Mecca revisited — return to the quality waters

A couple of years ago, my friend and fishing buddy Mel and I made a trip to the fabled “Quality Waters” of the San Juan River below the Navajo Dam, in New Mexico. The purpose of this outing was, of course, to fish the legendary tail waters below the dam, for the famous huge trout in that water. Mel and I both got skunked that day, but we saw a lot of fish and we had a great time. Naturally, a return trip was necessary.

I was able to make that return trip last July, this time with another friend, and my fly fishing guru, Ken. My wife, the good woman that she is, conspired with Ken to arrange a guided float and fish trip for my 60th birthday. Based on the advice of “Pops” Miller, we got hooked up with Scott Taylor, owner of a fishing charter company and a guide. This turned out to be excellent advice, because Scott is a real pro, who knows the river very well, and knows where the fish are.

For a couple of weeks before the trip, Ken and I were like two little boys, waiting for Christmas, expecting Daisy Red Ryder BB guns. Finally the day arrived, and we met Scott early that morning, his drift boat hooked up to his truck, loaded our gear and lunches in the truck, and headed for Navajo Dam in New Mexico.

As usual, Ken was his talkative self, plying Scott for information about the upcoming float trip. I just listened, gathering the info as Scott held forth, trying to gain something from his vast experience and wealth of knowledge. As we neared the dam, I again enjoyed the change in terrain, the rocky hills, covered with juniper and pinon. As we descended toward the dam, the massive Navajo Lake appeared, its deep blue waters seeming to stretch almost to the horizon.

Scott drove into the tiny village of Navajo Dam and stopped at the local fly shop, so Ken and I could buy our New Mexico fishing licenses. He questioned the owner about what flies the fish were biting, and then we were off toward the river. As Scott pulled off the highway onto the dirt road, I felt the excitement building. This was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, and now, here we were.

It didn’t take Scott long to get the boat in the water, once we had our turn at the launch. There were several boats waiting, and some were already in the water, fishing. There was a couple with their guide next to us, loading up their gear for the day. They had their dog with them, and the dog didn’t seem too interested in riding in the boat. Every time they would coax him into the boat, he would just jump out again. I wondered later how many times the dog jumped out of the boat during their day on the river.

And then, we were afloat, Scott pulling at the oars, looking for our first spot to “wet our flies.” He made his choice of the best fly selection for the day by watching the river, and by talking to some of the guides in nearby boats. Earlier, Scott had mentioned that if we were really lucky, a recent rain shower may have washed thousands of black ants into the river, and the trout would be feeding on them. Apparently, that is exactly what had happened, and we found ourselves in the right place at the right time. Naturally, Scott had several copies of the ant fly pattern, which he immediately tied on, and we were in business.

The following hours easily qualify as the finest fishing I have experienced in the short time I have been fly fishing, and I have had some great times. Scott showed us how to recognize trout rising to these black ants, and how to cast our imitation ants in just the right spot in front of them. Naturally, I flubbed a few times, often scaring the fish, causing them to submerge. Ken was the first to hook a fish, losing him after a brief fight, but it wasn’t very long before he hooked and landed a nice rainbow.

I finally hooked a good fish and landed him after quite a long struggle. At least, I thought, I won’t get skunked. As the fish were netted, Scott would allow us a brief moment to get a “hero” picture, and then he would carefully release the fish, to swim away, wondering what in the heck had just happened to him. Ken and I began to be able to spot the trout rising on our own, and we were learning to put the little black ant fly in just the right spot, in order to get a take. I didn’t know it at the moment, but I learned more about accurate casting in those few hours, than any other time since my first casting lessons.

Ken’s second fish was a beautiful brownie, which we quickly photographed and released. We both were catching some nice trout, and Scott seemed to put us in just the right position to make the best possible cast. I can’t say enough about Scott Taylor, and his professionalism, his knowledge of the river, and his skill as a teacher. He helped make the day a memorable success.

As exciting as the fishing was, I did occasionally manage to notice my surroundings. The hills and rock formations, contrasted against the deep, blue sky, were both magnificent, and colorful. There is a rock formation, rising right out of the water, that looks, to me, exactly like the head of a turtle. I even took the time to make some pictures of it.

The last fish I hooked was the one I remembered the most, even though I didn’t bring it to the net. We approached a small pool on the edge of the river, with a border of rocks on one side, about an inch or two above the water. Scott spotted a large fish sipping ants at this pool and tried to get Ken in a good location to cast to him. Ken gave it a shot, but he wasn’t in a very good position, and the trout didn’t take the fly. I was in the stern of the boat, and had a little better line on the fish. I managed to put the fly in the right spot, and he took it. The beautiful rainbow put up a gallant fight, and he managed to place himself behind the line of rocks, leaving the barrier between him and us. The boat was now downstream from the pool, and maneuvering into a good position was all but impossible. I figured that the best chance at landing this fish was over the rocks. It almost worked, as I could see his head, peeking over the flat barrier, as I pulled on the line but, alas, he broke off, and my line went limp. It was probably better that way, I thought later, because I could have injured him, dragging him over that rough surface. Still, he was a heck of a nice fish.

The fishing slowed down considerably as we left the catch and release stretch and floated into what the guides refer to as the “kill zone,” the area where fishermen (and women), can legally keep their limit of fish, and many do just that. Scott said that the water temperature also gets warmer downstream, and the trout don’t like that very much. Consequently, the concentration of fish is much less in this section.

What else can I say about a nearly perfect day on the water? The river was beautiful, the fish were rising to the black ants, we had a superb guide/boatman, and we caught fish. Really nice ones. Ken and I each have some great pictures, but the best pictures are still in our memories — memories of a good cast, the tug on the line when the trout would take, and the fly rod bending in a deep arc as the fish ran deep and then surfaced for a spectacular tail walk.

Thanks, Kathy, for an unforgettable birthday present.