Great Destination Streams
San Juan River, New Mexico
by James Marsh
Copyright 2014 James Marsh
March 2014 Issue
James Reid's Shop
How many places do you know of that you can fish 365 days a
year and have an excellent chance to catch large trout? In our
last issue, we featured the South Holston River, a tailwater
located in northeastern Tennessee. This issue features New
Mexico's San Juan River, another tailwater that produces large
The very first time I fished the San Juan River was in a 1976
national, professional B.A.S.S. tournament held on Lake Powell,
Arizona. The second day of that tournament, I drew Gary Klein,
a young angler from California as my partner. After the first day
of fishing, Gary was leading the three day $50,000.00
tournament which he ended up winning. Gary has won many
national bass events since and still fishes the professional bass
tournament circuits. He will be fishing his 30th Bass Master
Classic this year at Lake Guntersville, Alabama. Gary's Website
We ran about a 120 mile, round trip in Gary's Skeeter bass
boat that day, all the way from the lower end of the lake to the
mouth of the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River
that forms lake Powell. Gary was making the long run each day
because the San Juan River had some stain to its water. You
could see the bottom of the lake at greater than thirty foot
depths and although it was much colder than the lake water,
the slightly dingy color of the of the San Juan made it just a little
easier to fool the bass. Of course, I had no idea at the time
that about thirty years later I would be fishing the same river for
trout miles upstream from there.
By the way, Lake Powell is situated much closer to another
great trout stream known as the Lee's Ferry Colorado River
tailwater. Large, wild rainbows can be caught there year-round.
I was aware of that during my week long stay at Lake Powell
back in the seventies, because it is in plain sight from the high
bridge that crosses the Glen Canyon Dam.
The San Juan River begins in the San Juan Mountains of
Colorado. It flows into Navajo Lake in New Mexico where it is
impounded by Navajo Dam. Most of the fishing takes place in
the first eight miles below the dam. It is a consistent producer of
brown and rainbow trout that probably average about 16 to
18 inches with many much larger than that. It is said to average
about 15,000 fish per mile.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish divides the San
Juan River into three sections. The uppermost section is
designated "Special Trout Water" and includes 3.5 miles of
water starting just below the spillway and extending to just
above the Cottonwood Campground. This section is regulated
as "catch and release" only and you are required to use single
barbless hooks. This section is said to hold over 20,000 trout
Below the Special Trout Water section, regular statewide trout
regulations apply. This section is 3.3 miles long and extends
downstream to Gobernador Arroyo.
The third, or lower section of the San Juan, extends
approximately ten miles downstream to the Highway #64 Bridge
at Blanco. Access to this section is limited and flows through
privately owned land.
All three section contain a large number of big brown and
rainbow trout. Below the town of Navajo Dam, the river is joined
by the Animas River and eventually flows into Lake Powell to
become a part of the huge Colorado River system.
The Bureau of Reclamation controls the Navajo Dam including
its discharges. The famous tailwater is located in the high
desert country of Northern New Mexico where the summers are
usually cool. The winter season usually provides a lot of warm,
nice days where the temperature often reaches into the fifties.
There's a wide variety of types of water, however, the fish seem
to concentrate in the deeper holes and runs. There are
channels and braided areas, flats, sloughs, long riffles, deep,
fast runs and about every type of water you can find in a trout
The river has a lot of algae that provides the perfect habitat for
several types of food for the trout. It also provides a fairly slick
bottom to wade. Midges are the mainstay of food for the trout.
They provide a constant source of food. Aquatic worms are
very plentiful. Most local anglers have a fly box with nothing but
midges. Some of the midges are so small they are difficult to
see. There are a few other aquatic insects but they are nothing
to compare with the midges. Midges hatch year-round and
imitations of them are used year-round, not just during the
winter months. The trout tend to be very selective and having
larvae and pupae imitations of the midges that closely resemble
the appearance and behavior of the naturals is usually critical.
Sometimes trout can be taken on the surface on adult imitations
of the midges. Good presentations are also required
You can fish from the banks in some places, and wade or fish
from a drift boat. Wading will usually get you just as many fish
as the drift boat will. I am certain some of the guides would
Angie Fishing San Juan River New Mexico
James Fishing San Juan River New Mexico
Angie pointing out
the coyote below.
James with one of
several large browns
caught the same day
on size 22 midges.
Fishing midge larvae flies in
another San Juan deep run
Anglers lined up on another
San Juan run just below the dam
The San Juan is a great stream to fish from a drift boat or by wading
The San Juan is an incredible fishery. The San Juan River demands the use of very small flies and light tippet. It is not uncommon
for the locals to fish #24-26 flies on 6 and 7X tippet but we have caught about as many trout on the San Juan as anyone using no
smaller than a hook size 22. This river is easy to wade, has a lot of large trout, and is one of our favorite trout streams.