Chama River Low And Clear

by Editor / Jun 14, 2018 / 0 comments

Chama River Running Low And Clear

It looked like a good day to go fishing. There were some clouds in the sky and even a hint that it might rain. In a normal year, I wouldn’t consider fishing the Chama River below Heron Dam. It would still be swollen with spring runoff June 9 and flowing at a hefty 800 cubic-feet-per-second or more.

This has not been a normal year. The lack of snow over the winter yielded little if any spring runoff. According to the United States Geological Survey streamflow data, the Chama was flowing at just 36 cubic-feet-per-second. This is shockingly low.

The Chama River is running low and clear when it should still be swollen with spring runoff.

The Chama River has some of the best fishing for big, wild trout you’ll find anywhere in the state. The trout grow well and fight hard. When they are releasing water from Heron Dam, it adds a shot of cold water to the river that keeps the trout active. I wanted to fish it before the water got too low.

 Big rainbow trout from the Chama River

It was early afternoon when I started north on Highway 84. There was a small burst of rain around the small community of Chili. The rain cooled air felt wonderful coming through my window. It was brief but very welcome. The land is brown and dry with the exception of the irrigated fields along the Chama River in Abiquiu. It has been an exceptionally dry year. There’s a good flow in the Chama River here because they are releasing a lot of water below Abiquiu Dam.

Driving past Ghost Ranch and Echo Amphitheater, the road starts climbing to Canjilon. As I gained elevation, the clover and weeds along the roadside seemed a little taller and greener. Maybe they’ve gotten a little more rain. The pastures in Cebolla and on the Spill Ranch south of Tierra Amarilla looked more brown than green. There were a few cattle grazing on the Ranch. I wonder if some ranchers are thinning their herds because of the dry conditions.

Taking the turn to Heron Lake, I crossed the  Chama River. It looked really low here. Continuing on to the lake, it looked low too. However, it may be a little higher than last year. The low water levels in the lake have negatively impacted what was once a great kokanee salmon fishery at Heron. Once a popular lake for sailboats, the Marina is now high and dry. Hopefully, this lake can rebound if enough water can be stored in it. When that will happen is anybody’s guess.

Just before Heron Dam is the turn to access the Chama River below the Dam. Paying my $5 day-use fee at the self-pay station, I parked near the road that leads down to the outlet below the Dam. This road is closed to travel. They were not releasing any water from Heron Lake. The Chama was running low and clear. I walked past the stilling basin, where you can see many big carp swimming just beneath the surface.

Arriving at the river, it was surprising just how low it was. What was a river was now a stream. The water was clear all the way to the bottom. The water was warmer than it should have been. This was not the same Chama River that I would normally be fishing in early June.

When the water is this low and clear and you’re walking downstream, it is important to stay away from the river when possible. If there’s a pool you wish to fish, walk past it, then fish it walking back upstream. You’ll avoid spooking any fish, which can see you a lot better now.

At the first pool that I fished, I spotted a rise on the opposite side behind a rock. Normally, I would have to add some weight to my line to get the bait deep enough. The water was so low and clear, I fished without any weight (split shot sinkers) at all to avoid snagging the bottom. You have to make smooth, easy casts. I made cast after cast, but didn’t get a nibble. I knew there was a trout there, so I kept casting. It’s been my experience that if you are sure there is a trout holding in a pool, don’t give up. Fish out every cast and keep casting. The trout is looking for just that right presentation that isto its liking.

On about the 15th cast, the trout took. Immediately, I knew it was a good fish when its long sides flashed in the sunlight. Probably about a 20-incher. I would have to play the fish carefully. I was using 6-pound test line. People sometimes ask how a four-pound trout can break 6-pound test. It’s the same way a 150-pound weight-lifter can clean and jerk 400-pounds – strength. This was a strong fish.

The clear water helped as I played the fish. The drag on the reel did its job, giving the fish line as it pulled hard. I could keep the fish’s head up and away from the rocks I could see. After a while, the fish tired and I could get it close to the bank, where I grabbed it behind the gills. It was a beautiful rainbow trout. The faint orange slashes under its jaw hinted that it was a wild fish with some cutthroat trout genes in its ancestry. Most of the rainbow trout I catch in this part of the Chama have these slashes.

When I go fishing, I am looking to keep and eat one good fish. I don’t keep a limit and haven’t done so in over a year. The last limit I kept was of little brook trout. Although I prefer bigger fish, a meal of small, pan-fried brook trout is hard to beat.

This fish was one I wanted to keep, so I killed it quickly. I don’t like to put fish on a stringer while they are still alive. It seems a little too disrespectful to the fish. Kill it quickly to end its suffering, rather than letting it die slowly struggling on the end of a chain. I think that killing the fish quickly keeps them in better condition if you intend to eat them.

I fished a little while longer, catching and releasing some smaller rainbow trout in some of the nearby riffles and pools. I decided I’d leave a little early. I wanted to get the fish I’d kept back to the truck and in the cooler to keep it fresh. It was a warm day and at least a 30-minute walk back up to my truck. That walk back and having to negotiate rocky, overgrown banks once you reach the river keeps the fishing pressure here to a minimum. I didn’t see another angler.

Solitude and scenery are easy to find in the Chama River Canyon below Heron Dam

I rested a little, enjoying the surroundings. A robin flitted among the rocks on the opposite side of the river. Hearing a shrill “kree” call, I spotted what looked like a falcon cruising overhead, then landing in the canyon wall. It was good to be outside.

On the walk back I appreciated the butterflies among the flowers on the way. The walk back seems to take longer now at 70 years old. I’m always sure to thank the Lord when I get back to the top one more time.

I’m not going to fish this part of the Chama again until we get some rains that raise the water level – or if they start releasing water from Heron Lake that will cool and raise the streamflow.The flow is so low and the water warm and getting warmer. The fish are already under a lot of stress and don’t need the added stress of being caught, even if they are released. The same low water conditions prevail in most streams and rivers across the state. Better to give the trout a break this summer as they deal with the challenges of trying to survive in these difficult conditions.