Monday, April 27, 2009

The Old San Juan

While I've mentioned fishing the San Juan river in northwestern New Mexico a couple of times before, I haven't been over there much in recent years. When I first started fishing the river and figuring that fishing out, it was one of my primary destinations and I'd spend ten or more weekends up there every winter. I quickly learned that I preferred to fish winter and early spring when cold temperatures and higher flows, respectively, keep the crowds down. In recent years the spring flows have been low and some of the winter flows really low, down to 250 cfs, rather than a more-normal 500 cfs, so I've stayed off the river. However, the last couple of years have benefited from more normal flows, so the fishery should be in a little better shape.

I can't say that the fishing has exactly palled, but it has changed a bit for me. Ten years ago, if you'd have told me that I'd go over a year without spending a weekend on the San Juan I'd have thought you were kidding. Guys that I talked to in the fly shop that "just don't get up there any more" struck me as oddly spoiled- not go spend a weekend catching two pound trout? Now I'm one of those guys. The river is still worth a trip.

The fishery on the San Juan below Navajo Dam is pretty famous. The water flows at a constant 42 degrees F, thanks to the bottom-draw dam and deep reservoir behind it.

The constant water temperature results in year round growth of aquatic insects and the trout that feed on them. Because the water is quite cold, there isn't a great variety of insects (at least from a fly fishers perspective), mostly midges and annelids. However, cloudy days in the colder months will frequently see a blue winged olive hatch, particularly about halfway down the catch and release section, so you can get some dry fly fishing every now and again.

While there is only limited natural reproduction in the river, the New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish stocks fry and the population is quite dense, with the average trout caught running about fifteen inches and over a pound. The upper portion of the river is also primarily a catch and release fishery, with the limit being one fish over twenty inches and the culture strongly against keeping that.

Because of the large numbers of big trout, the river sees incredible pressure. Fishermen from around the country and around the world travel to the San Juan. All those fishermen result in a crowded situation and you have to adjust your concept of personal space a bit and not get offended if someone comes fairly close to you, much closer than you would be happy about if on a more remote river. One way to get away from others is to fish the high spring flows. Once the river gets above 2000 cfs, the number of people fishing it goes down substantially. At 5000 cfs, you can have decent stretches all to yourself and the fish have a lot of current to beat you with. Of course, you also have to wade very carefully and generally stick to edges and backwaters. The wading up there is complicated by a very healthy growth of bug-feeding moss, which renders the cobbles and especially the occasional sandstone stretches quite slippery. Don't walk on the black-colored moss- if you do you'll almost certainly fall and that cold water just about requires a trip back to the truck for dry clothes.

I think that a five-weight is about the lightest rod you should use up there. Some of the really fast, high end rods rated as four-weights would also be fine, but a five or a six is generally better. Because it is a catch and release fishery that sees tremendous pressure, it is imperative to get the fish in quickly, in the best shape possible, and release it with as little harm as you can. If you get a fairly hot fish, there's no way you are going to muscle it on a three or four weight. Of course, the other limitation is you tippet. I try to fish top quality 5x, which lets you put quite a bit of pressure on your gear. With flies smaller than size 20, I have to go to 6x. I'd rather break a few fish off getting them in quickly than leave a wake of doomed trout behind me, so I lose quite a few more flies with 6x. I know of guys who use 7x or finer, but I won't do that up there.

The basic rig is a nine-foot leader, to which you tie a dropper and point. For a 5x leader, I use a surgeon's knot to tie a sixteen inch length of 5x material to the end of the leader. You want the tag end of that added length to be about four inches long, but no more than that. You tie a San Juan Worm up there, and the short length keeps it from tangling too badly. Down on the point end, you tie a small nymph imitation, something size 18 or smaller. A couple of inches above the knot, crimp on a split shot, then, about a foot down the leader from your fly line, attach the strike indicator of your choice. You'll end up changing the shot quite a bit, adding or taking it off, as you want the flies to dead drift in the current just above the bottom. They should hang up every third or fourth drift. If you never hang up, you aren't fishing deep enough and you're missing a lot of fish.

