New Mexico's Soaring Eagle Lodge

New Mexico's Soaring Eagle Lodge

Big trout on the San Juan River Tailwater

  • By: Taylor Streit
I first fished the San Juan 30 some years ago, when it was "rumored" to have huge trout. I drove up to the river, looked up and down and not seeing another soul, wet-waded into the 42-degree water. I hooked rainbows as big around as my frozen thigh. I started regularly fishing-and later guiding on-the river. But it wasn't long before the "rumor" had spread to every angler in the Lower 48, and since I'm used to the remote waters of north-central New Mexico and Argentina, the "Juan" no longer suited my taste.So last fall, when I accepted Larry Johnson's invitation to fish at his Soaring Eagle Lodge on the San Juan, I hadn't laid eyes on the river in a decade. I figured that while we'd catch a lot of nice trout, they'd all be a predictable 14 to 18 inches and would fight with the enthusiasm of fish bored with playing 'catch-and-released.' However, I'm happy to report that I was wrong, and the San Juan's is doing great. The fish are spry, healthy and big! Whereas 10 years ago it was uncommon to see a fish over 20 inches, some rainbows now reach 25 and 26 inches. And with the girth that these fish attain that's one hefty trout. The insect life has changed for the better in the last 10 years, too. The best fishing has always been during Blue-Wing Olive and Pale Morning Dun hatches. These bugs are more common now, and in the two days we fished we caught half of our fish on dries. (The early summer caddis hatch is said to be fantastic.) Our first day was spent floating the "quality water," and our guide turned out to be none other then the legendary Curtis Bailey. Although Curtis and I have both been guiding in New Mexico for a long time we had never met. As we did our obligatory revolutions around the San Juan's Texas Hole we gossiped about the people in our small world. Curtis had a lot to tell me about the river, too. He guides the Juan 250 days a year and knows the place as well as anybody. Just as importantly he also knows the other guides' schedules. The San Juan is a mid-day fishery; Curtis said there was no need to rush, and he simply let all the other boats float down ahead of us. Even though the fish weren't particularly hungry that day , drifting over that endless herd of big trout is entertaining just in itself. I wasn't surprised by the spectacle, but my partner Sandra sure was. She's a native of Patagonia, Argentina, and between fishing there and the Rio Grande in New Mexico, she is not new to seeing "the beeeg," as she puts it. And "so many!" she says. Despite the relative inactivity of the trout, we did catch one here and there fishing deep with a couple of tiny nymphs. When we stopped the boat for lunch, Curtis put me in a long glide that funneled out of a slow pool. After I start catching fish and he explained that they are concentrated there because they are feeding on midges drifting down from the slow water. One of the great things about the San Juan is that it is a predictable river. It is a year-round fishery and it is common knowledge what hatches are going to come off at what times. And unlike other tailwaters-and most all other trout streams for that matter-flows are stable. (Although now there is talk about a proposal that would drastically reduce flows to protect an endangered fish that lives downriver). So with all that predictability up his sleeve Curtis had us sitting in some good dryfly water when the BWO hatch finally started. I had a ball casting my dry to some big risers. In fact, I found myself acting just like one of the clients I often complain about, because I wanted to fish for every trout that I saw come up. But Curtis knew from experience which spots would actually produce and hustled me out of the unproductive lies. (This may be a good place to note that the San Juan often can be a very difficult river to fish without a guide-those fish can be very finicky!) The following day we fished the private water at Soaring Eagle. After breakfast we met our guide, Ben Peters, and simply walked to the water. No car ride, boat ride or hike-just take your waders off the porch and fish. Although I'm used to staying on the water in Argentina I don't know of many places in the southern Rockies where you can stay right at the edge of the river-and with not another house, highway or intrusion in sight. We were determined to fish dries that day but the weather was a bit cool, so the BWO hatch didn't come off until mid afternoon. Ben placed us in a shallow, fast riffle (the soaring Eagle property has some great riffles) and we caught some nice rainbows. But the fish we didn't catch were a big part of the fun, too. Sight-fishing was new to Sandra, and when a 18- or 19-inch 'bow would slowly rise up to inspect her dry-and then not take it-her eyes and mouth would get wide with awe. Then she would emit a guttural sound of anguish followed immediately by bursts of laugher from the three of us. Then when a hog would actually eat her dry fly, she'd be so shocked she'd freeze and forget to strike. Although anglers sometimes float through this private section, we did not see another soul on the water all day. The afternoon's fishing ended predictably-and conveniently--around cocktail hour. On the five-minute walk back to the lodge Ben said to me, "You mean when you fish the Rio Grande you have to hike 800 feet out of the canyon at this point?" I replied, "Yes, and then drive for a half hour." Larry Johnson's Soaring Eagle Lodge is really what a fishing lodge ought to be: private water out the door, a complete fly shop and a very professional guiding operation. The cabins are clean and spacious, with separate living rooms and complete kitchens. If you get tired of watching the river-there are eagles to see-you can look at satellite TV. There is also a first-class restaurant at Soaring Eagle. The chef serves up things like salmon and filet mignon, accompanied by breads and desserts baked right on the premises. While Sandra's usual assessment of American restaurant food is "I don't like," at Soaring Eagle she offered a stream of such culinary compliments as "Great!" and "Delicious." As I mentioned earlier, her taste in fly-fishing is sophisticated, too, and as we drove out the gate she said that the fishing we'd had there had been "the best." It was a lot easier to get to than the Rio Grande-and much closer than Argentina. And "so many beeg!" she kept saying. I couldn't argue the point. Contact Soaring Eagle Lodge at 800-866-2719; www.soaringeaglelodge.net.