It’s a mild, sunny fall day in Cimarron Canyon. The leaves are just starting to turn golden and the Cimarron River runs cool and clear. Fly fishing guide Chaz Kerger wades into the river and slowly moves along the bank. Bring two fly fishing rods. Today, he’s guiding two first-time fly fishermen: Taos News photographer Nathan Burton and myself.
After fitting out waders and boots at the Taos Fly Shop, we pass Eagle Nest Lake and head to Cimarron Canyon State Park, part of the Colin Neblett Wildlife Area. At 36,116 acres, it is the largest area in the state.
Kerger reaches a point on US 64 and we follow him along a faint path through the grass. He points out that with all the rain this summer there has been so much new growth that you can almost get lost trying to keep track. Although we are not far from the road, when we reach the river, it is quiet and peaceful.
We all wade further down the river to reach a pool. A cold but not wet sensation settles against our legs as the river laps around our waders. Kerger shows how to cast the fly rod to the right so it lands in the frothy part of the river that runs above the deeper troughs, where we’re most likely to find trout. He explains that some fly fishing casting techniques are meant to emulate the natural drift of an insect in the water. He adds that in the fall, the flies are chosen to mimic the later stages of the bug cycle, when the bugs are getting smaller and fewer in number.
After just a couple of fancy pitches, Kerger catches a small rainbow trout. While we could keep some of the fish we catch in this stretch of river, we’ve decided to release the fish we reel in, so Kerger pulls the barbless hook out of the trout’s mouth while holding it underwater in the net. We watch the fish swim out of the net and take a moment to recover before it escapes into the cover of the mossy underwater plants.
After Kerger demonstrates a bit more, he spins the rod for me, telling me how to cast the fly 45 degrees upstream and let it float downstream. The top dry fly bobs along with the current like a lobster that has fallen into the water. At first, the movement seems awkward. I worry about how to catch my wrist and where my fly lands. But after a while my body relaxes into the rhythm of casting upstream and following the downward progress with the rod until the fly reaches a point about 45 degrees downstream, taking it out of the water to launch it again. Standing in the river is relaxing, and I begin to feel that I am part of nature and its rhythms, as I feel the cold current, the wind and the sun and hear the birds calling.
We move upstream to a different spot, where I catch a colorful brown trout. I feel the tug on the fly and lift the fish so Kerger can catch it in the net. Judging by its size, it says that this is its first year of life. It was probably born in this river and is starting to get more colorful to spawn, he adds. Kerger explains that brown trout spawn in the fall and are more aggressive and less cautious when preparing to mate.
All the fish we catch are rainbows and browns about 4-5 inches long, except for the biggest brown that Burton catches at the Palisades Picnic Area, our last stop of the day. “Once in a while, you’ll get a big fish out of here, especially in the fall. It’s usually a big brown that you don’t really get a chance at any other time of the year, just during the spawning frenzy when the guard,” says Kerger.
The picnic area is dominated by the cliffs of the Palisades above, which were cut by the river through igneous rock. There are several groups fishing here, but the water is cold and fast, and this is where we get the most hits.
“There’s a lull in the summer when the water is warm and the fish are slow,” Kerger explains. “So the best fishing is in the early morning or late afternoon. As we get into fall, the air and water temperatures cool, the good fishing is all day. The fish they’re ramping up for winter.”
Beginners in trout waters
As a beginner, there is a lot to learn about fly fishing: how to hold the rod, how to get the flies out to get to the spot you want (ideally move further and further up the stream). Kerger explains that fishermen work upstream because fish face that direction because of the way they breathe and feed on insects. “If you approach from behind so they don’t see you, this is the most effective way to put the fly in his mouth from the side or from behind; it is the most believable presentation. Fish are pretty smart,” he says. “That’s the difference between a good fly fisherman and a bad fly fisherman: presentation. We want the fly to look like an insect drifting helplessly in the river.”
Kerger has chosen the Cimarron River for our trip out of all the other fishing spots in northern New Mexico. “The Cimarron River is great,” he explains. “Even though it’s small, this river actually has more fish per mile than any other river in the state, other than the San Juan.” The Cimarron has mostly rainbows and browns, while some of the tributaries may have Rio Grande Cutthroats, New Mexico’s state fish.
The Cimarron River is designated as Special Trout Waters, so there are regulations regarding what type of bait can be used and whether the fish can be kept or must be released. Red Chile, Green Chile or Christmas designations vary in terms of tackle and bag limits. Kerger explains that the upper reaches of the river are designated Red Chile, meaning only artificial flies can be used and all fish are catch and release. Where we are fishing in the lower reaches, fish can be harvested, according to state law. “For fly fishing, catch and release is the general expectation. For fishing in the Southern Rockies, the Cimarron River grows very large and plentiful trout. Catching big fish in a small river is almost as good as can be,” says Kerger.
Taos Fly Shop was first founded by Taylor Streit in 1980. Streit is the author of three fly fishing books. The shop is located at 338 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Unit B. Call 575-751-1312 or visit taosflyshop.com.