It's winter and for most
anglers, the rods are tucked safely away in the
closet until the Spring Thaw. Read this article at
your own peril. What follows is a selection of my
favorite Western winter fisheries I find myself
visiting each cold season. Included are some
classics, along with a few piscatorial gems you may
never have read about. Two of the least-known
winter angling hotspots (Culebra Creek and the Rio
PeŇasco) are private and require guide services. Few
anglers have ever even heard of these small but
productive year-round fisheries, and that's a major
part of their appeal. So get out the maps and figure
out a way to visit one of these hallowed haunts of
San Juan River, New
desert canyon walls line this cold, wide river, one of
the premier trout streams in America. The tailwater
is full of heavy trout and focused anglers. It's a
popular winter destination, with an armada of
watercraft and decked-out fly fishers fighting over
three and a half miles of regulated water.
Not to worry, the river is so profound, so
fecund, that all you need is your very own 50-yard
radius and you'll be casting to a day's worth of fish.
In your staked-out territory, you can cast to long
glides, backwater flats, runs, deep pools, channels,
riffles and lots of unremarkable, hard-to-figure
Don't fret, thar's fish down
there. The odds are good you will hook up with an
18-inch-plus trout, maybe longer, but the odds are
lesser, even for seasoned vets, that you will land
San Juan trout are broad-
shouldered and use their strength to take out line
and make your reel scream. Many experts rate this
tailrace as the number one trout hotspot in
America. Combine the austere beauty of the painted
high desert with the consistently prolific population
of big trout and insect activity and this a guaranteed
Location: Northwest New Mexico near
Aztec and Farmington.
Species: Predominantly rainbow and
brown trout. More rainbows in the upper section,
more browns in the lower section. Rainbows and
cutthroats average 13 to 20 inches with many over
20 inches. Expect to catch several in the 2 to 5
pound range. The brown trout population has
increased the last few years, especially in the lower
section of the quality waters and below it. The
browns get big, too, but aren't as plentiful. Ten-
pound browns are caught in the river every now
Equipment: 8 - to
9-foot rod for 4- to 6-weight line. Neoprene chest
waders and felt soles. Wading staff helpful. Anglers
can wade much of the river, especially the upper
part, but crossing can be dangerous due to the
strong flow and dropoffs. Also, the rocks are
covered in moss and very slippery, so wear felt
soles. The river is a constant 42 degrees so
neoprene waders are a must. Winter storms blow in
unexpectedly and fiercely. Bring harsh weather
gear. Notes: The San Juan and Green Rivers are
arguably the top winter trout fisheries in the West. I
recommend hiring a guide if you've never fished the
San Juan before, since the techniques the guides
and locals employ can make all the difference in
catching twenty big trout or talking about the one
fish that got away. The only way to float the river is
in a boat, usually a MacKenzie boat, no motors. No
float tubes. The put-in is usually at the Texas
River is a pretty canyon stream that
empties into the Rio Grande.
river below the ski town of Red River, the stream
cascades frothily through steep-walled chutes,
drops into deep, turquoise pools, bounces through
choppy pocket water and tumbles on its destiny
with the Rio Grande.
The resident fish
tend not to be sizeable, but the stream gets a
couple of runs from migrant trout from its larger
sister. The appeal of the Red River is the solitude,
the wild trout, and the fact that in the dead of
winter, with snow all around on the Sangre de
Cristos, fishing on the Red River can be a
temperate, comfortable endeavor. Dry fly fishing in
winter, I might add.
Location: Red River, New Mexico, in the
northern section of the state.
Species: Brown, cutthroat, rainbow, and
occasionally brook trout.
Equipment: 7 - to 8 -foot rods for 3- to
5-weight line. Hip waders are handy but hiking in
while wearing waders is bound to be
uncomfortable. Anglers might consider hiking in
wearing hiking boots with a lightweight pair of
wading boots and breathable waders packed in a
daypack. If you do hike in waders, be forewarned
they could easily get torn up from rocks and brush.
