Fly fishing New Mexico lakes

by Jim Buckmelter (March, 2008)

The San Juan River is famous for large trout, but New Mexico has even better opportunities for very large trout in lakes such as the Jicarilla Apache Lakes, MacAllister Lake, Ramah Lake, Quemado Lake and others which contain really large fish that have not gotten much attention from fly fishermen.

Stone Lake on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation may have been one of the best lakes in the country during the 1990’s. An extensive and expensive restoration effort in 1993 eradicated a Carp problem and the trout stocked then grew quite large (21 inches plus). Other excellent Jicarilla lakes include Enbom, La Jara, Horse and Mundo. Then New Mexico suffered a series of drought years that lowered lake levels significantly and made them much more susceptible to summer and winterkill. The winter of 2007-2008 has seen a higher than normal snowpack and conditions may improve dramatically this year. Reports from Stone Lake last fall mentioned fair numbers of fourteen inch fish and since growth rates are very good, those fish will probably be sixteen to eighteen inches this spring. The season begins April 1.

MacAllister Lake is notorious for wind and very finicky fish, but it used to have some of the largest trout in New Mexico. I have been skunked more at MacAllister than everyplace else put together, but I’ve also hooked and lost some very strong fish there. In addition, the bird life is always interesting ranging from White Pelicans to many ducks and hawks. The season is short here to protect migrating waterfowl and fishing is closed in the winter months (Oct.-Feb.). Carp were reported in 2006; however, the lake dried up in 2007 and should have killed that problem? It isn’t known when the lake will recover, but it probably won’t be worth fishing in 2008.

Ramah Lake and Quemado Lake in the southwest part of the state can also be excellent trout lakes. Both share very lovely countryside and although the camping is better at Quemado, the mesa country around Ramah is some of the prettiest in New Mexico. Ramah also has largemouth bass.

These lakes share an attribute, which produces large fish and a problem. These lakes are fairly shallow and extremely fertile which produces enormous plant and insect growth, which in turn produces rapid fish growth. Unfortunately, this fertility can result in summer algae blooms or oxygen deprivation in the winter, which both kill fish. Some bad years can result in total fish kill, but when conditions are good for a few successive years, exceptional fishing is the result. Fishermen who plan to release fish should be very careful as warmer summer water can make reviving a “played-out” fish a real problem. Some of us simply do not fish these lakes when the temperature gets too warm!

How does one fish these lakes? Obviously a boat is the simple answer. Some can be fished from the banks, but this gets difficult when the weeds grow. A float tube is the best answer for several reasons, of which the most important is that it is just a lot more fun! Float tubes are also surprisingly good in windy conditions, since your legs provide a lot more drag than the bottom of a boat or canoe.

There are two basic fly fishing techniques for lakes. The first is traditional trolling with a sinking line. Trolling Woolley Buggers or streamers is often very effective, especially in the spring. An intermediate or full sinking line is recommended and it is difficult to troll too slowly. A twitch or strip retrieve can be an effective modification to this technique. The other technique, sometimes called a bobber and fly technique, is a still fishing method where a floating line is used with a strike indicator above five to nine feet of leader. Adjust leader and tippet length for the depth of the water; however I don’t like more than ten feet of leader since I don’t want the indicator preventing netting a fish when the indicator reaches the rod tip. Again, a twitch modification can often induce a strike. It can be very surprising how effective a nearly motionless fly can be in a stillwater situation. Patience and concentration are the keys to this technique.

What are the most effective flies? Since the best New Mexico lakes tend to become weedy, the most common food may be damselflies, snails and scuds. There may be more variations of the damselfly nymph than any other fly, but the one that has worked well for me is the “Dirty Damsel”. The key element to this variation is a pearlescent mylar body to give it some flash in the often murky waters in these lakes. The Double Hackle Peacock is said to be a snail pattern and size 12 works well, but I fail to see how trout can digest something that large and hard. It works well though in lots of different variations. I’ve also had good results with black, brown and olive Woolley Buggers in sizes 8-12, since these resemble all sorts of stuff including minnows, leeches and crayfish. Another pattern that has worked well has been a size 12 Gray Nymph. I believe the pattern imitates the Callibaetis nymph that is very common in these lakes. Another fly that has produced for me is the traditional Mickey Finn streamer. I’ve used this because I grew up in the East fishing for Brookies, but it has worked particularly well at Ramah Lake. Scud patterns are a new addition to this article, based on a conversation with a biologist, who claimed that these lakes are just full of scuds. One recent trip using olive scuds confirmed that it is a useful fly. I also once had a memorable day at Stone Lake using a Crayfish fly. I took 15 fish ranging from 16 to 22 inches on a crayfish tied mostly with Pheasant Tail fibers, fished with a floating line and a strike indicator. Salmon Egg patterns are also very good, especially in the late fall and early spring. Summary of best lakes:

