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What it takes to be successful on the water...

The San Juan is a river that presents both challenge and tremendous opportunity to the Fly Fisherman. You can catch fish with many methods and without extensive fly fishing skills, but your overall fly fishing skill and willingness to recognize the current conditions and adapt to them will determine how many fish you catch. During a day various parts of the Quality Water will present different angling opportunities, so what is happening on one part of the river may be different than what is happening upstream or downstream. Dry fly fishing may be great in one location for a while but not successful upstream or downstream. This is the nature of fly fishing, to be successful on a consistent basis we need to fish imitations to trout that mimic the naturals that they are feeding on at the time.  

To be a successful fly fisherman it helps to look at the river from a trout's perspective. Trout need regular access to food, shelter from predators and protection from heavy currents. In rivers trout do not generally have to pursue food as a moderate current will bring the food produced upstream to them. When trout are interested in feeding, they will often move from sheltering lies to feeding stations located in moderate currents, riffles, tailouts, or along current seams. A trout positioned next to a current seam can maintain position relatively easily in slow current but quickly move into faster water to intercept a food item and then return to slower water. Riffles are not always heavily populated with trout, but when there is food available fish move into riffles and hold behind or in front of rocks or in bottom depressions and then move to capture food items. They cannot hold for long in heavy current but will move into faster water to take food items and then retreat to current relieved positions. Protection from predators is important also and comes from their natural camoflage, depth and avoidance of brightly lit areas. While fish are actively feeding you can fish for them at their feeding stations, when they are not actively feeding you will need to fish for them where they seek cover, depth, predator and current relief. The San Juan presents many different water types including riffles, runs, deep runs, pools, slow pools, flats, tailouts, shallow estuaries and some pocket water. At some point in each day most of these areas can be successful, but you will need to adapt your techniques to match the water speed, depth, clarity and season.  

Trout feed on naturals at different depths. When there is a hatch on trout will feed on rising pupal forms as they ascend to the surface to morph into adults. Some of these naturals rise with the help of gas bubbles trapped in their shuck, while others are active swimmers. During hatches, emerger patterns of different types can be successful at several depths, especially if there is an upward movement simulating a rising pupal emerger. Emerging pupal naturals are often at their most vulnerable when they get close to the surface, as they have not yet shed their pupal shuck. Trout feeding on these emergers just below the surface will often create a visible riseform, the dorsal fin or tail may be visible on the surface but the head usually is not. These rises to Midge and mayfly emergers are generally slow, deliberate rise forms as the trout does not need to be in a hurry to get the bug. Rises to Caddis emergers and adults are different - these bugs are mobile and trout often leave fast, spashy rises when pursuing caddis. Once a hatch is over the surface and most of the water column have fewer food opportunities for trout. The water column will still contain drifting naturals such as larva and pupa, but in smaller numbers than during a hatch. Trout will sometimes cruise the water column and just under the surface looking for targets of opportunity between hatches, but you are generally more likely to find them in their sheltering lies, usually next to the bottom, behind a rock or in a depression. During hatches, when fish are feeding on rising pupa, emergers or adults, you can catch a lot of fish in a short period of time by matching the hatch. The San Juan generally has reliable Midge hatches, one during mid morning and the other in the afternoon or evening. Baetis generally hatch in late morning or early afternoon and are more prolific on overcast days.
It is likely that a lot of your fishing time on the river will be when there is not a hatch on, or more typically, you are between hatches. During these periods, you can still catch fish but you will need to fish differently. Try pupal and larva forms of naturals for the area you're fishing dead drifted close to the bottom, as this is where most of the fish will be - especially Bubba. Patterns would include San Juan Worms, small annelids, baetis Nymphs, Scud and Midge pupa patterns. This will often be the case if you fish early in the morning, between the morning and afternoon hatch, or into the evening. 
Nymph Fishing
The most successful fishermen on the San Juan catch the majority of their trout fishing Nymphs below the surface. Sometimes these will be pupal emergers just below the surface, pupa rising to the surface, or drifting larva and pupa. There are many different presentations including upstream, downstream, up and across, down and across, etc. All of these methods will catch trout effectively if they put the right fly at the right depth without any drag. You can cast many different ways, but you need to present the fly at the appropriate depth without drag, and with as tight a line as possible. A fly on a completely taught line will not drift naturally and will rise to the surface once it is downstream of the fishermen - this presentation will not catch fish often when fish are feeding on dead drifting naturals, but may be successful when pupa are rising to the surface to hatch into adults. Ideally, you would have just enough slack between the strike indicator and the fly to allow a natural drift and verymiminal slack from the reel to the strike indicator. This combination requiring some slack at the fly end to prevent drag and fairly tight line up to the indicator is difficult to maintain as you drift through varying currents, but the better you are able to do this over different length casts and different current conditions between you and the indicator the better you will do. No matter how you cast, you need to have enough slack in the line and leader initially to allow the artifical to sink naturally to the correct level, but the less slack that you have, the quicker you can react to a fish strike. If you have too much slack in the line, a fish can often take in a Nymph, sample it, and without you knowing spit the Nymph out without the angler ever being aware that the fish took the fly! Many fishermen do not believe this until they are able to watch it happen - and it does. Once you cast, you will often need to mend the fly line upstream or downstream one or more times to maintain a natural drift. Mending without disturbing the natural drift cannot be done without sufficient slack in the line between you and the indicator. Once the fly has sunk to fishing depth you will need to manipulate the rod and line to maintain the natural drift as long as possible. This can be done by gently lifting or lowering the rod tip, or by taking in line by hand and then carefully feeding it out to extend the drift. It also helps to follow the drift by pointing your rod tip toward the indicator as it moves downstream with the current. At the end of the drift the current will take all the slack out of the line and the fly/flies will begin to rise to the surface. This rise simulates emerging pupa and can induce strikes, so be patient and do not assume that the fishing portion of the presentation is over once the dead drift has stopped for a Nymph pattern.  
The most consistently successfuly Nymph fishermen generally use a strike indicator combined with small amounts of weight about 12"-18" above the fly. If you have the right fly, you will still need to adjust the strike indicator and amount of weight to the water depth and speed that you are fishing. The more weight that you use, the less naturally that the fly will drift. A strike indicator that is too close to the fly will also prevent it from drifting naturally, and one that is too far away from the fly may not provide an indication that a strike has occurred until its too late. Use only as much weight as you need and keep the indicator as close to the fly as you can, typically 1 1/2 times the water depth, without causing drag. The right combination of weight along with the correct position of the strike indicator has an important impact on your success.