Notes: For anybody who has
fished for big fish moving up from the Rio Grande
in the fall and spring, then you know this hard-to-
get-to fishery is one of the best secrets in New
Mexico. And despite the crowds around the
hatchery, the fishing is usually productive,
especially in the canyon's stairstep pools below.
Make sure to visit the public sections of the
headwaters as winter turns into spring, and then
again when the snow has melted.
This big river used
to enjoy a reputation in the 1950s and 1960s as
one of the top trout spots in the nation, but the
river's trout population and the numbers of large
fish declined in the 1970s and 1980s. To a large
degree, the river has recovered.
Rio Grande cuts a mighty path on its 70-mile
southward course from Colorado, through the wide
valleys of New Mexico. The Rio Grande is a wide
freestone river with deep pools, wide glides,
boulders, big pocket water, and riffles, inaccessible
except in a few places due to the 600- 1,000-foot
deep canyon. Various springs feed the river.
Pike have become the winter draw on the
river. Look for deep, slow pools, fish rainbow trout
streamers and hold on. Trout lovers can drop a line
for big browns and fat rainbows and a decent
population of cutthroat trout. Cast around rocks,
along current edges, foam eddies, and at the head
and tail of pools.
Location: The Rio Grande runs for miles
north to south out west of Questa and Taos.
Species: Rainbow, brown, cutthroat
trout, an 8 - to 9-foot rod for 5- or 6-weight lines.
Anglers will want an 8- or 9-weight outfit for pike.
Pack a daypack, first aid and some warm clothes.
You won't need to wade so wear hiking boots with
good ankle support. Allow plenty of time to get into
the canyon and start hiking out early. Not for the
faint of heart - some very steep trails.
Notes: Runoff in late May can be heavy,
but the Rio Grande is productive year-round. You're
in for a serious hike along rugged trails to reach
many of the best and out-of-the-way spots. There
are a number of trails leading to the river. Most are
steep, many are unmarked, and many shouldn't be
tried unless you are in good shape. It's a long way
down, and a long way back out. If the water is off-
color and high, fish to the edges and clearer water.
No need to fish when the sun is off the water. Fish
late and leave early. For light hiking, the best
access to the Rio Grande is at the John Dunn Bridge,
west of Arroyo Hondo, at the confluence of the Rio
Hondo and Rio Grande. The river can also be
reached at the confluence of the Red River and the
Rio Grande at the Wild and Scenic River National
Recreation Area. And you can always float the river.
Despite the rumors of its early death,
the Dolores River is still a solid fishery, worth a trip
both for the fishing and the incredible scenery. In
the 1980s, the high-desert tailwater was well on its
way to becoming one of the top trout streams in
Dolores is not dead yet contrary to early obituaries.
The tailwater offers solitary winter angling,
abundant wildlife sightings, and challenging angling
in near-spring-creek conditions. This was once one
of the top tailwater fisheries in the West, but
mismanagement and drought have severely affected
the quality of the trout population.
Nevertheless, the angling experience in such
extreme surroundings is still top-notch.
The Dolores River has twelve miles of fishable
water, all sorts of lies, and finicky fish. Anglers will
need to use long leaders, stalk the trout, and
employ cautious approaches. Don't be fooled by the
freestone nature of the stream. The Dolores fishes
best by downsizing the fly patterns and fishing
under the surface with nymphs.
high canyon walls cast long shadows over longer
pools on this secluded stream. In the winter, few
anglers visit, so you can have entire stretches to
yourself. The river is remote, in the middle of
nowhere-and that's its chief appeal.
Location: Southwestern Colorado below
McPhee Reservoir west of Durango.
Species: Snake River and Colorado River
cutthroat, brown, rainbow trout (browns have a
self-sustaining population). The river is
supplemented with fingerling plantings, and browns
and rainbows now the prevail.
Equipment: 8 - to 9-foot rod for 4- to 6-
weight lines. Neoprene chest waders are preferable
most of the year. Felt-soled wading boots are a
must. Hip waders are useful when the water is low.
