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Event Article

Going to backing at the Rainbow Lodge, on the renowned San Juan River

Date: 5/10/04
Location: San Juan River, NM
Cost: Varies based on accommodations and guide services
Reviewer: Zander

Introduction: It isn't everyday that we have the prospect of fly fishing for trophy rainbows in renowned waters, so when TackleTour had the opportunity to experience some San Juan flyfishing we jumped at the chance. Armed with just fly rods and reels we flew out on a propeller powered tin-can to the town of Navajo Dam. Where I would rendezvous with some old friends at the Rainbow Lodge, the starting place of our fishing exploit.


Welcome to the Rainbow Lodge, tackle shop, and Resolution Guide Service


A little about New Mexico: Fishing may not be the first thing that comes to mind when most people chat about the state New Mexico. During prehistoric times most of New Mexico rested beneath a giant sea, while the remainder offered a tropical like setting. After the age of dinosaurs the seas receded and glaciers carved the high mountains and created the diverse terrain now found throughout the state. In stark contrast to the prehistoric times New Mexico no longer offers any tropical environment, but does have a more diverse geological makeup than most people realize. The various landscapes range from low desert plains to the 13,000 foot Rocky Mountain ranges, and nestled somewhere in between are some of the very best trout waters in the country.


MP and John Martinez tell fish stories over breakfast at the Rainbow Lodge


The Rainbow Lodge & Resolution Guide Service: The Rainbow Lodge and Resolution Guide service is owned and operated by Chris and Karen Guikama, and is located on the public banks of the San Juan River. There are a number of lodges in this region, but the Rainbow is the only one that offers back gate access to the river. The Rainbow Lodge is a one stop shop for many anglers looking for a total experience. There is a on site fly shop, which is actually New Mexico's only distributor of Temple Fork Fly Rods, and a staff of guides boasting a combined half a century of guiding experience.

I'm used to fishing in the backcountry, and roughing it with my bear can, but things at the Rainbow Lodge are quite distinctive. Anglers enjoy superb accommodations in the form of separate suites. Each suite has two bedrooms, a private bathroom, couches and recliners, satellite television, and even a fly tying bench! One suite can easily accommodate a party of four people. To top it off there is a nice dining room where clients are treated to excellent meals courtesy of the lodge's executive chef, Brad Neundorf.


Kirk made it look easy by not only landing the first fish, but catching three before any of us even had nymphs in the water. Jeremiah teaches MP about watching the strike indicator carefully

The San Juan River: The San Juan river is among the finest tail water fisheries in the United States, and carves through the desert directly below the Navajo Dam. The "quality water" below the dam runs just over four miles, and is home to over 80,000 Rainbows, Cutbows, and Browns. Why is this stretch of water so productive? The answer is a combination of just the right natural elements, and fish and game regulations that really make sense. The river can best be described as wide and slow moving, with depths ranging from 2-12 feet. Most days the river is clear thanks to the constant snow melt of the San Juan Mountains just South of Central Colorado, but on our trip slower flows and abundant sunshine caused the deeper sections of the river to become chalky green with algae and moss. The water temperature is pretty consistent, and ranges from 43-46 degrees, allowing a profusion of bugs to hatch throughout the year, providing the resident trout with a endless supply of food. This tail water can only be fished with a fly outfit, and all fish are catch and release only, so the population of trout in this protected water remains high year round. It is for these reasons that fly anglers flock to the San Juan as the first-rate fishing opportunities never seem to tail off.

John plays a good sized rainbow towards the drift boat


Guides: Though there are a lot of fish, they don't just bite on anything. On day one of our trip we attempted to use our own local flies and only managed to hook into three fish, landing only one. It was definitely time to get a good guide to show us the lay of the river. In fact, its always a good idea to go with a local guide whenever you first set foot in a new stretch of water. Quality guiding can make the difference between catching a heap of fish, and hooking it into none. A good guide will have in depth knowledge of the river, conditions, and fishing patterns…but a great guide will help make your experience an even more enjoyable one.


One of the many fish that John landed while fishing the mid day drift


The guides at the Rainbow Lodge were among the best I have ever fished with, adapting to everyone’s level of fishing, and ensuring that everyone caught their share of fish, and had a great time doing it. I had the opportunity to fish with Chris Anderson and Mike Garret, both of which put me into some excellent fishing holes, while MP was paired up with Jeremiah. MP is a beginner when it comes to fly fishing, as he spends the majority of his fishing hours offshore, and found that Jeremiah was extremely patient, actually willing to spend time teaching MP the basics of fly casting.


You know you have a good guide when you approach a 2 minute drift and your guide takes the time to drop anchor and switch out your rig just so you have the prospect to hook up fish in an approaching hole. By continually making modifications to setups, and highlighting target areas on our drift I was able to catch more fish, as well as learn new techniques that I look forward to make use of on my local stretches of water.


Resolution Guide, Jeremiah, prepares to net MP's first San Juan fish


Great Drift: That morning over breakfast we broke into three teams. Each team would be in our own drift boat with our own guide. It was during all this planning when our two most outspoken members Robert Danese and John Martinez decided to place a little wager on which boat could catch the most fish. With the newly added pressure we set out on our drifts, all launching right below the famed Texas Hole. The first thing I noticed was how serene the environment was. Nestled in a canyon the San Juan river cuts through the dry desert like an oasis. The water flows were slow, and our guides told us that water clarity was actually a lot poorer than usual. It would be difficult to sight fish with streamers, or run dry flies, so we immediately went to nymphing.