Most fly fishermen on the San Juan fish a two fly rig. Begin with a 9' or 7 1/2' 4x or 5x tapered leader attached to the fly line with a loop to loop connection or a nail knot. Tie on a 4x to 7x tippet section of about 18" using a surgeons knot or a blood knot. Tie the first fly to the end of the tippet and attach the weight above the first knot at the end of the leader. The knot will prevent the weight from slipping down to the fly. Tie a second tippet section to the eye of the first hook or the bend of the hook using a clinch knot and then tie the second fly about 12" - 18" from the first fly. Position the Strike Indicator 1 1/2 times the depth of the water from the weight. A 2 fly setup is more difficult to cast without tangling than a 1 fly setup - cast carefully. For the fly line use a floating Double Taper or Weight Forward fly line.  
Dry Fly Fishing
For many Fly Fishermen dry fly fishing is their preference. It is exciting to see a trout rise to your fly and take it as a natural. As with Nymph fishing, you can catch fish with many different types of casts including upstream, downstream, across and up, across and across and down. A drag free drift is critical to success when dry fly fishing - when the fly starts to drag across the water pick it up and cast again.

As with Nymph fishing, when dry fly fishing you may often need to mend your line once or more upstream or downstream depending on currents. Sometimes intentionally moving a dry fly will induce a strike, as mayfly and caddis naturals do move on the surface. When intentionally moving a dry fly while fishing for rising Mayflies be very subtle with the movement, caddis adults allow more movement. When setting the hook while dry fly fishing give the fish a chance to turn its head down before striking. If you strike too soon, it is possible to pull the fly away from the fish.

You do not need to cast far to be an effective dry fly fisherman, line control and drag free floats are usually more important than distance. Some top water fishermen find that fishing a 2 fly rig with a dry fly as the first fly and an emerger as the second is an effective method for catching trout feeding on or just under the surface. The attractor fly functions as a strike indicator when the fish takes the emerger or can be taken on the surface as an adult. 
Streamer Fishing
Skillful streamer fishermen can catch fish on the San Juan, although genenerally not as many fish as a successful Nymph fisherman. Generally you want to cast down and across with a slow, stripping retrieve. After you have cast to an area, take a step or two downstream and repeat the same cast progressively working your way downstream. By using this method you can systematically cover the water and pick up fish. Streamer Fishing can be productive between hatches when the fish have stopped responding to Nymphs. Streamer fishing generally is most successful with a Weight Forward Sink Tip line and a fairly stout, relatively short leader, generally no longer than 6'. The diameter of the leader (lbs test) will effect its ability to handle repeated casting and double hauls. Fluorocarbon is a good leader material for streamer fishing as it sinks better than monofiliment and is less visible to fish. You probably do not need a traditional tapered leader when streamer fishing, you may want to consider a hand made leader of fluorocarbon material. Start with a heavy section nail knotted to your fly line (about 15 lb test) for about 2' and then step down once or twice using smaller leader materials for a total length of about 4' - 6'. If you are fishing large weighted streamers in sizes 2 and 4 you will probably want to use 10 lb test for the final connection, anything less does not stand up well to repetitive casting and you will loose flies unnecessarily.  

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Navajo Dam, NM 87419

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