Notes: Tailwater below
reservoir; freestone above. This 12-mile tailwater
has long, wide, still glides and pools, plenty of
tricky crosscurrents, some pocket water around
boulders and submerged rocks, lots of slack water,
and some nice runs. The Dolores has a lot of public
access, but anglers must be aware of private
property above and below the reservoir. Anglers will
have no problem accessing the Dolores even in
winter when the gate closes. All trout must be
immediately returned to the water. Stay in Durango
and enjoy the quaint 19th-century atmosphere of
the ski town. It's about a 90-minute drive to the
Dolores and you can fish the Animas through and
below town all year.
Platte River, Colorado
only thing wrong with the South Platte River is that
so many other fly fishers are in on it. This is one
fine river, full of big trout. In the winter, the South
Platte is less crowded (only an hour and a half from
Denver) and if you are inclined to hike, scenic
Cheesman Canyon provides excellent angling to
trout holding in pocket water and big pools.
The South Platte from Deckers and below lies
in a wide open park, subject to cold winter winds.
Finding your own turf is easier than in Cheesman.
Both in the canyon and in the park, the fish are
both hefty and discerning.
anglers will probably not fare as well as seasoned
fishermen. The river has tricky currents and clear
water, and the trout, while not skittish, rise and
refuse patterns with regularity. Any kind of drag,
even on nymphs, will put the trout off. Fish small
midge larva patterns on long leaders for the best
Location: Central Colorado,
southwest of Denver about an hour and a half.
Species: Rainbow and brown
trout (finicky and usually big).
Tackle: 8 - to 9-foot rod for 3- to 5-
weight line (5-weight to combat the park winds).
Neoprene waders, felt-soled boots. Layer for
Notes: This tailwater
runs through canyon and open park. The Platte is
best known for the South Park area, especially its
three-mile stretch below Spinney Mountain
Reservoir, and the 11 miles below Cheesman Dam,
but the entire river has excellent fishing for rainbow
and brown trout, many reaching over 20 inches
long. The main attraction of the South Platte is that
if you intend to travel through Denver, you can
easily make a side trip to the South Platte River. You
might find yourself sharing a pool in the canyon or
fighting a wicked winter wind whipping through the
park, but after all, it's the dead of winter and you
will be fishing to large trout.
Ouachita Mountains provide a pleasant backdrop to
fishing in the pools and riffles of this small, clear
tailwater. In the fall and early winter, the trees and
bushes are alive with reds and oranges, and this is
when the fishing for rainbow and big brown trout is
at its best.
In the lower sections of the
river, the cypress trees belie the fact that this
tailrace is an excellent trout producer. If the skies
are overcast, the trout can be found in the riffles
feeding on the surface. If the sun is shining, the
trout tend to hide in the head and tail of the pools
and off the numerous ledges in the river.
Mountain Fork River has quietly become a
popular trout fishing locale for Oklahomans,
Texans and Arkansans, especially from November
to March. While most anglers fish Spillway Creek, a
diversion of Mountain Fork River, if you want to
catch the big ones, if you want to fish the 100-yard
wide stretches of the river, if you want to catch lots
of trout, then fish downstream of the state park.
Location: Southeastern Oklahoma, north
of Broken Bow 10 miles. The river is three and a half
hours northeast of Dallas, Texas.
Species: Stocked rainbow and brown trout
with some reproduction. In the park, on Spillway
Creek, average sizes run about 9 - 12 inches. In the
lower sections, anglers will catch more browns and
larger average-size fish. A 2-pound fish is not
to 9-foot rod for 4- to 6-weight line.
Notes: This twelve-mile tailwater is
loaded with a diversity of holding water ranging
from pools to runs to wide, lake-like flats, a few
riffles, pocket water with plenty of underwater
cover, and even some undercut banks. When the
water rises, it rises quickly. If you hear the siren,
get out immediately. Be aware of the water levels by
keeping a rock or tree level in sight. The rocks in
the river are slick and the chances of a wader
falling are good. Wear felt-soles, use a wading
staff, take your time, fish with a buddy, and be
Never heard of
it, you say? This tailwater holds four species of
trout, all of them on the hefty side: rainbows,
browns, cutthroats and brookies.
