American Fly Fishing

By Toner Mitchell

In two key respects, fishing the Rio Chama at Abiquiu, New Mexico, is like hunting steelhead. First, your chance of finding what you came for, at least in terms of getting a fish on the line, is often a small one. Second, given how much winter restricts our fishing opportunities, any chance is better than none, and as long as you’re on the water, who really cares? Add the fact that for most northern New Mexican anglers, the storied winter fishing of the San Juan requires a commitment of a couple of days to compensate for the long drive time. Having a day trip option for the Rio Chama—Abiquiu is one hour from Santa Fe and two from Albuquerque—keeps the cabin fever-induced crime rate within manageable limits.
   This approximately 6-mile winter trout fishery is located below Abiquiu Reservoir, which stores the water supply of Albuquerque and beyond, and releases it to satisfy that objective alone. The bulk of water is delivered during spring and summer, which is why the Chama runs the same caliche clay red as the surrounding countryside during those months and is, therefore, unfishable. But beginning in October, releases are scaled back and the water starts to clear. Mayflies and midges become active, as do the Chama’s wild brown trout, and its newly stocked and holdover rainbows.
   The start of this manmade fishing season is nothing short of a bounty. Fish populations, typically heavily augmented by the hatchery truck, spend the first weeks of clearing water pretending it’s Thanksgiving dinner, gobbling small foods and large. Most of this activity takes place in the first mile below the dam. Flies like Pheasant Tails and Zebra Midges are the workhorses, although including a cranefly in the mix—Taylor Streit’s Poundmeister or a simple Muskrat Nymph—can deliver solid results with rogue brown trout.
   Speaking of which, as October becomes November, fish post up on the rare silt-free patches of gravel to do their thing. Obviously, Glo Bugs and egg beads come into play, and Woolly Buggers draw angry strikes from territorial spawners (or just ravenous stockers). For my money, however, targeting spawners lacks the luster of hunting big browns either before or after they’ve dropped their defenses for reproduction. The fact that these fish survive in such a compromised ecosystem is a testament to their toughness; when you fish for them, you want them at their street smart best.
   Ivan Valdez, co-owner of The Reel Life fly shop in Santa Fe, has fished at Abiquiu as long as anyone I know. He looks forward to the waning of the autumn flush of spawning bed anglers, when the brown trout retire to their winter feeding quarters. Stocking near the dam continues on a regular basis, so Valdez fishes higher up in the mornings where the bite is somewhat consistent and he can get in a groove. When, or as the case may be, if, the air warms up, Valdez explores his favorite haunts downstream. “I’m not looking for lots of fish down below,” he says. “I’m looking for one fish, a big one.”
   Valdez fishes holes that strain most fly rodders’ patience, including mine. Most would call these spots frog water, with current barely strong enough to push an indicator. Watching this seasoned Chama veteran work these spots, one understands how much of a weapon patience can be. With a cranefly, scud, or tiny red midge larva in his rig, Valdez plies these dead green waters as though every drift will bring a fish. But again, it’s only one fish he’s after. 
   Knowing how good Abiquiu can be in spite of its marginal habitat, one can’t help but dream of how much better it could be with only the slightest improvements. Thanks to discussions between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and angling groups such as Trout Unlimited, a target has been set for minimum flows (75 cubic feet per second) through periods of brown trout spawning and incubation. Moderating release ramping rates is another tool the Corps can use to improve the trout fishing, either to increase sediment transport or to minimize disturbance to spawning redds. Angling groups also hope to establish better harvest regulations as well as more effective enforcement of those regulations.
   The easiest route to Abiquiu is to take US Route 84/285 north from Santa Fe, cross the Rio Grande at Española, and stay on Highway 84 where it splits from 285. Continue west to the village of Abiquiu and follow signs to Abiquiu Reservoir. Take the turn down the dam face and choose your fishing spot. Fishing down below requires some exploration on County Road 162, just west of Abiquiu, and knowing the public access points. I’d recommend getting a guide to fish with you on the lower water, if only to flatten your learning curve.


The full version of this article is available in print, PDF, and through our free APP.