The Pecos River flows south out of the great basin of the Pecos Wilderness. As is the case with nearly all of the Sangre de Cristo range to the north, the Pecos country has not suffered the ravages of fire, drought and blanket tree-kills that other Rocky Mountain ranges have. The wilderness is about 45 miles from Santa Fe, and trout are plentiful, and fly fishing is consistently good up there. Although one could walk in a few miles from the boundary for the day, getting intimate with the vast Wilderness requires backpack or horseback travel––and tent camping.
The Pecos is a place of grand adventure, and I once made an extended backpacking trip up the Santa Barbara, over the divide and then into the Pecos drainage. My turnaround point was Beatty’s Cabin. The fishing was epic, and using just one fly, I caught so many browns that the fly became more of a bare hook than a fly. The return leg was back over the divide and down the east fork of the Santa Barbara. It’s a high-meadow stream far from civilization. It has some decent-size browns and a few Rio Grande Cuts. That was a weeklong voyage into the outback I’ll never forget––the sound of elk bugling in the meadows and dining on a grouse that I killed with a rock.
Most of the trout are smallish browns, but the Pecos above the falls has “reintroduced” Rio Grande cuts. The upper Mora is good in the meadows and Bear Creek area. Also, there are many smaller streams in the watershed where you can get away from everyone and catch fish with a dry.
More likely, you’re fishing for the day, and you’ll be way downstream of the true high country. The good news is that there are many miles of prime water to fish. The bad news is many people from nearby Santa Fe—where it seems idle time to fish abounds––are aware of this treasure in their backyard. My tip to you––if there are a lot of parked cars in a spot, keep going––you need to be where no cars are parked. Look for faster water that draws less attention from other angles than pools. Often, the riffles hold more feeding fish, too. Hounded trout have learned to refuse the fly in the slower pools, but indiscretions of presentation are less of a problem in fast and broken water.
In recent years, many stream improvements have been done to slow and deepen the river. This has created more holding water for the trout. A dry fly with a beadhead dropper tied on behind is the ticket for most of the stream. In general, the submerged fly should be about 18 inches below, but when you come upon deeper water, take the time to change the setup. You can either lengthen the tippet or simply add a third fly. The third fly should be smaller and about a foot below the second one. And be sure and use a dry fly that will support the two flies. You always want to be using a dry that will float and suspend the nymph(s) below. Be smart and check with the local Santa Fe fly shops to choose just the right fly for that day.
Ivan Valdez at The Reel Life in Santa Fe offers this advice, “The Pecos has a legendary Giant Stonefly hatch in late May to June. The water will be high with runoff (sure to be the case in 2017!). A big key is to fish a dry that floats really well, preferably one made of foam but will support a stonefly nymph. A big mistake I see is anglers trying to ‘match the hatch’ and using a humongous dry fly that will not fit in a trout’s mouth. While it will work on the bigger fish, it will not with the average brown. A lot of people will be discouraged by high water. While it can be tough, in reality, the fish are a lot less spread out and can be located on the edges.”
The spots Ivan talks about can be few and far apart, so be ready to do a lot of hoofing. Sections of the river with a lot of character will be where to look. If you don’t know the territory, study Google Earth or topo maps. As I mention in Instinctive Fly Fishing: A Guide’s Guide to Better Trout Fishing, “in high water—look for the windy sections and then fish the inside of the river bends.”
Less crowded fishing on the Pecos can also be found above Jack’s Creek, and my guide Ron Sedall has caught Rio Grande Cuts in it. Holy Ghost Creek is also a stream of note and has a road beside it. Cow creek runs a few miles to the east of the Pecos drainage and has marginal public fishing. On upstream, at Cow Creek Ranch, there are a lot of stream improvements and there are a number of ponds with big trout. Arrangements to fish there can be made through The Reel Life fly shop.
Downriver of the small town of Pecos, there are several private sections of river owned by Hollywood celebs (being a promiscuous bunch, these properties change hands a lot). Big trout are stocked in these waters and fishing can sometimes be arranged through the fly shops in Santa Fe. Be aware that this is a little too far south for good summer fishing, as the water will get low and warm. Other private waters with lodging are available throughout the drainage.
The public-water angler should bear in mind that the big trout stocked in such waters often swim beyond private property boundaries. Usually, the trout travel downstream, and the hardiest of these stockers—the ones that hold over the winter—gain close to wild status by then. That year in the wild makes them about as robust as wild trout.
For more information go to taosflyshop.com. And don’t miss Taylor’s monthly Fishing Report at localflavormagazine.com.
Story by Taylor Streit