Summary of best lakes:

Stone Lake. Lots of big strong fish. Exceptional! Two fish limit. Single barbless hook required. Very popular float tube lake. Dropper fly is o.k. 440 acres. Snake River Cutthroats stocked in 1997 should do as well as the Rainbows. 160 miles northwest of Albuquerque. A season license for the Jicarilla Reservation is $70, but seniors over 55 can get a season license for only $55. The daily fee is $11 and licenses can be obtained in Albuquerque or at the Best Western motel in Dulce. There is also a daily parking fee of $1 and camping is available for an additional fee. Reports late in 2007 indicated a good population of fourteen inch fish that should grow to sixteen inches by Spring 2008?

Other Jicarilla Lakes. Also very good. Eight fish limit and bait is legal except for minnows. Mundo fished well even during the drought and Enbom was good in 2007. La Jara and Dulce will depend on this year’s runoff. Horse Lake is the most temperamental of the reservation lakes, but may be worth a try this year? Be careful of the dirt/mud drive to this lake.

MacAllister Lake. Notorious due to wind and finicky fish, but perhaps the best chance for a really large fish. Closest to Albuquerque at approx. 125 miles northeast. Difficult from shore. A bonus is the adjacent city of Las Vegas and some excellent restaurants. Season at this wildlife refuge opens March 1 and closes Sep 30. Dried up in 2007 and may not recover for 2008.

Shuree Ponds. Located on the Valle Vidal in far northern NM, east of Costilla . Not as good as a few years ago due to pressure from meat fishermen, but it is still beautiful high country with great camping facilities and wildlife. Easy bank fishing and a special pond for kids eleven and under. Restricted to single barbless hook and a two fish limit. Unfortunately, these ponds are small and even a two fish limit hasn’t maintained the formerly great fishing, but it is still beautiful and also close to the Rio Costilla and Rio Commanche. The Rio Commanche has native Rio Grande Cutthroats and our club, New Mexico Trout, has started an extensive restoration project on this lovely little stream. Two hundred miles, mostly north, from Albuquerque. Season starts July 1 in this area to protect calving elk.

Ramah Lake. A real southwest jewel in Mesa country. Scenery is great and fishing has been too. Relatively close to Albuquerque at 135 miles southwest. Bass too! Next to El Morro National Monument and the scenic Zuni Pueblo. Ramah had a massive kill in 2003 and there have been no reports since.

Southwestern Lakes. Quemado Lake is a very fertile lake with potential winterkill problem. Has produced lots of big fish that can taste like the moss that grows in the lake. 170 miles southwest of Albuquerque. Lately infested with goldfish, but the Game and Fish Dept. introduced Tiger Muskies in an attempt to control the goldfish. The same comments apply to Bluewater Lake. Acomita Lake had a brief Window of good fishing, but this lake went dry in 2004 and apparently has not recovered.

Honorable Mention: Maxwell 13 is 75 miles past MacAllister Lake off interstate 25 near the small village of Maxwell. This lake gets little or no attention from NM Trout members or anyone else. This lake is a real sleeper! Season starts March 1.

Eagle Nest Lake. Quite large lake popular with Texans and mostly ignored by fly fishermen from Albuquerque. Heron Lake and Abiquiu Resevoir are two other very large and deep bodies of water that are probably worth a lot more attention. I think the size of these lakes intimidates most fly fishermen who use float tubes? You sure don’t want to get blown across these lakes as the hike back would take a “long” time.

High mountain lakes such as Pecos Baldy Lake, Horseshoe Lake, Middle Fork Lake and others can be good, but access is difficult via 4wd or hiking. These deserve a separate article.

Warm water lakes. There are a bunch, but this writer doesn’t have any experience with them, so someone else can write that article.

The San Juan River is famous and can be very crowded, even in mid-winter. These lakes can produce even better fishing without the crowds and the fish will probably be stronger. Try to practice “Catch and Release” fishing, because these lakes are becoming better known and the pressure has affected some of them already. This article was written mostly for the benefit of out-of-state tourists and the information is pretty minimal. For more detailed information on location or other, please consult one of the excellent guidebooks on New Mexico. Ti Piper’s book “Fishing In New Mexico” covers all the water in the state and “Fly Fishing In Northern New Mexico”, edited by Craig Martin, covers the essentials of Northern New Mexico. Both books are excellent. A newer book by Taylor Streit “The No-Nonsense Guide To Fly Fishing In New Mexico” is also very good.

Jim Buckmelter, March 2008