PBD Fish Reports

Fishing Magazine

     of the United States

Online Magazine about fishing and fishing destinations throughout the USA

Floating the San Juan

​While wandering the braids above Texas Hole is a great experience, it is not the only way to explore the outstanding fishing available below Navajo Dam.  A day long float offers a completely different take on this river.

The float starts at Texas Hole. Drift boats put in and guides row a short distance upstream to where the rapids enter Texas Hole. At that point, guides set clients up with a deep running two nymph rig and float slowly down with the current to the put-in area. Most days you will pick up a fish on this short drift. Your guide will then row back up and repeat the float. This may be done several times. And every guide does this so at 9am it can be a bit crowded with drift boats lining up one after another. Many rainbows to 18 inches or more are caught every day by this procession. Once the guide judges that the clients have had enough, they move on downstream.

The run from Texas Hole to the first riffle can be rather boring and slow, that is, unless there is a hatch. A BWO hatch will bring hundreds of trout boiling to the surface.  You will not know which fish to aim for, there are so many. Usually, a 20 or 22 parachute Adams will work well but these trout can be extremely picky at times. It may be the fly or it may be the presentation but do not be surprised if trout after trout rises to your fly, only to turn away at the last moment. Or nose your fly and look at you as if to say: “you expect me to take this obvious fake?” These trout have seen everything.

The best refusal I have ever experienced over my many years of fly fishing was along this run. Fishing a 20 parachute Adams, I had caught several respectable rainbows along a slow current as I waded. But there was one just a bit further out that was set up on a break in the complex current. I tried to get the cast just right and failed several times. The cast would be a foot off or the current would drag the fly in the wrong direction. But finally I got it right, the current cooperated and I had a perfect float. No drag. With great anticipation, I watched. Surely this drift would fool my problem trout. Well, it did, in a way. The rainbow rose slowly, opened its mouth, and engulfed in my fly with a mouth full of water. That fly hung in a pool of water in its mouth for what seemed minutes, a slow motion movie. I had him, or so I thought. At the last instant, his head still out of water, he spit out the water and my fly with a great shower of spray. I laughed and laughed. What could be better? The one that got away, forever etched in my mind.

On my most recent float, my guide Aaron from Float 'N Fish, did the usual thing and set up a drift just below Texas Hole with the other guides. One drift and Aaron had had enough. “Let’s move down to more interesting water” he suggested. I readily agreed. Aaron rowed past all that slow water, past the place of my great refusal, and to the first riffle. We both kept a keen eye on the shoreline as we went, but there were no rises evident.

Setting up on the outside of the riffle, we nymphed the slower water next to the fast current. When I got the drift right, I was rewarded with a nice rainbow. After a couple of fish were landed and released, we moved across to the other side of the riffle and fished the slower current there. From then on, we drifted nymphs down with the current, stopping at pockets and runs that Aaron knew held trout.

At one spot, we set up in faster water and Aaron told me to cast to a slower water pocket next to shore. A surging complex current beyond a fast one made getting a good drift difficult. After several tries, I got a hit, and landed a modest rainbow. Suggesting I try again, Aaron said that there should be a big fish in the pocket. There was.  My indicator disappeared. I set the hook and a bolt of lightning shot off upstream. I just caught a glimpse, but it looked like a good fish. Once it felt the resistance of my well bent rod, it decided that downstream may be a better option. It bolted toward the heavy current and a big boulder. Fearing the worst, I put a little side pressure on this rocket.  Fortunately, it turned and went under the boat. As I swept my rod tip around the bow, the trout thought that deep was the way to go to get rid of this annoying pressure corralling him. This not being successful, he bolted upstream again. After several similar maneuvers he tired enough to lift him near the surface. Aaron and I gaped at a much larger fish than either of us expected. Having none of us, the trout bolted upstream again. Twice I got him near the boat, only to have him bolt again. Finally I got his head up and Aaron slid the net under him. A fat 20 brown gleamed in the morning sun. Photos and high fives were accomplished in record time and this beauty was returned to its home.

