A Lifetime Of Memories Fishing The Chama River

The Chama River at Heron Lake State Park flows through a scenic canyon. It offers great fishing for brown and rainbow trout. It’s a long walk down and back to the Chama River below Heron Dam. The road is closed and you must walk down.

By George Morse

It’s been over 50 years since I moved to Northern New Mexico. There are many great memories and been some big changes since then fishing here and in Southern Colorado.

A lot of those memories and changes have happened on the Chama River.

I went to the Chama Aug. 31 to see how it looked. They were releasing water from beneath Heron Dam into the Chama. Surprisingly, the flow was now actually higher than it had been my first trip to the Chama back in July.  Back then, the flow was 453 cubic-feet-per-second and none of it was coming from beneath Heron Dam. The river was running clear.

Scenic canyon view. Photo by George Morse

Now, the flow in the Chama above Heron Dam at La Puente was just 46 cubic-feet-per –second. They must have been releasing over 400 cubic-feet-per-second from beneath Heron Dam. There is no streamflow-measuring gauge on the  Chama below Heron Dam, so I couldn’t tell you what the cubic-feet-per-second flow was. I could tell it was higher than it had been in July because now parts of the trail that I had hiked on along the river were now in the water.

In addition, the water was now a milky green in color with very limited visibility. The fishing was not good.

The day wasn’t wasted despite the poor fishing. One of the things I like about fishing here is it helps me find out just how much I can still do at 72 years old. It’s a substantial hike down to the base of Heron Dam. There’s also the reality that the hike back out is the tough part.

On this day, I had started late to begin with, so when I hiked out, the sun was setting. That was fine, because I had timed it so I would walk back up from the Dam without what has been a hot August sun beating down on me. 

As I slowly made my way back uphill, the air took on that kind of magical orange glow that sometimes happens at sunset here in New Mexico. Despite the aching muscles in the back of my calves, I made slow but steady progress. Despite 50 years of smoking cigarettes, I wasn’t breathing hard. Once I reached the top, I gave thanks to the Lord for seeing me to the top of the hill one more time. Some people may make fun of me and scoff, but it is a heartfelt thank you.

It was also somehow comforting to realize I may be able to climb down and up a few more hills before it’s all said and done.

On the drive into Heron, I was glad to see the water level was up. I stopped by the marina at Willow Creek, which I had written a story about years ago. The marina was where the sailboats  that dot the surface of Heron Lake used to be moored. For the last few years, the marina has been closed due to low water. Recently, it was able to reopen. 

The Willow Creek marina recently reopened at Heron Lake State Park. Low water levels left the marina high and dry in recent years. Higher water levels this year allowed it to reopen. Photo by George Morse

I thought about the history of Heron Lake, which was one of the changes that I have witnessed over the years. It was completed several years after I had moved to New Mexico. During the construction of the Dam, you could tell that this was going to be a deep lake. 

I wondered at the time if the State Game and Fish Department might try stocking lake trout at Heron lake. At the time, there were no lake trout in New Mexico. Lake trout, which are the biggest trout native to North America, require cold, deep water to survive. Heron looked like it might be a lake that could support them.

The Department did stock lake trout, but initially they were kind of forgotten about.

In 1985, I wrote a story for a local paper that began with a hypothetical description of how the next record trout would be caught in New Mexico. How an angler trolling for kokanee salmon would end up catching that fish.

Later that summer, an angler did catch a new state-record lake trout in almost exactly the way I had predicted. It was one of the first stories I had ever written for publication and I had nailed it. I still smile when I think back about that.

The lake trout have since established a self-sustaining population in Heron Lake. The state-record is a 31-pound, 6-ounce lunker taken at Heron in 1999. Last summer, I was worried that the low water at Heron would harm the lake trout population after finding a dying young lake trout in  river below the Dam. This spring, the Department netted some large lakers in a survey at Heron, so it looks like they’re still okay.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish netted this big lake trout at Heron Lake during a recent survey (New Mexico Department of Game and Fish photo).

Another fact that seems to have been forgotten was that the Department also stocked coho salmon in Heron Lake shortly after it was completed. Back then, coho salmon were a hot item. Following the spectacular success that the stocking of salmon in the Great Lakes turned out to be, everybody wanted to get in on the action. Lots of states started stocking them in the hopes of duplicating the success of Michigan in establishing a coho salmon fishery.

As it turned out, coho salmon did not adapt well to Heron. That fishery never panned out.

What did succeed was the introduction of kokanee salmon. A landlocked species of sockeye salmon, kokanee also require deep, cold water to thrive. New Mexico had established a kokanee salmon fishery at Navajo Lake and kokanee were introduced to Heron Lake.

The kokanee thrived at Heron and a salmon-snagging season was established shortly thereafter. Like other Pacific salmon, kokanee die shortly after spawning. To utilize the salmon, a snagging season was established where anglers could harvest the fish by snagging them with large treble hooks. During spawning, the salmon gather in tight schools and dragging a treble hook through the schools of fish was an effective way of harvesting them.

Before long, snagging season grew into a cultural event and scores of anglers would line the shoreline at Heron Lake hoping to snag a limit of fish. It became a yearly ritual for many anglers that was looked forward to with great anticipation. I wrote a story about snagging kokanee salmon at Heron with my brother-in-law and nephew years ago about the same time I wrote about the lake trout.

Unfortunately, the kokanee population has suffered recently at Heron and the snagging has been just a shadow of what it used to be. The low water levels have hurt the kokanee for a variety of reasons, some of which involves the lake trout, which utilize the salmon as a source of food.

The higher water levels at Heron  Lake have seen the sailboats return. It is hoped that those higher water levels might rejuvenate the kokanee salmon fishing too.

A big brown trout from the Chama River taken on an earlier trip. Photo by George Morse

These are just some of the memories that come back whenever I head up to Heron Lake and the Chama River. There are more to come.