I did not fish the tarpon migration this year. Nor did I give chase to hefty spring time redfish wallowing in a meadow of turtle grass or pot-bellied snook foraging before the gentle bubble and foam of a mid-summer beach break. I haven’t even been south of Wall Street in the last six months. All of which is decidedly uncharacteristic behavior for someone who has over the last five years made (or at least tried to) a once monthly pilgrimage to the southern states during the spring and summer in search of these very fish. The timing for southbound adventures never really worked out this year. Between myriad weddings and a new bar to attend to, I had to pick my battles a little more carefully this summer. But, rather than see the absence of southern fishing as fishing opportunity lost, I made it a point to take advantage of fisheries that proved more accessible to one in my situation. May took me to the high desert of northern New Mexico for a wedding and some brown trout and this year I finally focused my efforts in earnest on taking part in the amazing summertime fishery that exists here in the northeast. And it is a remarkable one to say the very least.
Adjectives abound that would be well suited to be describing the landscape of the American Southwest. To tell of those marvels and wonders, forced from the earth during epochs long-lost, that frame the vistas of the west. And not a single word be wasted or wrong for it is a place that seems as though it was created solely to inspire. Yet for all the beauty that waits in the thin air of those high elevations there is something lacking. Let’s call it nuance. A far cry from the smoldering, primeval wildernesses born of Jurassic seas in the South or the ancient, glacier-hewn, severe and stony east, where perhaps the beauty exits more in understatement and simplicity, the west is simply grand. In every sense of the word. High desert plains, studded with creosote and sagebrush, pale and green and rolling away unbroken into the slaty distance pooling in the shadowed foothills of the Sangre de Cristo’s. Black steeples rising up and up into snowy spires sparking in the blue vault like jewels set atop a dark crown. To stand on that rare earth, small before the immensity of that landscape fells less like a vacation has been taken than a pilgrimage made. Such was the feeling when Nicki and I arrived in Taos during the last week of May.
Despite being there to witness the nuptials of a college roommate, and participate in the attendant events, we made plenty of time for, as it was so eloquently put by a friend, “activities” that would allow us to partake in the natural beauty of New Mexico. Land of Enchantment!
Northern New Mexico is home to a remarkable trout fishery. One that I was wholly unaware of until I began researching for this trip. To be fair I’m not particularly well versed in the world of trout fishing, so this revelation would certainly have been less surprising to someone who makes browns and rainbows their primary quarry, but nonetheless I was definitely excited to learn that we would be so close to such a wonderful fishery.
Stretching over the Chama River, Rio Grande, and San Juan River, and their tributaries (to name only a few), there is myriad water to fish and much of it is loaded with wild brown and rainbow trout. Needless to say I was certainly excited to devote a late spring day to throwing bugs at hungry trout, a thing that hadn’t happened for me since roughly 1996 and the awesome team over at Land Of Enchantment Guides was happy to oblige.
Unfortunately for us, rare is the wedding that takes fishing seasonality into account, and we found ourselves formulating a game plan around a still raging spring run-off and seriously high flows on most of the area rivers. Anyone who has ever tried to fish the Indian River Lagoon in the wake of a few days of heavy rainfall should have very good idea of how most of the area rivers looked. Muddy. Gross. Unfishable.
Nonetheless, when we met our friend Cha Maul early on Friday morning he was ready for the run off. We wound our way up into the Carson National Forest towards a high mountain stream with low flows, clean water, and a multitude of babbling pocket waters.
For Nicki, this would be her first time in fresh water, first time in waders, and her first outing during which fly fishing would be her sole method of angling. Even if she was a little nervous about ditching the spinning rod for a day, she certainly did not show it. Nerves of steel on that one.
Armed with 3-weights and dry-dropper rigs we scoured a few miles worth of the stream as it coursed through pine canyons and glens walled in steep, stony scrabble and palisades of green riverside rushes demarcating the still green valley floor through which the stream turned.
By the end of the day we had managed seven or so wild brown trout, blue of the cheeks with flanks piebald in brilliant orange, gold, and brown to the last one. Half of the fish came on the dropper, with the rest showing off the rather brutish manner in which a wild brown is wont to eliminate a well placed fly. There was even a one-that-got-away brown that hammered the dropper in a wide open stretch of the stream. He came out of the lee formed behind a relatively nondescript stone, only slightly larger than those others forcing the flow of the stream above them. The fish rolled as he sucked down the nymph, betraying his size, a solid 13-14″ brown, and I, in a failure to adapt to the fishery let go with strip set that would have been more than sufficient in pinning a 13-14 pound snook. The fragile tippet parted. The brown rolled a last time before returning to the seam from whence he’d come. It was heart breaking.
Ultimately, we were driven off the water by hail, rain, and threatening lightning. While we were unable to fish New Mexico’s marquee waters, the water and trout that we did encounter were still pretty amazing. If you’re in New Mexico, go trout fishing.
