San Juan River - Trout Fishing Profile

Year-round Fishery for Rainbows and Cutthroats in Northwest New Mexico
Excerpted from Trout Fishing Sourcebook by Mark D. Williams

Location: Northwest New Mexico.
Section: Quality Water (six-mile stretch below Navajo Dam).
Maps: USGS quadrangle maps Navajo Dam, Archuleta.
Type of Stream: Freestone tailwater fishery.
Best seasons to fish: Year-round fisher, good any time, including the dead of winter.
Species to be found: Rainbow, cutthroat, brown trout.

Stocking/wild status: There are self-reproducing population of browns, rainbows, and cutthroats, with some stocked rainbows. Rainbows and cutthroats sometimes mate to produce "cutbows."

Average sizes: Rainbows and cutthroats average 13 to 20 inches with many over 20 inches. Expect to catch several in the two to five pound range. Browns get big, too, but aren't as plentiful. Ten-pound browns are pulled from the river every now and again.

Regulations: Strict possession limits and some areas catch-and-release; check with local flyshops for clarification.

Well-known areas and places to fish along the river: No-Kill Area, which as the name implies means that for this quarter mile catch-and-release only; for the first three and a half miles below the dam, fishing is limited to barbless flies and lures only with a strict possession limit. There are different regulations along the river so be sure to check the current rules in place. Other famous and productive areas on the river include the Upper Flats, Lower Flats, Cable Pool, Baetis Bend, Simon Point, and the always crowded Texas Hole.

Recommended Equipment

Fly rods at least eight and a half feet (preferably nine) and a 4-, 5-, or 6-weight line. Spinning rods will be more of a detriment on the San Juan since there are few baitfish and the trout have a surplus of insects, leeches, and worms to eat; trout food best imitated by flyfishing. Wear neoprene waders and felt-sole boots. Wading staff would be helpful. Must have a landing net.

Top fly patterns: Disco Midge (#18-22), San Juan Worms (#12-16), Salmon Egg (#14-18), Midge Cluster (#14-20), Baetis (#16-22), Adams (#16-22), Leeches (#12-16), Midge pupa (#18-24), Chironomid (#18-22), Blue Winged Olive (#18-20), Elk Hair Caddis (#14-18), Griffith's gnat (#16-22), Midge emergers (midge and mayfly), Woolly Buggers (in all sizes), and Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear (#16-20).

Recommended Techniques

Use long, thin leaders (5X to 7X), droppers for nymphs (bigger fly on top, smaller at the end of the 10-12 foot leader), and long drag-free drifts for both dry and nymphs. When there are hatches, the angler must match the hatch and the insect to match is usually small. No need to shoot 50-foot casts on the San Juan River; short casts will put you into plenty of fish. The key to catching trout here is the same for fishing dry or wet: fish drag-free. When fishing wet, try a local technique of attaching Amnesia monofilament line to your flyline, strike indicator to the amnesia, 10-12 foot 5X leader, small splitshot at the end of the leader; then tie a wet fly to this end (preferably the larger of the two flies), add 10 inches of leader and tie on a small fly (a midge larva or similar). Fish this tackle by casting well upstream, S-casting or S-mending the line, and then trying to maintain a drag-free presentation. These fish do not spook easily so don't worry about picking up the line or lining the trout. Best spots to cast include the numerous ledges, over big, submerged rocks, along the fast edges of the current, and in the braided channels, especially in the upper section.

Best access points: Texas Hole, parking lot by the dam.

Quality of Angling

The fish are plentiful and always can be caught on this river in any weather, on any day of the year. This is some of the best water anywhere in the world, but it is also some of the most difficult. The trout have been caught many times and are extremely wary. Any drag will result in a fishless cast. Big trout are taken out regularly. Twenty-inch rainbows and cutthroats barely raise eyebrows. The fish caught on this tailwater fishery in the early years when the river was dammed (1963) were called "rattling rainbows" because of their diet of snails that inhabited the river. The snails could not tolerate the cold water, so instead the trout feast on aquatic worms, leeches, and multiple insect hatches (caddisfly, mayfly, and midge). I highly recommend a day with a guide floating this great water.

Wadeability/floatability: Anglers can wade much of the river, especially the upper part, but crossing can be dangerous due to the strong flow and dropoffs. Also, the rocks are covered in moss are very slippery so wear felt soles. The river is a constant 42 degrees so neoprene waders are a must. Insulated underwear helps protect as well. The only way to float the river is in a boat, usually a MacKenzie boat; no motors. No float tubes. When the river is up (1,500 cfs to 5,000 cfs) the river is usually too swift and deep to be crossed.

Fly Shops, Guides, and Outfitters of Interest

Abe's Motel and Fly Shop, Navajo Dam, 505-632-2194
Born N' Raised on the San Juan Guides, Navajo Dam, 505-632-2194
Duranglers, Navajo Dam: 505-632-5952, and Durango, 303-385-4081
Rizuto's Fly Shop, Navajo Dam, 505-632-3893
Rocky Mountain Anglers, Navajo Dam, 505-632-0445
San Juan Troutfitters, Farmington, 800-848-6889
Sportsman Inn, Navajo Dam, 505-632-3271
High Desert Angler, Santa Fe, 505-988-7688


This area is not blessed with quality digs or many places to eat. This fishery is in the middle of the high desert after all. Abe's Motel and Fly Shop is legendary but not necessarily for the plush rooms. If you want to stay on the river, you can stay at Abe's, the Sportsman's Inn, or San Juan Lodge. Or you can stay in nearby Bloomfield (NM 511 through Cuba on NM 44), Aztec (NM 511 to Aztec on NM 173), Farmington (NM 511 to Farmington on I-64), and Durango (through Aztec on NM 173, north on NM 550). There are motels in all of these towns, and hotels and bed and breakfasts in Farmington and Durango. Camping is available in Navajo State Park around the reservoir above the river.

Aztec Chamber of Commerce: 505-334-9551
Farmington Chamber of Commerce: 505-326-7602
Cortez Chamber of Commerce: 303-565-3414
Navajo Lake State Park: 505-632-2278


Colorado Angling Guide, by Fothergill and Sterling; Flyfishing Northern New Mexico, edited by Craig Martin; Fishing New Mexico by Ti Piper; Flyfishing the San Juan River, by Chuck Rizuto and Roy Stoddard; Three Rivers (out of print).

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press and Mark D. Williams. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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