Voices from the River: Going to Disneyland

by Randy Scholfield

There are people you know you can count on for a quick fishing road trip. Every year my old friend Cass and I try to get together somewhere between Denver, where I live, and Albuquerque, where he lives, for a fishing getaway. 

It’s usually thrown together on very short notice. We’ll catch up on family and friends, drink a little whiskey, and spend a day or two on the water. A few weeks ago, after a quick flurry of emails, we decided to make an overnight run to an old standby, the San Juan River tailwaters below Navajo Dam. I hadn’t been there in a few years and was eager to see how it was fishing.

The quality waters section below the dam has had its ups and downs over the years. A decade or so ago, low flows and silt had degraded some stretches and put the fishing into a funk. It was also getting heavy use, and showing the pressure. But a spate of habitat improvement projects since then has helped maintain the San Juan as one of the premier tailwater fisheries in the West.

I’ve heard the San Juan described, with both admiration and mild disdain, as a Disneyland of trout fishing, and yes, it can be a bit crowded and silly. Despite the remote location—the closest interstate is hours away—this has never been a place to get away from the crowds, at least between spring and late fall. Thankfully, the river in January is not as choked with anglers. It’s a great winter escape.

I’ve had some mixed feelings about popular tailwater fisheries and the artificial nature of them. These feelings usually pass very quickly when I hook into a fish. During the winter doldrums, these tailwaters that enjoy consistent flows and temperatures and fish well year-round are a life-line for anglers.

We got in late, and found the key to our motel room at Abe’s taped to the front door. There were a few other cars parked at the motel, but the deserted parking lot was a good sign. Overhead, the New Mexico night sky was spackled with stars.

We got our green chile fix that night, drank a few beers, and got our rods rigged and gear organized.

It can be brutally windy and cold this time of year on the San Juan. We were lucky to catch a bluebird sky day and relatively mild weather.

That morning, we waded into the braids section of the quality waters, which is kind of like entering a trout theme park. I kept expecting someone to put a wristband on me and give me a free drink coupon.

Everywhere you look, there is water and interesting currents and holes to explore, like a saltwater flats. You quickly notice that there are trout everywhere, too. Sight-fishing is a good part of the fun here. The San Juan trout don’t spook easily, but they also are pretty finicky, at least the larger fish. They’re used to seeing lots of anglers, and they’re used to seeing lots of different flies thrown at them. This isn’t their first rodeo.

Often they are swimming right near your feet, or within a short cast. You see anglers nearby bending over, dapping flies in front of them like a bullfighter waving a cape.

I saw a shadow pod of a half-dozen nice-sized trout holding on the edge of a run and made a couple drifts with my nymph rig. They didn’t seem to take any interest. Then one of the trout moved out of position and made a pass at it. OK, I thought. I tried again, adjusting my drift, and he swung around and took it decisively, making a short run and then thrashing heavily in the water as I brought him in.

Like most technical tailwaters, small flies are the ticket on the San Juan. I was using a size 24 red annelid and a green Bunny Leech on point, with enough weight to keep them just off the bottom, and trout were hitting one or the other most of the day.

By noon, we had caught several hefty rainbows and more 10- to 14-inch stockers than we could shake a fly rod at. Stupid fun.

As the day warmed up in early afternoon, they moved more up in the column, feeding on tiny midge emergers just below the surface.

You lose track of time on the river. We just had a one-day window, and it passed quickly, with steady action and always one more stretch to explore around the bend. I noticed the sun sinking farther toward the bluffs in the West, and I had to remind myself at one point to take a break and just take in the stunning high desert scenery.

I sat on a rock and chewed on a piece of papery Vigil’s New Mexico beef jerky, and watched a guide and his client pull in one large trout after another from a beautiful tailout.

Just another day on the San Juan. I looked around. Cass was waving at me across the way that it was time to leave. In every direction, there were riffles and runs and pools and flats brimming with trout.  

Welcome to Disneyland. Works for me.

Randy Scholfield is TU’s director of communications for the Southwest.





said on Friday, February 9th, 2018


I can remember being on an extended business trip to Farmington, NM many years ago (just prior to 9/11 ) and having the good fortune to have a fellow co-worker take me to the Navajo Dam tailwaters.  I am amazed at how similar our stories are except my success rate was (dismally) the opposite of yours. :(

Like you I still remember standing in water knee deep and the large trout literally being close enough you could have almost reached down and patted them on the head.  I still have the red annelid and green leech patterns as well as some very tiny midge patterns in an old fly box from that great trip.  I still marvel at those 30 inch+ trout going for those tiny midges.  

One thing that seems different comparing my trip to yours, was I seem to remember having to quit fishing as a scheduled release from Navajo began and the waters rose rapidly.  

Glad to see Disneyland is still going strong.


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