Reposted from The Mountain Mail, November 25 2016 edition.

by Fred Rasmussen, Special to The Mail

Dredging weighted nymphs in deep pools while standing in a cold wind on slippery ice can be tedious, often unsuccessful and usually a chilling experience.

There may be a good day now and then when the midges bring the lethargic browns off the bottom, but they are too few to keep the fishing hormones flowing in most anglers.

“Been fishing” was Sam’s laconic comment as we headed into a winter Trout Unlimited meeting a few years ago. I rolled my eyes.

“How about we head down to the San Juan next week?” he said. “I hear it is hot.”

Before the meeting had ended, we had assembled a small group of dispirited anglers to seek nirvana in New Mexico.

A segment of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam stays about the same temperature year-round as the water is drawn from the bottom of the dam. The aquatic organisms that make up trout food are therefore active and growing while the same organisms in the Arkansas River are taking the winter off. And some trout in those productive waters grow fast and big.

Driving through a snowbound San Luis Valley and over a tame Wolf Creek Pass, Sam and I plotted our strategy. Two points seemed clear, the river would be crowded with fishermen, and the bugs would be tiny. Despite this drawback, we both agreed we had enough experience to do at least moderately well. We were not novices.

Abe’s Motel sprawled uninviting along the dusty roadside as we unloaded our gear into the room. It was still light enough to wet a line before dark, so we suited up and joined the hustling throng.

Lessons came quickly. The San Juan is a slick and difficult river to wade, and a fisherman occupied each of the good spots. And if there were fish in the river, we had no evidence of it.

Supper was strategy time. There were two San Juan veterans in our group from the chapter who had fished this section of the river many times. So clumped around a motel table loaded with pretzels, salami, bread and pickles, Sam and I picked the brains of Clyde and Paul.

We listened intently as they gave lesson No. 1: “San Juan Worms, size 16. Just drift them deep, near the bottom and the fish will do the rest.”

Excited with the truth, we set off with glee next morning. But despite fishing hard and diligently all day, we released only three or four fish between us.

By contrast, Clyde and Paul seemed to have a fish on every time we looked. This combined with a river full of drifting algae, which meant the hook had to be carefully cleaned off about every cast. Another day of anguishing realization of our lousy fishing status.

Lesson No. 2 came that evening over a lovely chilled pitcher of beer. Well, actually Clyde said, “Today we had a No. 20 dark nymph behind the San Juan Worm, and that was what the fish were actually hitting.”

Solace for our wounds. It was not we who were failing, it was the tackle we were using.

But the next day was a repeat of the first two. Even after adding the tiny black nymph to the San Juan Worm, Sam and I caught and released only a few fish while our two friends seemed to catch fish at will.

They were masters at maneuvering that tiny insect to the very select places along the river bottom where the fish were feeding. They knew the river currents and had models in their heads of how those currents influenced fish behavior. Sam and I just fished.

The drive home was a long lesson in humility about how much more we had to learn about the skills of fishing the tail waters of the San Juan River if we were to be successful.

For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter and our events, visit our website:

Fred Rasmussen is a founding member and current board director of the Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited.