If a relaxing day of dry fly fishing could be found on the San Juan River, it probably wasn’t going to be on Saturday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend.  A cold front with rain and high winds had blown through the high desert for two days, but today was going to be calm with hazy skies and a temperature in the comfortable 55 degree range. It was impossible to resist anyway.    My “favorite” water, an ever-changing opinion, was now the last half-mile above the end of the Quality Water.  There were good risers there on Wednesday in the 18 to 20 inch category, and it was the stretch where the guides usually became barn-sour, ready to collect the tip and head for the boat corral.  Clients, still lost in images of fish caught early in the day, would make a couple of last, half-hearted casts in the shallow riffles before the landing beach.   But not today.

       I hurried through the sage-filled field from the road to Simon Point, just to find “my water” standing full of wading guides and anglers.   It was nice to see so many anglers enjoying the river and practicing skills to improve their sport, but couldn’t they have done it somewhere else?  Oh well, what could I have really expected today, anyway?  A quick scan up and down the river and a count of 20 anglers left little room to squeeze into the milieu.  There were some risers up above the uppermost riffle, but I had fished them before.  They liked to rise against the near bank and there was just no effective position from which a fly could be cast and not spook the fish.  That left no real option but to walk slowly down the stream, maybe to spot a fish rising in some out-of-the-way lie.  Perhaps there would be one that hadn’t been thrashed with either the forward or back cast of one of the many novice anglers struggling to connect with the fish of their dreams.  Such trophies abound in the San Juan and are likely to be found at every turn of the river.  

       Body language seems to be spoken so loudly on a river chocked with anglers.  Words spoken aloud in this “cathedral” seem unnecessary, maybe even sinful.  I check quickly that my two-way has the volume turned low so as not to draw attention to myself if my wife called in from upstream.  Just walking down the bank drew the attention of each angler as I passed, as though to be examined in review; did I have the right waders, vest, fly rod and reel, was my hat on just right, or was my wide-mouthed net too pretentious.  I moved along and felt as though I had passed muster.  In reality, not one angler could have cared less who I was, what I looked like, or where I was going, all attention locked onto the water, the fish, their fly, and their next cast.  I know this because I have been there, where they are, in that infinite moment.  I had just been caught temporarily in the insecurity we all sometimes face as fly fishermen and women.

        There!  A splashy rise between two anglers.  Was there room for me to slide in?  It was a nice fish, but it might be too threatening for me, and them, if I moved in.  Especially bad if it caused a change in their drift or required a move to accommodate my presence.  Not worth the risk, and would not make for comfortable fishing.  I moved on.  I talked briefly with my wife and announced that I might not be able to get any fishing with all of the crowd.  I said I would walk on down and maybe just go back to the truck and wait for another day. . . if I did’t spot something along the way, that is. 

       The river road a short riffle to a broad, shallow run below, the last before the take-out some hundred yards below.  I walked along, my eyes watching for that tell-tale sparkle of a subtle take.  There were flies on the water, a swarming horde of love-sick midge and enough size 16 slate duns,  or were they blue-winged olives, to keep the fish in a constant upward gaze.  I stopped at a circle of rocks a few yards from the bank.  The water broke around them and created a small, living-room sized eddy below.  Was that a rise?  Just above the point of the first rock?  There was another!  Two exceptional fish and they hadn’t been spotted by the other anglers.  I could see why when I watched them.  The water was moving along at a good clip and the water was only knee deep.  The rises were rhythmic and the fish had to do little but tip the surface with their nose and then dip down with only a slight exposure of their back and tail.  I judged both fish in the 20 inch range and they were mine to work as long as I wanted.  I called my wife to announce my new intention and slipped from the bank to begin my analysis of this priceless, fishing moment. 

       Dry fly angling success or failure begins here.  I have found time spent analyzing a fishing situation as important as casting to eventual success.  The water and fish were shallow so I could get closer than if the fish were holding deeper, a perversion of logic that has to do with what a trout sees when looking at the surface for flies.  The rises were at regular intervals of every few seconds.  That meant they were likely feeding on an emerging mayfly and concentrated on the moving smorgasbord of water directly in from of them.  The sun was in my face, a position that weighed heavily in their favor since it would make my image very visible, saved only by the rolling water which would distort my presence a little.  I had to approach them from slightly downstream or I would have the glare of the reflected sun directly in my line of sight, and tracking my tiny fly would become impossible.  That would also place my outline a little downstream and out of their sight.  I calculated that I could approach the near fish to within a short 15 foot cast, or less, placing the second, far riser at a full 40 feet; a reachable and effective range.   If I missed and spooked the near fish, will it spook the far fish?  I didn’t think so.  The fly was right, knot was good, leader was straight, fly would float, I was ready to cast.  

       Of course, I couldn’t count the times I have done gone through this mental checklist, only to be stiffed by the fish.  If the science always worked that well, I would catch every fish in the river, which I can assure you I have far from achieved.  Nevertheless, I like to feel that when I make that first cast, it will be as accurate, effective, and the best I can make it.  (First cast, reach mend upstream, nothing.)   The fish rose again.  Another short 15 foot cast and he took!  I don't know whether the take was half-hearted on the fish’s part or whether the hook just missed, but I didn’t even get a feel.   (Whew!  Shake it off and keep your cool.  Try again.  Don’t let the spray from the false cast hit the water in front of the fish.)  I tried a couple more timely casts, but not surprisingly, the fish refused my every offering.  He still continued the steady rises, but as a fish will do that has a PhD in “dry fly”, he was onto me.   The distant fish was still rising, though less rhythmically now as the hatch was beginning to wane a little.   I was still a little hesitant to try him since it would obviously mean “lining” the near fish.  That could possibly have created a spooked situation and maybe loss of both fish.  I changed flies and started the process again with no success.  Regardless of my best offerings, there was not doubt that I had lost my element of surprise with the near fish. 

        The hatch, and the day, continued to fade and the far fish was not rising regularly now.  If I was going to have a shot at either, I had to chance it and cast to the far fish.  I made the first cast and there was no rise.  The near fish had ceased to rise as well.  That was not surprising since I had just lined him.  Had I now spooked both?  I cast again and still no rise.  It now seemed doubtful, but worth yet a third cast just in case he was still there and not seeing enough flies on the surface to come up. 

       Success!  There he was and in a moment too brief to fully comprehend, he was on.  He was a heavy fish, thrashing on the surface with that familiar sight and sound that every angler has come to cherish.  (Get the line and the fish on the reel, check the drag, find a quiet bit of water to eventually slide him toward.  Keep a solid, tight, low rod on him to make sure he fights the pull of the line in the water and work him toward the eddy behind the rocks.)  As the fight progressed in my favor, I raised the rod to get his head near the surface, minimizing his ability to turn and run.  I moved downstream of the fish and after a couple of misses, he slid solidly into the net.  As I released a healthy 18 1/2 inch male San Juan rainbow, the sun was sliding behind the horizon.  I was thankful I had made the decision to fish on this unlikely day. 

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