You can do pretty well on the river with a pretty basic fly box. The one fly that I've most consistently caught fish on up there is the Chenille San Juan Worm in a dull orange color. Tied on a #14 nymph hook with no weight, you cover the hook shank with red thread (6/0), then cut a piece of ultra chenille about 1 1/4 inches long, which is tied in at the back of the shank (keep the tie in narrow), the thread spiraled up to a bit behind the eye of the hook, then tied in again. You whip finish under the chenille, then use a match or lighter to melt the ends of the chenille to points. You need a lot of these flies, as the chenille becomes floppy with use and once it starts folding back on itself the fish don't like it much.

For days when they just don't want a chenille worm, you can try TJ's Sparkle Worm, in orange or red.

For smaller stuff, it's pretty hard to beat a foam wing emerger. You want to tie them in chocolate brown, black, and grey and in sizes 18 and 20, perhaps 22. Personally, I think a tail of two or three evenly spaced muskrat guard hairs is important to this pattern, as it helps the fly maintain a natural orientation in the water.

Small thread-body nymphs are also good, try wrapping the thread body with a single layer of clear flashabou on a few and use a single turn of peacock herl or a tiny bit of dubbing for the head. Tie them in 20 and 22.

Last, you also want a few size 8 to 12 black woolly buggers or rabbit hair leaches. Some days they don't want the worms, or the water is a bit off color, and the buggers or leaches do really well.

Still scenic, especially during the months with fewer people:

The latest edition (available in pdf) of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation's journal reports recent problems with the San Juan, which they link to the vast increase in oil and gas drilling since the days I was spending a lot of time on the river.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

a couple of links

First, and continuing with the book theme, from the Tor publishing website: author Jo Walton has a series of essays that are worthwhile on Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, which have won half a dozen Hugo and Nebula Awards and set the bar for space opera. Those essays are capped by an author interview. For a taste of Bujold's writing, check this out at the Baen Free Library.

Next, a new addition to the blog roll- hunting, fishing, thoughts on gear and more, with pictures, from way up north.

Last, in the "demons ordering snowcones" department, I read via SaysUncle the news that a federal circuit court of appeals has handed down a ruling on the subject of whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms applies against state and local governments, a question of some significance after last year's Heller decision from the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concludes that the Second does in fact apply to the states.

Skimming the opinion, it is interesting for a few things. First, it illustrates how the law-review influenced practice of footnotes is getting out of hand in legal opinions. While frequent footnotes may cause an opinion to look more like a law review article, and thus scholarly, they make interrupt the flow of logic and make it harder to read. Any footnote more than a sentence long, or which is other than truly tangential, should be incorporated into the text. Then again, perhaps I'm just a fan of incorporation.

Next, the first section of the opinion is, footnotes aside, a fairly clearly written primer on just what a mess the doctrine of incorporation (of the Bill of Rights as to state governments) is in today's law. I agree with the view that the "privileges and immunities" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment should have prevented this debate. Maybe someday we'll have a Supreme Court that reads the whole of the Constitution into effect. Maybe we're even headed that way.

Which leads to the last point, and that is the slippery slope effect of legal arguments. Once the Supreme Court addressed the Second Amendment and its underpinnings in Heller, something which it had largely avoided, then it opened the door to the right to keep and bear arms being addressed just as other rights enshrined in the Constitution. For example, and from the opinion:
"Heller reveals evidence similar to that on which Duncan relied to conclude that the Due Process Clause incorporated the right to a jury in criminal cases. Heller began with the 1689 English Declaration of Right (which became the English Bill of Rights), just as Duncan did. Compare Heller, 128 S. Ct. at 2798 (noting that the Declaration of Right included the right to bear arms), with Duncan, 391 U.S. at 151 (noting that the Declaration of Right included the right to a jury trial). Thus the right to keep and bear arms shares ancestry with a right already deemed fundamental. Cf. Resweber, 329 U.S. at 463 (plurality opinion) (relying solely on the presence of a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments in the English Bill of Rights for the conclusion that it is incorporated into the Due Process Clause)."

