Fly Fishing the San Juan River: Tips and Lessons Learned

San Juan Rainbow Kype
Kype

After I made it home and spent a day on the coach allowing my body to recover from four days of fishing, I wrote up my trip report full of pictures and stories. Looking back to my time on the water, there were a whole bunch of little things that brought this whole trip together. Many of these things were tips that others had shared with me before my trip to the San Juan River. Others were lessons that the actual trip educated me on. So the following is a somewhat random list of do’s and don’ts, tips, reviews, and all around good ideas if you are visiting the San Juan River.

Navajo Lake State Park
Navajo Lake State Park

Lodging – I stayed in a tent at the Navajo Lake State Park. Fishing consumed all of my daylight hours and lodging was secondary. Having said that, the Navajo Lake State Park was perfect for me. It was not even half full during this time of the year and my ten dollar primitive camping ticket bought me a place to pitch my tent, a warm shower, and covered the 5 dollar charge to park on the San Juan River. Not a bad deal when it comes right down to it. Hands down, great decision to stay at the Navajo Lake State Park.

Fisheads/Back Cast Cafe
Fisheads/Back Cast Cafe

Food – As I stated before, I am a breakfast guy. I have to have a couple cups of coffee and a warm meal will keep me going all day. Because it was in the 30’s most mornings, I opted for breakfast to be my one meal out per day. I highly recommend the Back Cast Cafe which is a part of the Fisheads Fly Shop. Food was good, service was great, coffee was hot, and it gave my boots a place to thaw out in the morning. It was nice to warm up before the day and charge my cell phone and camera. ¬†For my other meals I brought sandwich makings from home and I brought a delicious venison stew that warmed my belly at the end of the day. This all helped me to cut down on costs.

Float-n-Fish
Float-n-Fish

Gear Needs – As big of a fan as I was of Fisheads, they did not have some of the basic tying materials that I needed for my time on the water. They pointed me in the direction of Float-n-Fish, another shop next door. Ray had all kinds of gear in there and even put some of the big box stores here in Phoenix to shame. If you need specific pieces of gear, you may want to check out Float-n-Fish

Clothing – I am not a big fan of wearing waders, but the San Juan River water temps are extremely cold. I did not really understand why others were telling me to layer under my waders until I got there and stepped into the water. Even when the sun is shining and I am getting sunburnt, my legs are still pretty chilly even through a pair of fleece pants I had on under my waders. Layering is a necessity for this river.

Fenwick HMG
Fenwick HMG

Rod/ReelEverywhere I read online, guys were saying that I would need a 9 foot 6 weight rod. Maybe this rod would be ideal, but I fished my grandfather’s old 5 weight Fenwick and was happy with how that worked out for me. Any lost fish were certainly the fault of the operator and not the equipment. I talked with several people on the river that were catching fish on even smaller weight rods.

Chest Pack
Wright and McGill Co. Chest Pack

Gear – How to store and carry gear on the water is always funny to me. Everyone has a different system from a vest to backpacks, chest packs to lanyards. Normally on a small stream I take a backpack to have everything I would need “just in case.” Originally, I started with a backpack and a chest pack but quickly realized I did not need all that gear for this river. My few basic needs were the following:

  1. Small box of flies, weights, and indicators
  2. 6x tippet (and yes, I splurged for fluorocarbon and no, I don’t know if it helped)
  3. Water
  4. A couple granola bars
  5. Forceps
  6. Net
Inside the Chest Pack
Looking inside the chest pack while it is on

All of this fit nicely into my wader pockets and Wright and McGill Co. Chest Pack. A little velcro on my high dollar fly boxes helped to keep everything neat and secure. I am also a big fan of the platypus water containers (seen in the chest pack above) because they can be folded up and do not take up much room. This setup saved my back and shoulders and kept me very comfortable on the water.

Tying gear – If you do tie, definitely bring you gear along with a headlamp or other light source so that you can tie during the evening. I had only tied up a few of every bug at home, because I am broke and did not want to waste hooks and materials on stuff that was not going to work. This worked out well for me in the end, because during my down time on the river I was able to tie up some more red hots, zebra midges, and KF emergers.

