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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

San Juan River Taking on a Whole New Look

Angler Mike Lee of Arizona and Marc Wethington, Fisheries Biologist on the San Juan River for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, pose or a photo on the Lower Flats in Dec. 2013.
Angler Mike Lee of Arizona and Marc Wethington, Fisheries Biologist on the San Juan River for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, pose or a photo on the Lower Flats in Dec. 2013.
 It’s the dead of winter and Mike Lee of Arizona is catching big beautiful trout on dry flies at the Lower Flats of the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico and state fisheries biologist Marc Wethington couldn’t be happier for him.

“This is some of the best fishing in the west,” said Lee, a 62-year-old retired school teacher, as he chatted with Wethington on the banks for the river below Navajo Dam. “All the fish that I’ve caught here have looked really healthy and there’s been plenty of them.”

man with trout
Mike Lee of Arizona shows off a nice Rainbow trout he caught on the San Juan River in late winter of 2013. Lee spent a total of eight weeks fishing on the river that year. Photo courtesy of Mike Lee.

But that’s just what Wethington and the state Game and Fish Department (NMDGF) have been preparing for over the last decade.

“It’s reassuring to see that many of our habitat improvement projects have worked as intended,” said Wethington, 50, who has been stationed on the San Juan since beginning his career with NMDGF back in 1995.

Wethington has since overseen four major habitat improvement projects on five miles of the state’s prized trophy trout waters to improve fish habitat and maintain high quality angling during lower flows.

“We’ve been champions of this work since day one, “said Larry Johnson of the San Juan River Guides Association.” And they’ve really paid off.”

man in furry hat driving boat
Larry Johnson of Soaring Eagle Lodge rows while fishing buddy Tim McCarthy of Albuquerque fishes on the San Juan River in late December 2013.
 Johnson said despite the low flows this year anglers enjoyed great fishing in the Braids area due to improvements made there.

And there’s great fishing to be found right on the door step of the Gravel Pit take-out due to improvements in the area below Simon Canyon.

“Back in the old days we’d just row right through there without stopping, it was so dead,” he said.

Now the river below Duranglers Corner features lots of fish and some of the best dry fly action on the river, Johnson said.

man casting a fly rod
An angler casts for trout in a rejuvenated area of the San Juan River below Duranglers Corner in 2013. Habitat improvements there have created excellent fishing with dry flies.
 And in the meantime Wethington is looking forward to see how well the department’s latest effort to improve fish and wildfowl habitat on the river’s back channels will work out.

The latest project involved narrowing and deepening the two back channels running between Texas Hole and the Lower Flats and on down to Baetis Bend to improve habitat for trout and angling for the public.

man standing by river
Marc Wethington, NMDGF Fisheris Biologist for the San Juan River below Navajo Dam in northwestern New Mexico surveys habitat improvements on the back channel below Texas Hole in December 2013.
 “It looks better now than it did at twice the flow,” Wethington remarked while inspecting the work recently.

Workers added cobble and other natural material to the banks to narrow the channel and dug out some of the pools to allow fish that find their way into the back channels to thrive there even under lower flows.

bank of river
Cobble added to the back channel banks narrowed the channel to increase depth and provide better habitat for trout.
 And that means more fishing opportunities for anglers seeking to escape the crowds that one can expect to encounter on the state’s most popular trout fishery.

The same project also resulted in the expansion of a marsh upstream of the Baetis Bend parking lot where several interconnected ponds were created and native vegetation introduced to provide more wetland habitat for waterfowl.

man on rock in pond
Marc Wethington, NMDGF Fisheries Biologist stands on a rock above one of several ponds created to benefit waterfowl near Baetis Bend on the San Juan River. Native vegetation such as willows, sedges and rushes were planted also and should begin to appear this spring.
 The wetland project should benefit bird watchers and hunters alike and might even hold fish someday, Wethington said.

But it may be the Department’s efforts some 14 miles downstream of Navajo Dam at the Hammond Tract that could prove to be the most alluring to anglers as it opens up a whole other stretch of river to fishing.

san juan river hammond tract
The far bank is what this area looked like before crews took to cutting down the Salt Cedar and Russian Olive trees last year.
 Since the late 1980s the department has owned an 80 acre parcel including about a mile of riverfront just upstream of the Hammond Diversion which had provided San Juan River boaters with a rudimentary takeout.

But the riverbank there has long been impenetrable due to dense stands of water robbing, non-native Salt Cedar and Russian Olive trees and the boat take-out was nothing more a small opening hacked through to the river.

mw & salt cedar stump
Marc Wethington of the NMDGF poses by the stump of what had been a huge salt cedar tree cut down on the riverbank of the San Juan River at the Hammond Tract in an effort to eliminate the water robbing, invasive species of trees and improve fishing access to the area.

Only the hardiest of die-hard anglers frequented this spot due to the conditions.

But last year work began on clearing the riverfront area of the invasive trees thanks to funding from the state forestry division. The work has since opened up the entire south bank of the river and continues on the north side this year.

Crews cut a swath through the dense underbrush and trees alongside the San Juan River at the Hammond Tract. Photo courtesy of Marc Wethington.
Crews cut a swath through the dense underbrush and trees alongside the San Juan River at the Hammond Tract. Photo courtesy of Marc Wethington.
 The river at the Hammond take-out already features some pretty decent trout water but is slated to receive in-stream habitat improvements to make it even better.

san juan river hammond tract run
One of the nice runs at the Hammond Tract on the San Juan River.
 And the take-out and parking lot will be upgraded during the process also, Wethington added.

The far bank of the Hammond Tract on the San Juan River should be clear of the dense stand of invasive trees later this year and work will continue to install in-stream fish habitat  improvements and stocking to improve angling.
The far bank of the Hammond Tract on the San Juan River should be clear of the dense stand of invasive trees later this year and work will continue to install in-stream fish habitat improvements and stocking to improve angling on this revitalized section of the San Juan River.Photo courtesy of Marc Wethington, NMDGF.
 The projects are all part of an estimated $1.2 million in improvements the river has seen in recent years funded through federal taxes on fishing and boating equipment, state legislative appropriations and donations of manpower, equipment and money from the oil and gas industry and sporting and  conservation organizations.

The San Juan River has long been a top trout fishing destination for anglers due to a huge population of large trout of and many miles of public access.  The river’s draw brings in an estimated $40 million to the state’s economy annually, according to a New Mexico State University economic study.

karl moffatt and a san juan trout
The author shows off a fat San Juan Rainbow trout picked up on a dry fly during a Baetis hatch on the Lower Flats of the San Juan River in December 2013. Photo courtesy of Tim McCarthy.

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