10 days at Navajo Lake State Park NM…
Navajo Lake and the San Juan Mountains
It’s a pretty lake
Why we came…
To fly-fish one of America’s best trout waters: the San Juan River.
Navajo Lake State Park is beautiful, but the facilities need some help. The campground was likely laid out back in the 70s when RVs were much smaller. Most of the sites are a tight fit for today’s big rigs. The campground roads, sites, and utilities are in rough shape. The whole place needs renovation to be brought into the 21st century.
We had one of the few full hook-up sites. We barely fit in the somewhat unlevel gravel pad. We could see a sliver of the lake from our front window. We were grateful for the mature pinion and juniper trees around us. They proved to be great wind blockers! There is no wi-fi, but we had a reliable 4G Verizon data signal. We like the convenience to the pretty lake and famous San Juan River below the dam. We also like walking through the closed primitive campground loops. The walks are peaceful, have great views, and we usually spot critters.
Farmington NM, elevation 5,395 feet and population 45,877, 40 miles to the southwest is the closest large town. It has plenty of places to shop, provides most services, and has a variety of restaurants.
Bloomfield NM, elevation 5,456 feet and population 8,112, has most of what we’d need, but we prefer Aztec NM, elevation 5,646 feet and population 6,763. Aztec is a deserted and pretty drive 25 miles west of the campground. It has a decent Safeway grocery store, a pleasant downtown, a selection of restaurants, and will have a brand new laundromat very soon.
Fishing the San Juan River…
The San Juan River below Navajo Dam
People come from all over the country to fly-fish the San Juan River. The stream is regularly featured in magazine articles and TV shows. Google it and you’ll find enough reading to keep you busy for months. The popularity is well deserved!
Below the Navajo Dam, the San Juan River flows clear and cold. In fact, the temperature stays consistently in the 40s all year long. This creates perfect conditions to produce billions of aquatic insects. Most of the insects are very very small, but there are so many of them that the trout feed nearly constantly. The food factory ensures the trout grow fast and live long. Add “catch and release” fishing regulations and you have a special river. The trout, mostly rainbows in the upper section with some browns mixed in lower, average 15-18 inches long with quite a few over 20 inches. There are a few other rivers that produce a similar quantity and quality of trout, but most fly-fishers would rate the San Juan as one of the three best.
I learned how to fly fish on the San Juan River. It’s a tough place to learn! The fish get caught multiple times and get smarter and more leery each time. Technique, tackle, and presentation have to be spot on to fool them. It would be wise for inexperienced fly-fishers or those new to the San Juan to splurge for a fishing guide. This accelerates the fly-fishers learning curve and will lead to a more enjoyable experience. It can be very frustrating seeing those big trout ignoring your fly repeatedly, but it’s also very rewarding when you hook your first one!
I am fortunate to have fished this special river quite a bit. In spite of my experience, I always stop at one or two of the nearby fly shops to get the latest reports and buy a few of the hot flies. In fact, we do this nearly everywhere we fish.
The report this time: water flowing at around 380cfs (cubic feet per second) which is a bit low; decent fishing in the morning and slow in the afternoon; fish feeding on itty bitty size 24-26 flies mostly below the surface. My tiny fly supply was low so I bought about 15 of the flies they recommended. I was armed with up-to-date info and the hot flies and ready to fish.
The river can be a bit crowded in the morning. The most popular time to fish seems to be from roughly 8am to 2pm. In spite of the report of better fishing in the morning, I waited until about 2pm and hoped to have a few fishing holes to myself.
On the first day, I parked at the Texas Hole and headed upstream to fish the Upper Flats. As hoped, I had a few spots to myself and felt alone on the popular river. It was very peaceful. I confirmed the report that it was slow in the afternoon, but I managed to hook two or three trout in each hole before moving on. I slipped into “the zone” where a hundred percent focus makes the rest of the world and negative thoughts fade away. It was a very enjoyable day.
Fighting a San Juan River trout
This little guy is not what the San Juan River is known for! / That one’s better, but smaller than average
They are strong fish!
The next day I felt like poop all morning and wasn’t motivated to fish. Around lunchtime I was a bit better and got into a fishing conversation with my neighbor, Jordan. He was new to fly-fishing and new to the San Juan River. As we talked, I got more motivated to fish and wanted to help Jordan catch some San Juan River trout.
The weather was cloudy with spotty rain showers and winds gusting to 35mph. It wasn’t going to be pleasant but we headed out. I showed Jordan a few spots on the Upper Flats and explained how to fish each hole. I reminded him repeatedly to make sure that his fly drifts naturally with the flow: “If the fly drags, you won’t catch these trout!”.