Moving on, we searched for rising fish as we nymphed the currents. Shortly, we started spotting rises in pockets of slower water. These trout we taking tiny midges. It was dry fly time. Working these pockets is often very challenging. Complex currents make a drag free drift difficult. Then there are the highly educated trout. These fish have seen everything a fly fisher can throw at them. They are extremely deft at the refusal. For every fish that took my fly, there were probably three that refused it. Often a trout would seem to take my fly, but when I set the hook, nobody was there. Still, I fooled more than enough to keep me happy.

We worked down two long riffle and run systems, exploring pockets of rising trout along the way. Then the stream opened into a large flat. Usually, this flat was full of rising fish, but not today. Below the flat is a riffle that often produces. Again, not today.

This riffle leads into a long run called Baetis Bend. The trout were rising but the word was out and a number of fishers were wading the area, having walked in from the Muñoz access site. Not wishing to get in people’s way and expecting more rising trout further on, Aaron moved through the area fairly quickly.

Around the bend, we found a couple of risers but we could not fool them. That was it for rising trout. Moving along through unproductive slow water, past ET Rock, we approached the last major riffle on the float. Aaron set up on a pocket in the middle of the fast water. “There should be a big fish in there” Aaron said as he switched my rod back to nymphs. We worked and worked, adding weight to the line and changing flies. Finally, I had a hit. Not what we hoped for. A 12 inch rainbow came to net.

Moving on Aaron told me this last section was not very productive as last summer a big storm deposited tons of sand in the river. We floated over sand flats a foot deep that where vibrant habitat the year before. The State has plans to do a stream restoration project here and it sure needs it. We had caught the last fish of the trip at that last riffle and took out at Crusher Hole.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable float. A big brown and lots of nice size rainbows on dries punctuated with beautiful sandstone bluffs and song birds singing in the shoreline willows.

San Juan River

Fishing Report on the Fascinating
Side Channels and Float on the San Juan River in New Mexico

Paul B Downing, March 2015

The San Juan River below the Navajo Dam in New Mexico has a well deserved reputation for producing lots of trout. Many fly fishers ply the main channel in a drift boat. Others walk wade the edge of the river. Recently, wading opportunities have been expanded significantly. The State biologists have completed a stream restoration project that allows a fly fisher to walk among pods of feeding fish.​

Wading the San Juan

To the right of the main current,scattered down the river from the dam, are a complex of shallow channels through islands. Runs are seldom more than 2 feet deep. Fishing these shallows is like fishing the challenging spring creeks in Montana. Almost every day of year there will be midge hatches most of the day and bluewinged olive hatches many afternoons.  Let's start with one of the most challenging sections on the San Juan. 

Kiddie Pool.

Walk to the upper end of the Texas Hole parking lot over a small earth burm and turn left down a dry wash. You will emerge on the river at Kiddie Pool. Fish from 10 to 16 inches will be rising to invisible midge emergers. Scattered among them is a smattering of trout over 20 inches.Sounds like fly fishing heaven. However, these are highly educated and wary trout that are often very difficult to catch. 


After several days of humiliation at the hands of these trout, one day I tied on a #26 black midge dry with a gray midge emerger a foot behind it. When I got the drift right I caught fish. If I had the slightest drag, the fish would come up but refuse my fly at the last instant. Often they would bump it with their nose as if to say "get that fake out of here!" Still, I caught enough fish that morning to make me really happy, so after lunch I headed off to try other spots. 


The next morning fishing the same flies at the same location with the same hatch, I didn't catch a fish. Kiddie Pool fish are very frustrating.  


On another trip I used a black woolly bugger with a #16 flash pheasant tail behind it. Casting to the slower water to the right, I stripped my flies slowly, hooking fish after fish. Once more I thought I had finally found the secret to Kiddie Pool. That worked for two days then it quit. You just never know with Kiddie Pool and that is part of what makes it great fun. 


Upstream of Kiddie Pool as well as to the left toward the main channel are numerous small channels among little islands. The renovations continue upstream for a mile or more, creating a multitude of little holes for the fish to live it.This is where the State's renovation has paid huge dividends.  Riffles empty into shallow pools only two to four feet deep. Each contains several good fish. In some, the trout are visible. In others, the trout seem to come from nowhere when they hit the fly. Like Kiddie Pool, these fish are well educated. 


