Fishing The Upper Chama River
By George Morse Sports and Outdoors
Trying to decide where would be a good place to go fishing and escape the record-setting heat had me checking the streamflows in local rivers on the United States Geological Survey website last week. The streamflow in the Chama River near La Puente, which the week before had been running a little too high for good fishing, was now at about 250 cubic feet per second. That was a good level for fishing. That was my destination June 18 in the afternoon.
The upper Chama above El Vado Lake is one of my favorite places to fish. It was here that I caught my first big trout in New Mexico over 40 years ago. There have been many more since then.
You can access the upper Chama River through the Rio Chama Wildlife Area or at Heron Lake State Park. I usually go to Heron Lake. Just before you get to Heron Dam, there’s a left hand turn that will take you to the Rio Chama Trailhead. Pay for your day pass ($5) at the pay station. You can hike down to the river from there. The river flows through a scenic and beautiful canyon.
When I arrived, I noticed a small stream of water being released from Heron Dam into the Chama. This was a good sign. The water from beneath the dam is icy cold and helps keep the temperature in the river cold. The trout love this cold water, so the fishing downstream from where the water from Heron Lake comes into the river is good all the way down to the inlet of El Vado Lake.
You’ll find some good pools as soon as you hit the river and I’ve caught many fish in them, but these days I like to hike about half-a-mile downstream where I know there are some good pools that don’t get fished that hard because of the effort needed to reach them. As I get older, it’s a little slower going for me, but I know the effort will be worth it.
Sure enough, the first fish was a beautiful brown trout of about 18 inches that fought hard. Several smaller rainbow and brown trout followed. The best fish of the trip, a gorgeous rainbow trout perhaps as big or a little bigger than the brown trout, put up a tremendous fight. It jumped three times, twisting and shaking its way well above the water. I say perhaps as big or bigger because that fish fought so magnificently that he earned his freedom. Later, I kept a rainbow trout slightly smaller than the brown trout, but maybe a little heavier because it was fatter and thicker through the body.
The brown and rainbow on the bank. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
One of the things I like about this stretch of river is that because the water is fast and cold, the trout seem to fighter harder than they do from lakes or other rivers. You can catch both big browns and big rainbows. The browns are wild fish and I suspect some of the rainbows are too. The rainbow trout are beautifully colored and show none of the wear and tear on their fins that rainbows raised in the concrete walls of a hatchery often do.
This is not easy fishing. The trail along the river is rough and rocky. The banks are overgrown and finding a place to land a hooked fish
can be a challenge. Keep your eyes open. I have encountered rattlesnakes here and poison ivy grows along the banks.
I usually try to time my hike back up and out of the canyon near sundown because it’s a little easier without the sun beating down on you. You might want to bring some water along during the heat of the summer.
People tell me that I shouldn’t tell people about such a good spot, but over the years it has been my experience that the effort to reach the river discourages most anglers. When the state Game and Fish Department keeps the lakes well-stocked with trout-sometimes nice, big trout-that require just sitting or standing on the bank waiting for a bite, most anglers will opt for the easier approach.
Later on in the summer, the water will drop even lower and the fishing will become more difficult as the water warms and becomes clear. If there’s still water coming into the Chama from Heron Dam, the cold-water infusion will help the fishing hold up. I haven’t fished this stretch of river much in the fall, but I have a hunch it could be very good.
On the fishing scene, there were no lunkers stocked by the state Game and Fish Department this past week. They did stock nearly 27,000 catchable-size rainbow trout. The trout fishing in the lakes is slowing down a bit as the weather warms up. The bass fishing in nearly all of the state’s big reservoirs has been good. Now is the time to start fishing in the evening or at night if you’re a catfish fan.