Eventually, Jordan hooked and landed a trout, an unexpected 15 inch brown! It was rewarding to me to see him succeed and grin ear to ear as he admired his catch. I asked him later on, “did you catch the fly-fishing bug?”. He responded with a twinkle in his eye, “Oh yes!”.
Our campground neighbor, Jordan, fights and lands his first San Juan River trout!
The next few times I fished, I headed out mid morning and explored the water downstream of the Texas Hole. This area gets less fishing pressure, but much of the pressure comes from guides and their clients floating by in drift boats. The guides tend to stick to the main channels so it’s easy to avoid them on the shallow Lower Flats and side channels.
I really enjoyed fishing the side channels. I had them to myself and consistently caught trout. The fish fought well and, unlike the fish above the Texas Hole, they didn’t have scars from previous battles with fly-fishers. They fed like they were unharassed and I had a ball. Each time I caught 10-20 trout in three or four hours of fishing. All but two were average. The exceptions were a rainbow trout that was almost 20 inches long and a brown trout that was 22 inches long and hefty. I estimated the brown trout to be about seven pounds…my biggest yet and the trout of a lifetime for many! It took me about 20 minutes to land the brute on my three pound rated line. I gently revived and admired it and was glad to see it swim, unhurt back to its lair.
Unfortunately, Arleen’s sore back prevented her from fishing except for a few hours one day. Though I missed her, I proved again why the San Juan River is so special!
A colorful 16 inch long rainbow trout / This 19.5 incher barely fit in the net!
A 22 inch long brown trout…my largest brown trout ever! It hit a miniscule size 24 fly fished in thigh deep water. I was using 3 pound test line and could not pull the heavy trout upstream. I estimated the impressive fish to be roughly seven pounds!
Goose, Goose, Duck: A story of two goose families and a duck couple…
This family of Canadian Geese swam towards a little island in the middle of the river. We’ll call them the Gretzkys.
They made it safely to the island. Isn’t the baby Gretzky cute?!?
Uh oh! Another Canadian Goose couple, the McKenzies, approach rapidly. The McKenzies are not happy. They have a nest on the little island and want the Gretzkys to leave their home. The McKenzies advance towards the island with necks held low and angrily squawk the whole time.
All four adult geese are now squawking constantly at each other. Daddy Gretzky faces the McKenzies, makes himself look big, and warns them to stay away from his youngsters. The McKenzies continue to tell the family to vacate their nest.
“You’re too close!” Daddy Gretzky chases the McKenzies away. The splashing and angry squawking are exciting. The mayhem repeats three or four times during the next 30 minutes. Though the fishing was good, the goose show is better!
Hmmm. A duck couple approaches the island. How will the geese react?!?
Surprisingly, the ducks are welcomed on the island. The Gretzky family eventually swims away from the island, still squawking. The McKenzies immediately landed on the island to check their nest, squawking loudly, of course. When the Gretzkys are far enough away, and the nest is confirmed safe, the squawking stopped, and harmony returned.
Just thirty minutes after the goose and duck story ends, I see an osprey circling above me. It spots its lunch, tucks its wings, and dives straight into the water within 50 feet of me! After an impressive splash and a couple shakes of its wings, it clumsily takes off with a good-sized trout wiggling in its talons.
In just an hour I witnessed two incredible wildlife events! We are very fortunate to see stuff like this fairly often.
First of all, Aztec New Mexico has nothing to do with the Mexican Aztec Indians. It was an Anglo explorer that named the place Aztec. However, it was ancestral Pueblo people that actually lived here almost 1,000 years ago and lived here for several generations. They chose a wise spot next to the Animas River but had to haul lumber from many miles away.
We enjoyed wandering in and around the ruins, and tried to imagine living here. The 500 room community was probably a distant suburb of the older Chaco Canyon. It included several kivas, including a super-sized Great Kiva and a three walled kiva. The ruins have survived in good shape. The Great Kiva was reconstructed in the 1930s allowing you to fully immerse yourself and imagine participating in community ceremonies. Like other ancestral communities throughout the southwest, Aztec was mysteriously abandoned in the late 1200s.
If you are in the quaint town of Aztec, take a morning or afternoon to visit the Monument. It will be well worth your time.
The Ancestral Puebloans had communities all over the Four Corners region. / A passage way through multiple rooms / A little of the history of the Aztec Ruins
A diorama of the Ancestral Puebloan community / A diagram depicting the uses of the rooms
The ruins are impressive
One of the other 3 or 4 kivas.
Arleen inside the Great Kiva
We spent 10 days at El Vado Lake State Park south of scenic Chama NM and seven days exploring the Taos NM area. We are currently camped near Red River NM. Our next stops are: South Fork CO, Johnson Village CO, and one of our favorite places…Westcliffe CO. We love summer in the Rockies!
A desert scene painted on a building at Aztec Ruins National Monument