To further engage in the natural bounty of New Mexico, Nicki hooked us up with Peter Gilroy from Climbing School USA for a day of rock climbing in the Rio Grande Gorge.
As a point of disclosure, before that day I had never done any rock climbing whatsoever. Nicki on the other hand is quite the badass climber. There was a moment where I was still securing my harness, with climbing shoes on, but untied and helmet waiting on the hood of our rented Impala when Nicki, having already assembled her personal gear was standing with Gilroy casing our first our first climb. A vertical ascent of right around ninety or a hundred feet. At that moment it was hard to dismiss the feeling that I was a bit out of my league. I couldn’t help but think that she must have felt the exact same way when I first shooed her onto the casting deck of a skiff, put a spinning rod in her hand, and told her to cast at the fidgeting tail waiting not so far ahead. The pressure coming less, it seems, from the task at hand then wanting really impress the person who has thrust you into that let’s-see-what-you-got situation.
As such, I found myself at the literal intersection of buckle the fuck up or stand back and take photos all day.
I climbed. But mostly in an effort to keep up with Nicki.
It turned out to be my favorite “activity” of the entire weekend. Despite the adequate and near fool-proof safety precautions, the balance between fear and adrenaline and physicality and excitement, and fear, made for the just the right cocktail of chemical activity to make for a super fun day. Nicki is quite the climber, and she completed every climb in about half as much time as it took me. But it was all worth it. If the feeling of finishing a climb was not rewarding enough, being able to view the immensity of surrounding lands was staggering. Everything falling away beneath you nearly a thousand feet straight down into the gorge in cragged slopes studded with juniper and pinon. The desert plain erupting into mountains with their snowy epaulets, at the limits of horizon. All of this encompassed at once in a single vista to be seen while hanging from a rope at the top of a vertical rock face. Pretty breathtaking.
While I often find my attentions leaning in a southerly direction when considering fishing destinations, I can certainly say for sure that, despite the conditions routing our plans to fish rivers of greater renown, New Mexico will remain high on my list. It’s just too fishy and too beautiful. If you do make the journey west definitely check out the guys over at Land of Enchantment guides. They’ve got the whole northern half of New Mexico, as well as parts of Colorado wired and they’re super nice too. It will undoubtedly be worth it.
I could make excuses all day long as to why it took me six years to finally explore the fishery that is to be had in Tri-State area during the late spring and early summer. Some of the excuses that I could extend would be reasonable: It interfered with with my fishing plans in south Florida. And some would be unreasonable: Work. However, the truth is that I just was apathetic to the idea of it. Mostly because I had no idea how good the fishing can be on northeastern flats in the summer (it is fucking remarkable), and with lots and lots of water to fish, and strict seasonality to the fishery, it was hard to know where to start. This year all of that changed.
June and July were spent chasing stripers in skinny water with my good friend and striped bass whisperer, Vinny Catalano. What he showed me this summer kind of blew my mind and had me fucking hating myself for waiting so long to get my act together and see what the New York flats game was all about.
Striper fishing on the flats here in New York is ridiculously good. In these shallow water ecosystems stripers are essentially 100% apex predators. Rare is the threat of a shark or seal or anything else that would deign to eat a striper. Save maybe a larger striper. Or a human. Due to their being at the top of the food chain in these scenarios, these fish are generally super relaxed since they’re really only up in the shallow stuff to eat and hang out before moving further along their migratory paths. But their nonchalance does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that they are easy fish to feed a fly or jig to. A striper will follow a fly over great distances, inspecting as they swim, all the way to the boat sometimes, the various gesticulations of fur and feather only to rebuff the offering with maddening indifference. As long as they just don’t refuse the fly outright. When a striped bass does decide to eat the fly that has been presented to it, the ferocity and power with which they attack is with the most extreme prejudice. Stripers are dogged and powerful fighters that take full advantage of their wide, broomed tails that beat and beat and beat. And, because they are able to carry out their summer days and nights with little fear of predators, they have plenty of time to attune to their surroundings and if they feel that something isn’t right or are startled they will spook in pretty dramatic fashion. Also, they tail and eat crabs.
Most of the fish swimming the flats probably average between six and ten pounds. Ten to fifteen pound fish abound and the possibility of crossing paths with an absolute pig of a striper is always imminent. On our first day out this summer I managed to feed a striper somewhere in the neighborhood of eighteen to twenty pounds, and in the same failure of over setting that I suffered in New Mexico, decided that I needed to hit the fish like it was a one hundred fifteen pound tarpon. The fish turned a one-eighty the instant it felt the steel. The opposing forces were simply too much for the 15# flourocarbon.
Over a few days of fishing this summer Nicki certainly had big fish mojo too and probably had a dozen shots or more at stripers that would have touched the twenty pound mark. Despite many near perfect shots and a few follows turned refusal that had me pulling my hair out with helplessness she never came tight to a twenty plus fish. She did catch a few good ones.