Anglers can catch trout in the 2 to 5 pound range
with a legitimate shot at trout measuring in at 20
inches and over. The Culebra (means which 'snake'
in Spanish) meanders through a scenic, agricultural
valley, with long, clear glides, deep bend pools and
shallow gravel bars.
You won't find
Culebra Creek in any of the fishing guidebooks.
Those who fish it don't generally talk about it,
preferring to keep this little secret a secret. In
places, the river turns and snakes through the
valley, ideal for wide-open casting.
these open glides and bend pools, the fish can see
you so you'll have to stalk and soft-toss casts right
over their feeding lanes. But in other spots, the
riverbanks are brushy and require tight, accurate
casts. And did I mention these big trout are a tad
finicky? A true trophy trout hunter's theme park.
Location: Five miles south of town of San
Luis in southern Colorado. Anglers will want to base
operations out of Taos, just an hour and a half
brook, cutthroat and brown trout-most of them
Equipment: 8- to 9-
foot rod for 4- to 6-weight line. Hip waders are
Notes: Private spring
creek-like tailwater below Sanchez Reservoir. The
Culebra is one of the best angling opportunities in
the southwest for big trout. You must have a guide
to fish the river (although there is a short,
frequently poached public section). The river is not
for beginners since these lunkers are leader-shy,
have plenty of food to eat and the water is invisibly
clear. In the valley, with snow on the surrounding
peaks, the valley temperature is relatively warm.
Contact: Los Rios Anglers in
Taos (505-758-2798), Reel Life in Albuquerque
(505-268-1693) for guide services. Guide trips on
the Culebra begin at 0 for one person, 0 for
two persons. Some guides add in a rod fee.
Rio Penasco, New
How about a
spring creek in the middle of nowhere loaded with
big trout, with very little angling pressure, fishable
all through the winter?
Penasco flows in southern New Mexico, past high
desert sage and juniper through a valley flanked by
low-slung hills. The Rio Penasco teems with
sizeable wild brown and rainbow trout, and is
fishable all year long, with a constant temperature
in the mid-50s.
The river's glassy
surface is tough on beginning anglers, whose days
will be fraught with casting and mending disasters.
The river is deceptively deep, an illusion caused by
the amazing clarity of the water and the thick
watercress swaying in the gentle currents.
But under the cut banks and between the
watercress channels, the Rio Penasco holds big
browns and rainbows, many over five pounds.
Location: Southern New Mexico near
Cloudcroft and Ruidoso.
Species: Rainbow and brown trout.
Equipment: 8- to 9-foot rods for
4- to 6-weight line.
Think small. Small flies, small tippet. This is one of
the premier fisheries in the West. Few anglers know
about it, but many anglers fish it incorrectly. If you
like to fish with big flies, use streamers. The Powell
Ranch stretch does not advertise, but its four or five
miles is fishable, if not exactly prolific. And it only
costs to access. The Bernard Cleve section, the
only public water on the river, has plenty of gravel,
which means the fall spawners end up on this water
come autumn, although it does get awfully low at
Contact: There are
three main sections of the Rio Penasco: the Foley
Ranch, the Mulcock Ranch, and the Bernard Cleve
Ranch, although parts of these (and a few others)
often share the river as a boundary. Both the Foley
and Mulcock sections, about seven miles of water,
charge day fees and require anglers to fish with a
guide. The total cost for each river is 0 a day.
To fish the Foley section, the most pristine section
of this spring creek, anglers should make
reservations through the Reel Life shops in Santa Fe
(505-995-8114), or Albuquerque (505-268-1693).
To fish the Mulcock section, anglers can make
reservations through the Reel Life Flyshops or by
calling Mulcock Ranch directly (505-687-3352 or
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