Fishing The Chama Above El Vado

The Chama River flowing south into El Vado lake. Photos in this story by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Fishing The Chama Above El Vado

By George Morse Sports and Outdoors

After fishing the Chama River below El Vado Dam and Abiquiu Dam, the next stop on the Chama was one of my secret spots. It’s where I go if I want to be sure to hook a big fish. The stretch of river between Heron Dam and El Vado Lake harbors big fish, both brown trout and rainbow trout.

I call it a secret spot, but really it’s pretty accessible. You can look down and see the river from Heron Dam. It’s a long walk down to the river. Once you get there, walking along the river is difficult. There’s not much of a trail. It’s rocky and overgrown. There’s poison ivy growing along the banks and it’s one of the few places where I have actually seen rattlesnakes.

This keeps it from getting too much fishing pressure. I’ve fished it for many years and more often than not, I’m the only one there. Especially with the State Game and Fish Department liberally stocking big rainbow trout in easily-reached lakes, people just don’t want to work that hard to catch fish. I don’t expect the fishing pressure to change too much on this stretch of the Chama.

You have to keep track of the streamflow in this part of the Chama. During spring runoff, flows can be exceptionally heavy. Back in May, the Chama was blasting away at over 3,600 cubic-feet-per-second. When the water is flowing like that, it is extremely difficult if not dangerous to fish. Now, the flow is down to just 200 cubic-feet-per-second.

When I went there July 6 after getting a late start, I noticed that they were releasing some water from Heron Dam into the river. This is a good sign. The water from beneath Heron Dam is very cold. When it mixes with the water in the Chama, it creates a great environment for trout, which love cold water. The water was kind of murky, especially where the green water from Heron Lake mixed with the clear water in the Chama. As I have said, don’t be put off by murky water in the Chama. The fish are still there.

Since I was pressed for time, I decided to not start fishing until I’d walked a ways down stream to some prime spots where I always hook fish. That meant walking by some spots where I have taken good fish in the past.

The Chama flows through a beautiful canyon below Heron Dam. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

I stuck to the plan, despite some temptation. It turned out to be a good decision. After just a couple of casts, I hooked a good fish. The trout in this stretch of river are quite possibly the hardest fighting fish I catch all year. Probably the cold, fast water makes them strong. After a good fight, I finally landed the fish. It looked like a rainbow trout. It had the classic rainbow trout colors. A red lateral stripe with a silvery-green background.  When I examined the fish, I discovered two orange slashes under its jaw, identifying it as a cutbow trout.

The orange slashes beneath the jaw of this trout identify it as a cutbow. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

A cutbow trout is a hybrid between a rainbow trout and a cutthroat trout. Originally, cutthroat trout were the only trout native to the Chama. Rainbow trout were introduced from hatcheries in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Rainbow trout and cutthroat trout are closely related and spawn at the same time of the year. The two species readily cross-breed and that created hybrids of the two species. They are very pretty fish.

Unfortunately, cross-breeding with rainbow trout has helped to eliminate cutthroat trout from much of their original range. You have to travel back into the mountains to small, headwater streams to find the few remaining populations of pure-strain cutthroat trout.

It was a good fish of about 18 inches that I kept. The next fish I kept was a rainbow trout a couple of inches shorter. It was ridiculously fat. If a trout could be called obese, this fish was.  It was  shaped like a football. The fish was a little more silvery and had possibly moved upstream from El Vado Lake.

An 18-inch cutbow trout (lower) and a very fat rainbow trout from the Chama River between Heron Dam and El Vado Lake. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

One of the things I like about the rainbow trout in this stretch of the river is that many, if not most, are wild, stream-bred fish.

I released a couple more rainbow trout. Surprisingly, I did not catch a brown trout. There are big browns in the river.

The last fish I hooked might have been a brown trout. It felt like the biggest fish of the trip. I say might have been because after a long fight, the fish ended up breaking my line. I think it caught my line on an unseen rock or other snag. One of the problems with fishing in this part of the river is the banks are very overgrown and the water can be deep close to the bank. It is often impossible to follow a fish downstream and that means having to work them back upstream against the current. You have to land the fish standing in the same spot where you hooked it.

When I was younger, I likely would have thrown a fit and uttered a few four-letter words at losing what was likely a very good fish. These days, not so much. I’ve caught thousands of trout in my lifetime. This fish fought hard and earned its freedom.

I had two good fish to take home. Since I had started late, I decided to pack up and hike out. Daylight was disappearing and I move a little slower these days. I took my time walking out of the canyon. When I got back to my vehicle, I thanked the Lord for getting me back up the hill and to my truck one more time. I know that the time will come when I won’t be able to do that and I will no longer be able to fish this part of the river anymore.

I take some abuse from other anglers because I kill and eat trout. These days, I usually end up releasing a few more fish then I keep. One or two trout to bring home is all I’m after.

I sort of believe you are what you eat. Eating a big, wild fish somehow makes you feel stronger. Trout are good to eat and good for you. Big, wild trout with their deep orange meat are as good if not better than salmon. They are loaded with beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein and low in fat.

Big trout have likely already spawned several times, so their genes are in the river

Satisfying our hunger is why humans started fishing in the first place. There is still the satisfying feeling after catching a fish that you aren’t going to go hungry and can feed yourself.

Don’t tell me I can go buy fish in the store or I can catch hatchery fish. It’s just not the same and never will be. Hatchery fish, no matter how big, just don’t taste as good.

Please don’t tell me you fish for fun or just for the sport. It may be fun for you, but I don’t think it’s fun for the fish. Saying you fish just for sport still strikes me as kind of an elitist attitude. Sort of like “I don’t have to kill fish anymore, so I’m better than you because you do.”

I don’t fish this stretch of the Chama that often. Despite knowing I can catch big fish there, I don’t want to take too many home. Although I don’t believe you can ever catch all of the big trout out of a river, I do think you can take too many and have an effect on the fishing.

I’ve been fishing this part of the Chama River for about 30 years and I can still catch big trout. I thank the Lord for that

Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post