Old Man Winter is approaching fast in Northern New Mexico, the first snowflakes of the new season have already dotted the towering peaks and broad sage covered valley of the Rio Grande and its wild canyon. These first signs of winter always send a numbing chill through my spine down into my weary fingertips. Thoughts of frigid water, crisp breezes biting through fleece and wild trout waters always come to mind this time of year. Not just wild trout but the wildest and grandest of all rivers in the Southwest, the Rio Grande. This rugged river boasts a winter midge hatch that has become a bit of a mystical legend. The Snowfly Midge hatch is mystical and legendary all right, but can be rewarding for anglers prepared to battle the winter elements.
Snowflies provide the wild trout with an abundant source of protein much needed to live in the wilder waters of the Rio Grande Gorge, even browns and cutbows in the 18 inch plus range come up to feed upon these size 22-24 insects which is best matched using mating midge clusters with a black body and gray hackle in sizes 16 and 18 fished right on the surface or in the film.
Legendary Taos Guide Talyor Streit (505-751-1312) explains that most anglers aren't willing to be patient enough for this major hatch to come off. 'They spend the warmer part of the day on the river and once the air temps drop head home, not having the intestinal fortitude to fight the cold, they miss the best dry fly fishing time of the day.' He theorizes that once the sun has set below the canyon walls the water is at its highest temperature possible. Near the town of Pilar, the winter nights drop the water temperatures in this stretch to nearly subfreezing, and it takes most of the day for the sun to warm up the water.
This doesn't mean anglers shouldn't fish during the warmer part of the day, just don't expect much on midge patterns. Anglers should consider using heavily weighted stonefly patterns, dead drifted through the faster pockets, riffles and seams. Other good patterns for the Pilar area include streamers such as olive wool-head sculpins, muddler minnows, Platte river specials and Streit's famous Poundmeister all in sizes 6-10.
Anglers fishing around the town of Pilar will find water featuring characteristics from slow moving slicks to deep fast riffles to ideallic pocket water. Access to these different waters is easy, just a short 15 minute drive south of Taos on Highway 570. Even though this section receives the most pressure, there is no overcrowding if people are willing to move up or down stream.
Below Pilar, the Rio Grande features lots of boulder field stretches strewn with classic pockets and small foam cover eddies, Jerry With of the Reel Life in Albuquerque(505-268-1693) adds that these stretches paralleling Highway 68 often see less pressure due to the rough pockets and boulder laden banks. Anglers not concerned with manuverabitly often see less people here. With recommends dead drifting #12 Bead Head Prince Nymphs and Bead Head Zug Bugs with lots of weight. He continues 'even though there are stocked rainbows through these fields most flyfishers will turn more browns when bouncing big nymphs along the bottom, using big puffy strike indicators that ride on the surface will help detect the more subtle takes.'
When trout begin taking the snowflies off the surface With goes to his favorite pattern, a #18 Parachute Adams tied with a black post. 'The slightly larger pattern can be seen easier by the rising fish and the black post allows me to see the pattern even better when drifting through the foam eddies and pockets.'
Anglers with a wild streak for an adventure may wish to consider heading north of Taos to fish in fish in the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River Area(WSR) managed by the BLM. This area includes about 15 miles of the Rio Grande plus 4 miles of the Lower Red River, a main tributary to the Rio Grande. Both rivers are home to wild browns and cuttbows commonly reaching 15-16 inches with the occasional 20 inch lunker. The nature of the WSR limits the accessibility due to the steep 800-1000 foot canyon walls. Several well maintained trails dropping off the rim take mentally and physically conditioned anglers down to classic boulder strewn pockets and fast thick riffles. Veteran Gorge guide Ed Adams of Ed's Flyfishing Guide Service (505-586-1512), jokingly but yet seriously reminds anglers 'to have their health and life insurance paid up.'
Adams recommends fishing at the confluence of the Lower Red and Rio Grande, concentrating in the areas where the big springs flow in. The springs keep water temperatures at a more constant level ranging between 50-60 degrees. The browns hanging out in the edges seem more eager to suck down a well presented dry fly. The snowflies are not the only insects hatching at the confluence in the winter months. Blue Winged Olives can be seen hatching well into December and Caddisflies can be seen as early as late January, making for heart pounding dry fly action. Adams matches the BAETIS hatch with #16 traditional BWO to allow for a more buoyant drift, while matching the caddis hatches with #14 brown or olive Elk Hair Caddis.
Jack Wooley of Los Rios Fly Shop (505-758-2798) often heads up the Lower Red River if the Rio Grande presents less than promising conditions. Wooley isn't afraid to exchange his dry flies for weighted nymphs, ' if the trout aren't rising they are holding on the bottom, there is no halfway here and the goal is to catch trout even if it means chunking lots of lead'.
One of Wooley's favorite techniques for the Lower Red is to heavily weight a #8-10 Double Hackle Peacock to get it down in the fast moving water quickly, concentrating at the head and tail of pools and runs. Other patterns Wooley suggests include Bead Head Hare's Ears, BH Prince Nymphs and Bead Head Pheasant Tails in sizes 12-16.
Going light is the key to fishing the Rio Grande, a couple of fly boxes with the aforementioned patterns, 7.5' and 9' leaders with 3 and 4X tippet, water bottle, food, small flash light and warm clothing in case the temperatures plummet. Wading can be treacherous so don't plan on it. Hip waders with lugged soles are fine although chest waders can provide added warmth. Recommended rods should be 8.5 to 9 foot 5-6 weight to help turn over heavy patterns, I use a 4/5 weight Hexagraph that has a work horse backbone that heaves lead without effort.
The Rio Grande isn't for every angler. Those that like mixing adventure with pleasure will find the Gorge a challenge. Anglers interested in a mystical dry flyfishing journey will find the Rio Grande a challenge. Old Man Winter is here but that doesn't mean anglers should give up hopes of dry flyfishing.
Anglers can fly into the Albuquerque Airport where rental cars are available, take I-25 north from to Santa Fe, turn right on Highways 285/84(St. Francis Dr.), continue on 285/84 to Espanola, angle right on Highway 68, follow this into Taos. This is about a 2 and a half hour drive. Getting to the trailheads leading into the WSR is quick, just about 30 minutes north of Taos. Take Highway 522 north of Taos to just 3 miles north of Questa, turn left on Highway 378, signs will lead you to the BLM visitors center where trail maps are available. Accommodations can be found at The Taos Willows Inn B&B(505-758-2558) a great B&B, for good New Mexican food head to Fred's Place. Anglers fishing the Wild and Scenic River Area may want to consider staying at the Lazy Miner Lodge (505-754-6444) in Red River where a good steak can be had at Texas Red's or fine dinning at Brett's, followed by a round and dancing at the local cowboy bar the Mother Lode Saloon.
Doc Thompson first drifted a dry fly in New Mexico during the early 1980ís while attending the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. During his many seasons as a member of the Philmont Staff he began intimately learning the trout streams of Northern New Mexico. Since 1993 he has been hunting, guiding, instructing, writing and photographing the ways of the wild and native trout of New Mexico and the Southwest.
Doc also presents numerous slide shows and seminars each year on flyfishing New Mexico and Southern Colorado for a number of flyshops and clubs throughout the Southwest and Midwest. He has been a featured guest on several outdoor radio shows and is currently co-writing a book with Mark D. Williams titled Flyfishing South-central Colorado.
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