Fishing In The Chama below El Vado Lake
By George Morse Sports and Outdoors
Just as it had the week before, checking on the streamflows in our state’s rivers paid off for me just before the weekend before the Fourth of July. The flow in the Chama River below El Vado Dam was a meagre 98 cubic feet-per-second the morning of June 30, so I planned an afternoon trip to this section of river.
This stretch of the Chama River has a long history of producing big fish. Back when El Vado Dam was completed in 1935, old timers will tell you that the fishing in the Chama River back then below the Dam was the stuff dreams are made of. It was routine to catch a big stringer full of big trout. Even the new lake behind the Dam produced 10-to-15 pound rainbow trout. In 1946, a 20.5-pound brown trout was caught in the Chama below El Vado Dam. That’s a state-record that still stands to this day.
That fishing is a thing of the past, but the Chama River below El Vado still remains one of the better spots to catch a big brown trout in New Mexico. The brown trout are now all wild fish, having established a naturally-reproducing population in the Chama. The state Game and Fish Department stocks this area liberally with catchable-size rainbow trout. Last year, they even stocked a bunch of Rio Grande cutthroat trout. One day, I was able to catch brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout the same day.
I don’t think any of the cutthroats survived long enough to become holdovers, although I hope some of them did. Every now and then, you’ll catch a big, holdover rainbow trout. However, 99- percent of the time if you catch a big fish below El Vado Dam, it’s going to be a brown trout.
That was the case on my most recent trip to the Chama. The two fish I kept were both brown trout of about 17-18 inches long. The bigger of the two made a great dinner. If you’re wondering how to cook big fish, I like to bake them in the oven. I place them on a sheet of aluminum foil on a broiler pan (see photo above I took in my kitchen). I don’t wrap them up because I like part of the skin to get a little crispy. I smear soft butter on the outside of the fish. I stuff the inside with butter, salt, lemon slices and sprigs of tarragon. I then bake them at 375-380 degrees. I can’t tell you how long because I just check the fish periodically and judge by appearance and by sticking a fork into the thickest part of their back to tell when they’re done. If you do it right, the meat comes easily off the bones and you can lift most of the bones out in one piece.
I always cook the fish with the head on. The cheeks of a big trout may be the best piece of meat on the entire fish.
The site of El Vado Dam and the lake it created has quite a bit of history that is not well known. Prior to the building of the dam in 1935, it was the site of El Vado, once the largest town in Rio Arriba County. It was a major shipping center for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Logging was the primary industry and vast numbers of big, virgin ponderosa pine was cut down and shipped out on rail cars. It was also a major shipping point for the lambs and sheep that grazed the fertile mountain meadows.
By the time El Vado Dam was constructed, the town was all but gone. Having exhausted the supply of easily-cut timber, the railroad moved its operation elsewhere. The town was dismantled or fell into decay. The site of the town now lies beneath the lake.
Just below the Dam lies Cooper’s El Vado Ranch, which is a good spot to grab some fishing or snacking supplies, as well as accessing the river. Cooper’s has cabins for rent right on the river. They charge a $5 day-use fee. Personally, I like to fish stretches above and below Cooper’s that are a little harder to reach and where the fishing pressure is less, but the area around Cooper’s has good fishing that is easily accessible. Cooper’s is also the launching point for float trips down the scenic Chama Canyon Wilderness.
Be sure to check the streamflow reports for the Chama River below El Vado Dam so you know what conditions to expect. The fishing is usually better with low streamflows, although it can still be good when the flows are higher. The fishing is available all year long, although winter conditions can be very cold and icy.