Our guide, Mike Garret carefully releases a 22 inch Rainbow caught wade fishing at "Lunker Alley" on the San Juan


The Resolution Guides were like artists, painting their way up and down stream, constantly repositioning us for those perfect drifts. When we started catching fish on one drift we worked it five more times to fully exploit it before moving downstream. I particularly enjoyed fishing from the drift boats because Mike and Chris would constantly put us over proven holes, and work hard to run the boat so we would achieve an absolutely natural drift over parts of the river that wade fisherman
simply couldn't reach.


Another benefit of fishing from the drift boat became readily apparent once I hooked into a large Rainbow in a fast moving riffle. This particular fish caught me off guard, and while I set late it didn't matter as the big Bow had inhaled my second fly. The fish took me to backing in seconds, and to my dismay actually broke the outgoing clicker on my Bauer M2 reel. Running silent I tried to gain ground stripping and reeling whenever
I could, but the fish turned and shot up and across the river. If I had been fishing from shore I would have lost this fish, but our guide Chris heaved on the oars driving the drift boat against the current, allowing me to chase down and eventually land the fish.

By drifting the entire 4.25 miles of "quality water" we were able to catch a variety of rainbows and browns in some of the most scenic water I have ever fished. Whether it was open river or sheer cliff walls, fishing the San Juan on a drift boat is a must do, as long as you have a guide that knows his way around the stream, and the fish.


Robert and John do the San Juan shuffle while wade fishing by "three island stretch" on the San Juan


Wading: During the day we would anchor at certain spots as we made modifications to our fly setups between drifts. But there were times when certain fishing holes were just too good to just hit with quick drifts, and it was at these times when nothing beats getting waist deep in water for some casting exercise. One such location is the famed "Lunker Alley" which is a deep pool mid way through the drift. There are a stack of fish that just sit on both sides of the pool waiting to ambush bugs that come rolling through the fast moving water. It was here that Robert coined the phrase "the San Juan Shuffle." When you walk out in the water you sometimes will see big trout actually come within feet of you snapping at bugs. What is happening is that our boots are actually stirring up food enticing fish to come out for easy pickings.

Anglers that are expert casters like our friend John Martinez can pull up
a ton of fish wade fishing the San Juan. Using fine tippet and the same strike indicator method you can delicately cast these tiny bugs and work the drift with careful mends, just be ready to run downstream if a trophy rainbow hits! At one point Mike had to run back to the drift boat and grab the net and then run a quarter mile downstream to catch up with John who was just about done tiring out a nice 22 inch Rainbow.


The San Juan Rainbows average 17" in length, but there are many fish well over 20 inches. The Rainbow Lodge can outfit you with the right bugs should you choose to fish without a guide (right)

Rainbow Heaven:
Locals say that there are over 20,000 fish in each mile stretch of water here in the San Juan, and after fishing here, I am a believer. There are Browns and Cuts in the San Juan, but the Rainbows rule here. The Rainbows are big, and offer up fights that mirror their size. I can't tell you how many times fish took me to backing, or turned and broke off my tippet. I recommend fishing with a 5 or 6 weight rod with WF or DT floating line. These fish are shy and to be successful you need to fish with 6-9 foot leaders, ultra fine tippets, and the tiniest fly patterns. Most of our fish were caught with size 22 and 24 flies, and while I just had to try the infamous San Juan Worm, I enjoyed the most success fishing with pheasant tails and midges.


Our Guide, Chris Anderson, smiles as Robert Danese holds up a good-looking Rainbow


The Texas Hole: On all rivers there is always one go to spot that the anglers tell tales about, and on the San Juan this spot is lovingly referred to as the Texas Hole. This spot is the junction for the tail water from the Navajo Dam into the main San Juan river, and is the holding spot for a serious amount of big fish. Unfortunately this also means that crowds of waders will cramp up against the hole, and a commute line of drift boats will take turns rolling through this phenomenal drift.


Dean takes a break after landing sixteen Rainbows while pounding the Texas Hole on multiple drifts (behind)


Getting back to that little bet that everyone made the morning before we set out...both Robert and Dean were having a so-so day on the San Juan, a fish here a fish there, but no spectacular action. But their guide, Chris Anderson, assured them that he had a trump card in his pocket...and that ace was the Texas Hole. Rather than fight the crowds in the morning Chris took Robert and Dean on a fast drift through the entire 4.25 mile stretch, never stopping more than 20 minutes at each hole. Then as most boats and anglers were about mid stream they pulled out and went back to the Texas Hole launch point to capitalize on the evening hatch. Most of the waders had moved aside, and all of the drift boats were certainly gone. In less then two hours Robert and Dean caught over 20 fish in the Texas hole, delivering a fatal blow to the counts on the other boats and earning them the spoils, as well as bragging rights.


Zander holds up a San Juan Rainbow taken on a Baetis nymph

Conclusion: As far as memorable fishing trips go, the trip to the Rainbow Lodge and the San Juan River will stay with me forever. Its simply too easy be spoiled by the fantastic fishing offered by this incredibly productive fishery. The Rainbow Lodge was a great home base for our trip, and getting a gourmet meal, a good nights sleep, and a evening by the fire pit will certainly put you into the San Juan in the very best condition. This one stop shop outfitted us with the right flies, excellent guide services, and a complete fly fishing experience that was second to none. If catching sizeable Bows is your idea of bliss, then it is definitely worth getting in one of those ridiculously pint sized planes and heading over to the city of Navajo Dam, the team at the Rainbow Lodge are waiting for you...and so are some 80 thousand fish.

Thanks to John Martinez and Robert Danese
for the trip of a lifetime









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