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New Mexico’s moderate climate lures winter anglers

A hopeful angler checks a line through the ice at Eagle Nest Lake. (Journal)
A hopeful angler checks a line through the ice at Eagle Nest Lake. (Journal)
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Winter is no time to hang up your fishing pole.

Trout are biting in high mountain streams, large northern pike can by found in the Rio Grande near Taos, and trout, salmon and perch are beneath the ice at northern New Mexico lakes.

“It can be a lot of fun and it’s a nice alternative to skiing,” says guide Steve Morris of Cutthroat Fly Fishing in Taos. “Fishing in the winter here can be fairly good because a couple of our streams have water temperatures that are warm enough to support insects.”

New Mexico’s moderate climate also helps make winter fishing popular. You don’t have to huddle inside an ice shed to survive a day on a frozen lake, and a winter afternoon of casting on a stream can be downright pleasant. In addition, popular areas are generally less crowded in winter so it’s a good time to head to spots like the world-class trout fishery on the San Juan River near Farmington.

“There’s actually quite a bit of opportunity,” says Eric Frey, northeast fisheries manager for the state Game and Fish Department. He added that New Mexico has a year-round fishing season with the exception of a few lakes like McAllister, Maxwell and Clayton that are waterfowl resting areas.

The Rio Grande offers some good fishing because warm thermal springs keep the water at a fairly consistent temperature in several areas from the Colorado border through Rio Arriba County, says Jarrett Sasser, owner of High Desert Angler in Santa Fe. The water also is clearer, so it’s easier to spot fish and set up ambushes, he says.

“It can still fish quite nice,” he says, adding that anglers can find rainbow and brown trout as well as northern pike.

The pike feed through the winter and can weigh 15 to 20 pounds, Frey says.

“They’re fairly aggressive so that can be a lot of fun, Sasser adds.

Going on the fly

Morris favors the Cimarron River below Eagle Nest Lake and the spring-fed Red River for fly-fishing.

“Even in the winter time, we can have a day when the daytime high is 50 degrees or so and then you’re going to get some insect activity,” he says.

Because there are no diversions on the Red River, large fish can return from the Rio Grande to their birthplace upstream to spawn. That means anglers have a chance at 18-inch trout, cutbows or sterling browns, Morris says.

The tail waters below other dams, including the Chama River below Abiquiú and at Cooper’s Ranch below El Vado reservoir, are good places for brown and rainbow trout, Sasser says.

The lower end of the Pecos River is another good spot to find brown trout, Frey adds.

Some people have expressed concerns that the Red River is being overfished, but Frey says the small river system is doing fine. He does warn that although the Red is home to a lot of fish, some sections are in a box canyon with a strenuous trail that makes access a challenge.

“It’s hard to fish, the water’s fast,” Frey says. “It keeps a lot of the non-diehard fishermen out. It kind of protects itself.”

The San Juan River is a world-class fishery all year, says Rick Castell, northwest fisheries manager for the Game and Fish Department.

He also recommends any of the tiny streams in the Santa Fe National Forest for cutthroat trout, particularly the Upper Rio Las Vacas, Rio Perchas and Rio Puerco, as well as the Jemez River system, which generally is stocked year-round.

“They’re not sizable brown trout, but they’ll provide lots of action,” Castell says. “Those are always fun to catch.”

Let’s hit the ice

And then there’s ice fishing. “Anybody can do it,” Frey says. “It’s a little bit different as far as equipment.” The big difference is that you’ll need an ice auger to make a hole in the ice. After that, you can use the same kind of gear you’d use to bait fish for trout on an open lake or get specialized.

Ice augers sell for about $70, and Eagle Nest Marina rents them by the day.

“It’s a great fishing lake,” says marina manager Sue Finley of Eagle Nest. “There’s lots of trout and salmon and perch in there.”

The state stocks the lake, which is part of a state park, with rainbows, kokanee salmon and yellow perch, she says.

“We get quite a few people … It’s a big lake so there’s always fishing room,” Finley says.

Sheds can’t be left on the ice overnight. Warm clothes and good, warm boots generally are enough to keep anglers comfortable, Finley says.

Lake Maloya at Sugarite Canyon State Park is a good spot to ice fish for rainbow trout, and the Friends of Sugarite stocked the lake this year with big brown trout. In addition, a few splake trout wash down from a stocked lake just over the border in Colorado, Frey says.

Kokanee salmon are always popular at Heron Lake, Castell says.

The ice fishing season at northern New Mexico lakes generally falls from mid-December to mid-March but depends on weather conditions. State park officials check the ice daily and let people know when it’s safe to head out.

“It’s like anything,” Frey says. “There’s still a risk that you take. You have to be careful.”

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