” (These obstacles make for an especially invigorating trip when you are hooked to a four-pound wild cutbow trout.) Trails are well marked, and for the average person it takes about 45 minutes to hike out of the 700-foot canyon.
Farther down, below the junction with the Red River at La Junta, the great river settles down a bit. There you will find wide riffles and long pools. Due to mining influences from the Red River, few fish here reach full size, but the size of fish has been going up as the mining slows down. Miners Trail (which refers to a different mine, this one a long defunct gold dredging operation) on the west side of the canyon is easy to find, but other ways down in this section of the river are known only to guides and locals.
Just before narrowing and plunging into the famous Taos Box, the Rio passes under John Dunn Bridge. This bridge is the only place offering vehicle access to the water (it is the put-in for commercial floats). Although angling pressure here is considerable, the fishing stays surprisingly good due to the fine character of the water. The influence of the Rio Hondo is also a benefit, as fish move in and out of that river when it is running full.
The Gorge Bridge spans the top of the canyon just a few miles below the Dunn Bridge. If you are a fisherman standing on that bridge, you might long to be on the water below. (And yes, it is as good as it looks—and teems with trout.) But access into the next ten miles of the box is difficult at best, and although hundreds peer down from the span daily, the trout living in this part of the river die of old age never having seen a fly.
Our next stop on our southbound journey downriver is the point where the Rio Grande gushes out of the Box and accepts the Rio Pueblo from the east. Although the water has been rather abused by the town of Taos, the turbulent little Rio Pueblo boasts good fishing in the spring and fall. From the nearby Taos Junction Bridge, the Rio Grande descends slowly to Pilar. This several-mile stretch of water is flanked by road, and in late fall and early spring intense hatches of Blue-Winged Olive mayflies occur. These are midday hatches that are most prolific in overcast weather, and if those conditions persist, the hatches can run for weeks.
This particular section of river is ideal to float fish. It is also home to pike and smallmouth bass. The pike are active on the shoulders of winter, and the smallmouth bass seem to get hungry on just the warm side of that season. Hot weather is bad news for all game fish—with the exception of carp, a fish that we guides consider a game fish, as they are smart and strong and can be stalked in the wide pools above Pilar. All these species of fish have their own niches. Trout are generally found in the fast water, pike in the dead calm. Smallmouth bass like deeper and slightly faster water; they are often found near on-shore boulders.
Many people first see the Rio Grande where it runs along the highway between Santa Fe and Taos. This stretch, known as the Racecourse, is a rowdy piece of water, but it is fishable. The Racecourse features stocked rainbows, some holdover stockers (rainbows that have survived a couple years and will be 13 to 16 inches long) and wild brown trout. Avoid fishing the Rio Grande below the Embudo River, as silt events have largely smothered aquatic life in that area.
There are many more trout in the Rio Grande this year then we can recall in memory. Our clients have already caught—and released—many trout during the caddis hatch in April. The Rio is currently bouncing back from a fish kill resulting from severe flash floods that occurred on the upper Red River a few years ago. Another extreme rain caused heavy silt loads to enter the Rio Grande, via the Rio Pueblo de Taos. Newly-cut subdivision roads southwest of Taos helped steer massive amounts of dirt into that river, then on into the Rio Grande.
There are a number of other factors that determine the quality of fishing on the Rio Grande. Time of year; time of day ; the weather; the flows; fishing pressure—we fisherman have no end of excuses! The great river rarely hands over good fishing easily, and you should be prepared for some tough days along the way. But with persistence, you will find that the Rio Grande is one of the West’s premiere trout rivers.
When attempting to learn the water, seek professional help and call a local fly shop to get current conditions and stream flows. Last but not least, hiring a guide that has experience on this complicated river will help you to unlock the mighty Rio’s secrets.
The Taos Fly Shop is located at 308 Paseo del Pueblo Sur in Taos. 575.751.1312. www.taosflyshop.com. and firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Note from the Editor:
Localflavor is thrilled to have the father-son team of Taylor and Nick Streit sharing their expertise with us this month. The Taos-based Streits are world-class anglers with a combined total of forty-five years of teaching and guiding under their belts. Taylor has authored several fly fishingbooks, and both he and Nick have traveled to countless rivers worldwide in search of the perfect catch. But (lucky for us) there’s no place they’d rather be than fishing Northern New Mexico’s own Rio Grande.