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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fishing the Red River, New Mexico

Red River  
Location:  northern New Mexico
What you fish for:  rainbow, brown and cutthroat/cuttbow trout
Highlights and Notables:  Canyon stream, a real southwestern gem, pools and pocket water, resident wild trout, and when they get the urge big trout run up the Red from the Rio Grande. 

Picture this: a snowy, March New Mexico day when it’s supposed to be getting warmer and we are six and we are about to descend into a six-hundred foot deep canyon.  Red River.  Three of us are flyfishers.  Doc, McPhail, me. One is a recent convert so we won’t call him yet a flyfisher. He is Crane.  Burly is the only true rookie.  We loves rookies.
Long hike in. We crowd the narrow trail, thin out then crowd again at switchbacks. Burly, at 6’ 2” doesn’t cover as much ground as 6’ 3” Crane.  His legs just don’t look as long.  Maybe Burly’s one of those ‘torsos-longer-than-they-should-be’ kinda guys.  Our descent into this increasingly-white wonderland/underworld is tentative, like going down the stairs of a friend’s dark basement to see if any of the rat traps have a new resident.   Plus, it’s cold as hell and getting colder.
I’ve seen the look before --- the ‘we’ve been walking an hour and we’re still not there yet’ look.  Their furrowed brows, especially Burly’s because he is bald so his forehead can really wrinkle up sharpei-good, showed that it wasn’t just the distance traveled or the steep incline but a concern for fishing in weather normally reserved for Malamuts.
Doc Thompson is my friend and he is a fishing guide.  Without asking, he gives flycasting lessons to Burly and Crane.  McPhail and I fish the Red, around the pewter-colored rocks.  Burly and Crane act interested in learning, give a moderately-decent showing and they are thrown to the Red. 
Burly fishes the confluence. He fishes downstream in the pocket water and has no chance in hell of catching a thing but he looks pretty good doing it.  He is wearing heavy neoprene waders which he later tells us chapped his inner thighs on his too-short legs. 
Crane is into it.  He has fished Rio Embudo once before and caught a trout so he thinks he’s an expert. He has his own rod, his own heavy neoprene waders, the kind with the wading boots sewn in, the kind that give you blisters on your shins and ankles and tops of your feet.  He is oblivious to his misery as the snow begins to bother our visibility. Hello Springtime.   
McPhail fishes upstream working around the big gray woolly mammoth-sized rocks.  He catches a big one and we rush to look.  Twenty inches at least and fat as the cigar that Burly smoked at Simpatico Lake near Bayfield, Colorado, the cigar so big and strong that it brought Burly to his knees after the hike and made him puke his guts out at the recreation center in the Forest Lakes subdivision.  Nice-sized rainbow, Mac. 
Doc catches an even bigger rainbow, colored so red and dark and green and fervent, the fish looked fake.  What Dreams May Come.  Twenty-two inches and several
So what we have here is a natural year-round trout fishery worth its weight in trout anywhere in the southwest. You can fish this gem when the snows are heavy or melting into sludge or when the summer heat hits, you need to visit the maelstrom of blue-green deep canyon waters of the lower Red River. From the rim at 7,000 feet elevation, the trails drop 800 feet into the canyon. At times, you feel like you are in a life-size terrarium, isolated in the red and green and tan and grey colors of the canyon with a narrow strip of blue sky hanging above the narrows at the rim.
Guide Doc Thompson never yells, quiet as the proverbial mouse, but he yelled at McPhail that cold afternoon in February to hurry up with the pics and put the hawg back in the water.  Doc’s protective of his fishery’s fish.  Bully for him. Mac was none too pleased though.  
The snow started big and wet, didn’t even give us time to argue about whether or not it was a good idea to hike out or not.  It was coming down like fleece, thick and white, heavy enough to cover my eyeglasses and paint us all alabaster in just minutes. 
            The hike that was treacherous downhill was even more so up, covered as it was by the snow.  We are Amarillo boys and although all of us are in good shape (if I say so myself), this was our first day in altitude so were sucking air with every labored step.  Watching Burly and Crane slug it out in those heavy sloppy waders was secretly funny. The hike out always takes a lot longer than the hike in and a lot longer than you think.
Burly didn’t catch a fish, didn’t come close. He whipped the water into a froth, caught up in the trees but by the end of it all, he started to get the hang of it. We had converted another angler to our band of brothers and the pain in my lungs felt okay, both when I breathed and when I laughed at the hoorahing back-and-forth as we wheezed up the trail.    

When the world above the Red River is a winter wonderland, the canyon is a refuge. And in summer, when the heat is like Hades, the canyon is cool and hidden from the oven above. When most every other New Mexico river is roily with spring runoff or inaccessible because of snowpack, you have the dependable Red. Descending along developed trails into the basalt-walled canyon is strenuous hiking, not for everyone. The views of the heavily-bouldered, freestone-river are eye-catching.  You just know there are some whoppers in those deep stairstep pools. 
And there are.  The lower Red River red is the primary feeder stream to Rio Grande, the main spawning tributary for wild browns, cuttbows and rainbows of the mighty river.  The Red holds its own healthy resident population of colorful wild browns and cuttbows but the prizes are those migrating lunkers, up from the big river to spawn in these spring-fed waters.
The river cut a canyon through the basalt over eons of time with its watery knife slicing ever downward.  The clear water churns over boulders, dropping off rocks and plunging into foamy pools.  Some of the rocks are as big as kiva ovens. Others are the size of watermelons.  And you won’t believe the size and depth of some of these pools even though the river isn’t all that wide.
Numerous warmwater springs feed the river below the hatchery keeping the water temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s in the fall and winter. In the summer, the canyon water around can reach mid-60s. These springs increase the volume of the river tremendously, tripling or quadrupling the flow. This is why the Red should be one of your top choices for spring and early summer angling.  Dependability. 
The Lower Red River is four miles of some of the wildest water in New Mexico. When you hear the term ‘lower Red River’, this refers to the Red River upstream from the confluence with the Rio Grande to a half-mile below the hatchery.  Four miles doesn’t sound like a lot of water but you won’t cover all this water in a day of hard fishing. These four miles fish like ten or twelve miles so productive is this fishery. Every pocket holds fish.
The Red River is one of those streams where you can do just fine on your own or you can do a lot better with someone looking over your shoulder; someone reminding you that despite the two fish you just caught in that big pool, you missed two other opportunities to catch even bigger trout.   That someone should be a guide. 
As Doc Thompson likes to say: it’s a whole different world down there. You will lose track of sense of time and where you are.  To fish the lower Red River you really need to want to fish it. This is not a drive-up river. You’ll need stamina, want-to. This is for those who need adventure in their flyfishing, or vice versa, one of the last of the wild rivers in the southwest, ideal for a getaway trip when all the tailwaters are full of neoprene-wading anglers from all parts of the world. 
Los Rios Anglers, 505-758-2798
Dos Amigos,Eagle Nest 505-377-6226
Los Pinos Fly Shop, Albuquerque NM 505-884-7501

1 comment:

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