Fishing The Chama River

A nice brown trout and a colorful cutthroat trout from the Chama River below El Vado Dam
A nice brown trout and a colorful cutthroat trout from the Chama River below El Vado Dam. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Fishing The Chama River

By George Morse Sports and Outdoors

One of the most useful sources of information that anglers can use to guide them to good fishing during the summer in Northern New Mexico is the daily streamflow reports by the United States Geological Survey ( This will show you the rate of streamflow in cubic-feet-per-second on nearly all of the streams and rivers (164 sites) in New Mexico.

Especially in the spring, the report will show you which streams are still swollen with spring runoff, whether the streamflow is declining or rising and how much above average it is. Pay particular attention to streamflows below dams. Much of the water stored in New Mexico’s reservoirs is for irrigation of crops and during the summer demands can be heavy, resulting in heavy streamflows below dams.

Heavy streamflows make for somewhat difficult fishing conditions.

However, those streamflows can be reduced in order to store more water. The lower water conditions make for better fishing.

Another attractive feature of the stretches off river below dams is that water is released from the bottom of the dams. This results in very low water temperatures. In the summer, the outside air temperature may be between 90-100 degrees, but the water temperature can be a cold 40-60 degrees. This results in ideal conditions for trout, which prefer cold water.

Checking streamflows led to a productive day of fishing Wednesday (6/21) in the Chama River below El Vado Dam. The streamflow that day was listed at a very low 104 cubic-feet-per-second.

El Vado Dam is one of the older dams in New Mexico. Completed in 1935, the dam impounds the waters of the Chama River. One interesting fact is that El Vado Lake inundated the site of the town of El Vado, which at one time was the largest town in Rio Arriba County.

TheChama River below El Vado Dam flows through a scenic canyon. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

After the completion of the dam and the filling of the lake, the stretch of the Chama River below El Vado Dam offered some of the best trout fishing in the country. Big rainbow and brown trout were common. In 1946, GT Colgrove of Texas caught a 20-pound, 4-ounce brown trout that still stands as the state record.

The fishing has cooled down since then, but the Chama below El Vado remains one of the better spots to catch a big brown trout in the state. The brown trout have established a naturally-reproducing population and are no longer stocked. The State Game and Fish Department stocks thousands of catchable-size rainbow trout and periodically stocks Rio Grande cutthroat trout.Another shot of the freshly caught trout. Photo by George Morse with the Valley Daily Post

On the most recent fishing trip to the Chama, a colorful cutthroat was the first fish caught. This fish could have been a holdover from earlier stockings, because there had been no recent stockings of cutthroats. I’ll have to check the stocking report by the Department Friday to see if there had been any stockings of cutthroat trout this week. Since I had yet to eat a cutthroat trout this year, I kept this fish.

The other fish I kept was a nice brown trout of about 16 inches. I consider this size perfect for eating. I like to bake the fish in the oven with butter, lemon slices, a sprig of tarragon and salt stuffed in the body cavity.


Normally, I would expect a bigger fish (18 inches+) from the portion of the river I fished. Then again, I did have a couple of nice fish to eat, so it was a good day. You don’t always get the big ones and that’s why it’s called fishing and not catching.

Several other brown trout were caught and released since none measured up to that 16-incher. Wading in the water was numbingly cold on my feet. Nightcrawlers were the bait I used, but the water was low and clear enough to make fly-fishing likely very effective. The banks of the river are rocky and require a good sense of balance.

Keep an eye out for snakes. There are rattlesnakes in this area, although all I saw were a couple of harmless garter snakes. At one point, I was being eaten alive by sand gnats.

A portion of the Chama River below El Vado has been designated as a Special Trout Water this year. From the USGS gaging station (where the streamflow is measured) below Cooper’s Landing to the confluence with the Rio Nutrias, the fishing is catch-and-release. Only artificial flies and lures with a single, barbless hook may be used.

Cooper’s Landing on Cooper’s El Vado Ranch is a private property that has a convenience store where you can pick up fishing supplies and snacks as well as purchase fishing licenses. Cooper’s charges $5 to park on their property. The fishing is good here and it’s where the Department stocks trout. Cooper’s also has cabins for rent.

One attraction at Cooper’s is GT Colgrove’s state-record brown trout, which was mounted and hangs on the wall at Cooper’s.

The streamflows on the Chama River below El Vado will fluctuate during the summer, so be sure to check on the day you plan to go fishing. On summer weekends, the flow will be increased to accommodate rafting trips, canoers and kayakers that like to float the Chama  in the stretch of canyon between El Vado and Abiquiu Dams.

Check out the Chama River below El Vado Dam if you’re looking for a spot to fish. The high elevation also offers an escape from the excessive heat of the lower elevations, although temperatures can be hot at times (like Thursday) along the river.