Catching these fish requires a different technique. First, get rid of the strike indicator. These fish see it and clam up. Next use the lightest weight you can get away with. Walk the flats keeping your eye out for feeding fish. They will be in one spot and will move only a foot or two to take food. Once you spot a feeding fish, make a short upstream cast so that the flies will sink to the fish's level by the time they reach it. Timing is essential. The flies must reach the trout at its feeding level, not above or below it. 


You have no strike indicator, so forget your line and watch the fish. Notice how it feeds. It will move slightly to the left or right, open its mouth and take a fly. If the fish makes any kind of motion when your flies are in its area, set the hook. Catching one of these careful trout is a real pleasure. 


You can fill an entire day fishing Kiddie Pool and the shallows around it. Some days you will catch a lot of fish, others only a few. In either case it will be great fun. Birds, muskrats, deer and sandstone bluffs will add to your day's pleasure. 


Another fascinating side channel can be found below Texas Hole. Follow the river down to where Three Island Run starts. To the right (left facing downstream) is a side channel. Along this channel you will find long runs of relatively slow water. Occupying these runs are trout that are as hard to catch than those at Kiddie Pool. They are line shy in this shallow water and very selective. They are almost always feeding on emergers. However, when there is an afternoon BWO hatch, you could be in for a treat. A careful long cast and good drift will generally produce. Still plenty of refusals, but that is part of the fun. 


One advantage of this area is that fewer fishers make it back here. There are no trails back to the area. You must wade the edge of the channel. Watch downstream for a feeding trout; often in a foot or so of water. Using two nymphs without an indicator…or a dry and dropper…cast down and across, letting the flies float down to them. The upstream hook set is more difficult but you will get more strikes than if you fish upstream. 


Baetis Bend

Continuing on downstream on Highway 511 from the Texas Hole turnoff, you will go down a little hill. At the bottom is a turn-off to the right which leads to a gas well and another parking lot. A trail leads over a low rise and through the marsh to the river. As you reach the water you are actually on a side channel. Before entering the water, look carefully. There are sometimes trout rising to BWOs, especially against the far bank.

Wade across and down the channel to the main stream. At the intersection there is a big delta. Fish may be feeding just where the shallows drop off into deeper water. Try them with a small pheasant tail and a midge below it. 


Walking up the main river you will quickly reach an underwater bar extending into deeper water. Fish are stacked up in the current off this underwater point. Deep nymphing will sometimes work here. 


Just a little further upstream is another underwater bar that heads at a slight downstream angle toward a big boulder on the far bank. Fish feed all along this bar. You can wade across this bar to the other shore during low water times. In addition to the usual flies, a chamois leach often produces here. 


Upstream from this bar there is a big flat. In the late afternoon you may encounter a BWO hatch here. Usually it is sparse but when it is really on this can be the best hour or two of fishing on the river. Further up (not very far, all this is within a few hundred yards) a small island divides the current. Fish the runs and pools on either side with your nymph rig. 


Above this is the long deep run called Lunker Alley. I find this area very difficult to wade fish successfully. The shoreline willows are tall and restrict your back cast. However, at the top of this run a side channel flows off to the right. The first 100 yards down this channel consists of runs and deep pools. During the middle of the day trout are often feeding on emergers and adult midge. Like their counterparts elsewhere in the river, they can be maddeningly difficult to catch. Work downstream on the right side of this channel to get the best drift.

The flies you use on the San Juan are amazingly small. A big fly is size 20 here. When fishing to rising trout, I start with a 24 parachute Adams and put a 22 or 24 Brook's Sprout behind it. If this does not work, the search is on. Zebra midges and RS2s often work on risers and are my first choice when nymphing. 


You can easily spend a week on the San Juan. If you have not fished here before, I highly recommend a float on your first day. You will be amazed at how much you will learn from your guide. You will have caught some of the best fish of the year.

Fishing the San Juan is a great way to cure a case of fishing withdraw. If you're like me, the cure will have to be administered frequently.