Getting Fishy on the San Juan

Rainbows and ruins in the Southwest

Damon Bungard  |  01.01.2016

After working at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake, it was time to hit the road and continue our journey home, but not before getting a little more western stream time. That meant leaving the cool air and altitude of Utah, and heading South – destination: The San Juan River of New Mexico.

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The San Juan is certainly a famous Western river, and having never fished it, it just seemed like the right thing to do. Our journey would bring is South through Utah, clip the Southwest corner of Colorado, and down into New Mexico. Afternoon storms in Utah broke just in time for some sunset rainbows to light our way into the mountains.

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On overnight camp was needed on this leg of the trip, and we did so in Capitol Reef National Park at the Fruita Campground along the Fremont River. We arrived late and left early, but enjoyed the scenic drive through the park as we headed towards Colorado.

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Next stop for the day would be a lunch in Mesa Verde National Park. Located in the Southwest corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde is home to the famous cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloan Native Americans. A tribute statue at the visitors center showcased their climbing prowess, and they must have liked little dogs, because they even had a Tripper petroglyph…

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We toured the scenic Loop Road in the Travato, visiting what sites we could as dogs can only go in certain places with the park, but even from a distance the structures were impressive. During lunch at the Pipe Shrine House, I took some time to find the mystery spiral petroglyph.

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Lunch stop complete, our destination of a campsite on the San Juan was all that remained on the agenda for the day. I planned to meet the boys at the San Juan Fisheads, and find a fishing guide for the next day.

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Lining up a guide didn’t take long, and as the evening sun fell, we were comfortably camped under the trees in Cottonwood Campground. The campground is part of Navajo Lake State Park, and is right on the water making for easy fly fishing. I took advantage and quickly hit the water in the last light of the day while Ash made dinner.

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Corey Elledge was my guide for a day on the San Juan. Even as an experienced fly fisherman, when time is short and the river is finicky (the San Juan is well known as a bit of a unique place), I always recommend getting a guide for at least a half day. You’ll learn about the effective styles of fishing foreign water, what flies are working, and always pick up a trick or two that may help you elsewhere. Guide quality can vary, and when it comes to knowing who is a quality guide and who isn’t, Orvis makes it easy with their Orvis Endorsed Guide program. These guys (and gals) are all pros.

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Corey picked me up at Cottonwood, and we said goodbye to Ash and Tripper and headed for the put-in. Ashley would have a quiet day telecommuting to her job from the riverbank, while I put in a day of work on the water.

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Once on the water, what makes the San Juan so famous was readily apparent. Clear, cold water, and fish EVERYWHERE. Frustratingly everywhere. Not-normal everywhere. It’s one thing not to catch fish when you don’t know they’re there….it’s another when there’s fifty fish looking at you and not eating the fly.

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We had patience though, and I had a Corey in my boat, so before long we had the riddle figured out and were bringing plenty of trout to hand. We caught them on nymphs, and we caught them on dries. Mostly rainbows, with a few browns in the mix. ‘The Juan’ certainly lived up to it’s reputation, and worth a stop if a fly fishing desert oasis is your thing. I’m sure the boys at Fisheads aren’t going anywhere.

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Featured Gear:

Orion 25 Cooler

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The large fridge and freezer in the Travato is great, but unfortunately I can’t bring it on the water with me. That’s where the Orion 25 comes in. Very portable and compact, it functions as a camp seat by the fire, or keeps things cold for days on the water away from the RV, whether in a kayak, SUP or a drift boat. We keep it stored right with the Plano trunks under the folding bed.


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1 Comment

  1. Christi Elledge Posted on 01.05.2016

    So glad you enjoyed your adventure on the San Juan River and you guided trip through Fisheads. I must admit I am Cory’s mom and so proud of the expert guide he has become and his opportunity to work for Fisheads. He and my husband and our other son have been fishing on the river for years. I had never been fly fishing until my husbands company booked guided trips with Fisheads about 5 years ago. It was one of the best experiences of my live!! Having never fished before in my life I was a little worried that I would not only catch any fish but would totally not know what I was doing or be able to figure it out. After a short lesson and a great guide I got the hang of it. Not only did I catch the biggest fish in the boat I caught the most fish!! Something I will not let my husband forget!! I am know a pretty good fly fisher woman and love it!! So if you are a beginner and have never fly fished give it a try but me ready to become addicted!! Thanks again for the great article!!