Tying Gear
Tying Gear

****Washing gear РProbably the most important thing I did was done at home and after the trip. Wash, clean, and sterilize your gear. This should be a no-brainer if you are fishing multiple bodies of water but specifically for the San Juan River. The San Juan River Rainbows are plagued with  whirling disease and therefore special percautions must be taken unless you want to destroy your home waters. Clean boots, waders, fly line, and your net.

The San Juan River is a fun and unique fishery and I recommend getting out there to chase those big fish. This was my first time to the River and I am by no means an expert on everything there. Feel free to add something to the list.

Maybe my favorite photo of the trip

14 Responses to “Fly Fishing the San Juan River: Tips and Lessons Learned”

  1. Fontinalis Rising

    Really good tips Ben- the whole series is a must read for anyone planning a do it yourself trip. I’ll be sure and re-read it before I go back.

    Reply
    • azwanderings

      Thanks Jason. I really have to say without the tips from friends and fellow fisherman, I don’t know if the trip would have been as successful. Glad you enjoyed the journey. Thanks for the kind words.

      Ben

      Reply
  2. David G

    Great write up! I would also suggest people from afar to read these for sure! Since you posted I’ve been trying to head up there and things keep coming up. I would also suggest bug repellent for the summer months. The mosquito’s get so bad that you have to get out of the water to save yourself. Glad you had a good time! Hope you come back soon! If you do, shoot me a line.

    Reply
    • azwanderings

      Thanks David. Good to know about the bug repellant. Getting eaten alive sound miserable. Thanks for the heads up.

      Ben

      Reply
    • azwanderings

      The velcro was a last minute addition. One of my readers was worried (and rightfully so) that my high tech Altoid tins would end up falling and sinking to the bottom of the river. The velcro worked great because the stayed secure the whole time and I didn’t have to worry about them falling out. Glad you liked the idea. Thanks.

      Ben

      Reply
  3. Gary

    Hi Ben,
    A very good article on fishing The Juan. It was like reading a book. As you know I like to stay at Abes. I like a warm bed. I like to plug in my boot dryer. There is nothing like putting on a warm dry pair of boots. I like to bring my camping stove on the river and have a cup of coffee while I am fishing. Did you use your jet boil on the river? I also enjoy a nice mountain house meal on the river. Fish Heads has a great breakfast. There lunches and dinners are also very nice. I will be there towards the end of June. I will only be throwing dry fly’s and large foam items. Tight lines, keep the fishing reports coming along with equipment reviews.

    Gary

    Reply
    • azwanderings

      Thanks Gary. It was all thanks to our fly tying nights and talking Juan tactics that made it a success. I did not get a chance to stop by Abes, but I’ve heard great things about it. The boot dryer is a great idea too, especially when the temps are dipping down below freezing. I did bring the jetboil and used it for coffee as well as heating up my venison stew. I really like that unit. Best of luck when you head out in June. Thanks again for the support.

      Ben

      Reply
  4. Rohan

    Thanks Ben for the detailed trip post!
    Really gives me an idea of what to expect if I ever make it up that way!

    That Rainbow is a ripper!

    Reply
    • azwanderings

      Thanks Rohan. The fish get big and strong feeding in that cold current. Definitely something fun to experience. Thanks for the kind words.

      Ben

      Reply
  5. mike doughty

    i cut my teeth on the juan in about 2000 when i was stationed in new mexico. i love that river and look forward to revisiting it. we used to stays at abe’s all the time.

    Reply
    • azwanderings

      The San Juan was a fun river to fish. Lots of big hungry fish. I look forward to going back in the future. I’ve heard Abes is great place to stay. Thanks Mike.

      Ben

      Reply
    • azwanderings

      Thanks Chris. You have a great shop there and look forward to getting back over there. Have a good summer on the Juan.

      Ben

      Reply

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