Trip Report: Fishing the Rio Chama Below El Vado Dam

by Ron Loehman
From the October/November 2014 Newsletter

Earlier this year I was the successful bidder in an on-line auction for a guided fishing trip donated to the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. I redeemed the award in late October for a trip on the Rio Chama below the El Vado dam, guided by Noah Parker, the trip donor and owner of Land of Enchantment (LOE) Guides. Noah is a long-time friend and supporter of New Mexico Trout, who many of our members know through his contributions to our Conclave and through trips they have taken with him. I had never before seen that part of the Chama, apart from float trips on summer weekends when the dam releases are set at least to 800 cubic ft/sec (cfs) for recreational whitewater users. At that level the 32 mile float through the Chama Wild and Scenic River corridor is great fun, but the fishing sucks.

The flow out of the dam is greatly reduced after the end of the irrigation and whitewater seasons and for my trip the river was at a very fishable 79 cfs. LOE has river access through private property about two river miles below the dam. To get there we drove through several locked gates and eventually parked in a clearing about a quarter mile from the edge of the line of bluffs that frame the east side of the river. We scrambled the five hundred or so feet down an informal trail to the water’s edge to begin our fishing.

Noah set my fishing buddy and me up with standard two-nymph rigs under strike indicators. We used a number of different flies during the day. The ones that worked best for me were Noah’s variant of a Warden’s Worry as the top fly and a Prince Nymph on the bottom. The water was murky with visibility of less than a foot due to rains earlier in the week. Most of the water we waded was less than thigh deep. The river bottom there is mixed cobbles, but since we couldn’t see it, we were really dependent on Noah’s advice on where to cast and what drifts were best.

We caught a mixture of healthy, hard-fighting browns and rainbows. The numbers weren’t huge, probably because of the turbid water, but they were big. I was too focused on the fishing part to keep count of the catching part, but I think my friend and I caught more than eight fish between 18 and 20+ inches and at least ten between 12 and 15 inches, plus some smaller ones. The takes were subtle, so we probably missed a bunch through misjudging the indicator float.

All in all it was a very enjoyable day. The scenery was beautiful, the fishing was great, and Noah was everything one could want in a guide. My friend is a very experienced dry fly fisherman but this was the first time he had done much nymph fishing. On the drive home he commented on how patient Noah had been with him and how much he had learned about nymphing techniques from Noah’s instruction.

Practical Details: The Land of Enchantment website is It is also possible to fish this part of the Chama by walking downstream from Cooper’s El Vado Ranch, which has river access, fee parking, cabins, and a small convenience store just below El Vado Dam. To get there, take US 84 north and turn west on NM 112 about a mile north of Tierra Amarilla. Drive about 13 miles to reach the ranch.