Last, I reprint footnote 18 of the decision whole, as I find it obvious, a nice turn of phrase, refreshing coming from a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, and amazing coming from the Ninth Circuit:
The County and its amici point out that, however universal its earlier support, the right to keep and bear arms has now become controversial. See generally Sanford Levinson, The Embarrassing Second Amendment, 99 Yale L.J. 637 (1989). But we do not measure the protection the Constitution affords a right by the values of our own times. If contemporary desuetude sufficed to read rights out of the Constitution, then there would be little benefit to a written statement of them. Some may disagree with the decision of the Founders to enshrine a given right in the Constitution. If so, then the people can amend the document. But such amendments are not for the courts to ordain."

In the end perhaps the denizens of hell aren't looking for a jacket after all. The court upheld an Alameda County ordinance forbidding possession of firearms or ammunition on county property and thus closing a popular gunshow held on the fairgrounds, concluding "The Ordinance falls on the lawful side of the division, familiar from other areas of substantive due process doctrine, between unconstitutional interference with individual rights and permissible government nonfacilitation of their exercise. Finally, prohibiting firearm possession on municipal property fits within the exception from the Second Amendment for 'sensitive places' that Heller recognized." Prohibition=nonfacilitation and the exceptions will overwhelm the rule by the time Second Amendment jurisprudence settles out.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

recent reading

Quite some time back I posted a request for reading suggestions and got a bunch of good ones. One of those suggestions, from Rebecca K. O'Connor, was for Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files". Butcher has just published another installment of the series and I encourage anyone who's not fantasy-adverse to check them out (that last link has sample chapters). The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a private investigator very much of the Jim Rockford school and the books are nicely plotted detective procedurals with good character development and a good series story arc as you get farther into it.

Another good recent read is Guy de la Valdene's "Red Stag". I'm a big fan of Valdene's "For a Handful of Feathers" and his mention in an interview (about a tarpon film) of "writing a book every ten years to justify [his] existence" and the link below that interview to Amazon led to my ordering the novel, which is silly cheap. The novel is set in Normandy in the 1950s and has shooting, poaching, dogs, guns, romance and all sorts of other good things.

Since the last call for suggestions was so successful (and so long ago), what are you all reading that's good?

Monday, April 13, 2009

In a raft

This last week I headed north to meet a buddy on a river famous for a holiday hatch of caddis flies, one of the most prolific aquatic insects in the Rocky Mountain region. Although too early for the famous hatch, we had a good day on the river.

Headed north, there looks to be a pretty good snowpack on the Sangre de Cristos, though signs of spring are showing up lower down.

I met up with Chris, who'd suggested the trip, and the next morning we joined a guide for a float trip.

Our ride:

I'd never fly fished out of a boat on a river before and found it to be pretty challenging. There wasn't any time to size up a lie or the best drift. Rather, you had to anticipate the water ahead, throw a quick cast and, if it wasn't good, pick up your fly and hit the next spot as it came rushing by. I've never really thought of myself as a deliberate fly fisher, but the fast pace required by float fishing proved otherwise. Being woefully out of practice didn't help my casting or line management.

We started the day nymphing, tying on golden stonefly nymph imitations trailed by small emergers. The first couple of fish proved to be typical of the day- nice brown trout running from twelve to about fifteen inches.

We saw bigger fish. The largest of the day to come to hand turned out to be a seventeen inch rainbow.

At one point in the afternoon, the clouds rolled over and Blue Winged Olives started coming off pretty well. More importantly, the fish started rising to them, so we switched to #18 and #20 dries with emerger flies trailing behind them in the surface film. After only half an hour or so, the sun came back out and the hatch petered off, although we saw rising fish- usually making the head-and-tail rise associated with emergers- for the rest of the day and caught a few fish on dries. A bead head pheasant tail in size 14 worked pretty well and probably would have been a good choice for the point fly all day long. All in all, it was a very good day. Good company, good outfitter, nice fish, and a new experience.

Of course, the next morning dawned cloudy, foggy, drizzly, and generally the sort of weather that Blue Winged Olives prefer to hatch in.

I'm sure the guys who stayed on the river had a great hatch to fish. In the meantime, the road home led through the storm.

Any gain in elevation, snow thickened and my speed dropped, but any moisture is more then welcome.

Nice to be able to steal away for an early season trip.