SANTA FE, N.M. — Data on historically low stream flow show the effects of a dry winter that could put a crimp on fishing New Mexico’s rivers and streams, but projections for an early monsoon season could save the day.
Data collected by the U.S. Geographical Survey indicate stream flows are way below normal throughout the state. For example, on Tuesday, the gauge station on the Pecos River near the town of Pecos registered the river flowing at 21.5 cubic feet per second. That’s nearly 16 times below the mean average of 339 cfs for that station on May 15.
What’s worse, further downstream at the gauge station at Anton Chico, the flow was recorded at 0.00 cfs – effectively no flow – on Tuesday. The average there for May 15 is 351 cfs.
“It’s not just the Pecos, but all around New Mexico,” Eric Frey, sport fishing manager for New Mexico Game & Fish, said of the readings, which he added are the result of a poor snowpack from a dry winter. “This is one of the worst snowpacks I’ve seen. We’ve gone through drought cycles before, but this is really bad compared to other years.”
That could affect the fish and consequently sport fishing. Game & Fish stocks rivers and streams with millions of fish produced at fish hatcheries each year. But Frey said of the fish, “Those guys don’t do well when the water is not in great shape. A lot of anglers depend on stock fish. They may need to be more flexible.”
Frey said those anglers may need to seek out other places to fish this summer if conditions don’t improve. But he is encouraged by reports of a possible early onset of the monsoons.
“In the short term, if we get good monsoons, those streams and headwater springs will have a chance to recharge,” he said. “We have seen years with a low snowpack and an early monsoon. It can be a real game-changer.”
An early monsoon?
Kerry Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said there’s reason to be optimistic.
“We have climate models that have been consistent going back to January showing a robust onset of monsoons,” he said. “When we say ‘early’ in the case of a monsoon, even a week early is a big deal. The earlier we get that pattern established, the better the likelihood for above-average precipitation. And since we’ve been seeing it since January, that gives us good confidence.”
Jones said the monsoon season in New Mexico ranges between June 15 and Sept. 30. Typically, the monsoon doesn’t start until around the Fourth of July or the week after.
The change from pre-monsoon season – the driest time of year and the peak of the fire season – to monsoons can happen quickly.
“It’s almost like flipping a switch. Once it starts, we’re in it,” he said.
Jarrett Sasser, owner of High Desert Angler, a Santa Fe fly-fishing shop, is optimistic, too.
“It’s odd to see (stream flows) this low. But Mother Nature has a way of coming around,” he said. “All we can do is keep our fingers crossed and pray for an early monsoon.”
Sasser said fishing is actually pretty good right now despite the low stream flows. But anglers may need to adjust.
“If the monsoons come, we’ll be OK,” he said. But if not, “You’re going to have to change tactics and use your head a little bit.”
By that, he means anglers will have to be a bit “stealthier,” he said, and do their fishing earlier in the morning. They may need to concentrate on warmwater fish, like bass and pike, or maybe seek rivers, streams and lakes at higher elevations where water temperatures are cooler.
Sasser says the biggest threat to fishing may be fire. Due to dry conditions, most national forests in New Mexico are currently under Stage II fire restrictions. If it remains dry as the weather warms up, officials could impose Stage III restrictions, which close the forest except for specifically designated areas or trails. That’s happened before, most recently in 2013 and 2011.
“We’ve had closures before and we’ve gotten through that,” said Sasser, who agrees that if conditions warrant it, closing the forest is “the smart thing to do.”
Bruce Hill, a spokesman for Santa Fe National Forest, confirmed that the forest was closed to the public in mid-June 2013. Portions were opened a few weeks later and the entire forest was open to public access by the end of July.
The forest was also closed for a time in 2011 due to the huge Las Conchas Fire.
He said fire managers and district rangers regularly monitor conditions in their areas. Based on a number of factors, the forest supervisor ultimately decides whether to impose Stage III restrictions, triggering a closure of all of or parts of the forest.
From his perspective, Frey said, the biggest impact of the current low stream flows is on stocking New Mexico’s waters with fish. Last year, the department stocked 3.3 million rainbow trout and 400,000 Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
“During years like this, we’re actually having trouble placing fish. When water levels are really low, we can’t stock them,” he said.
It may get to that point soon in some waterways around Taos, and on the Rio Grande and Chama River, he said.
Frey said that on the Pecos River upstream from the village, the department starts stocking fish April 1 and continues to stock the river twice a month until the summer, when it stocks weekly.
But because of the low water levels, the department has been stocking fewer fish on the river and diverting the surplus elsewhere. Stocking fish on top of what’s already there stresses out all the fish and can make matters worse, he said. So some of the trout that would normally end up in northern New Mexico waterways are being diverted to the San Juan River, and Heron, Storrie, Eagle Nest and El Vado lakes.
Some types of fish, such as brown trout, hold up pretty well under the current conditions, he said.
“Wild fish have evolved with drought conditions throughout New Mexico. They are pretty robust and drought-tolerant, and can survive drought conditions,” he said. “In the short term, the wild and native fish can usually survive the drought a lot better than stock fish.”
But if drought conditions don’t improve, “Next season we could start seeing impacts on those populations,” he said.
Frey said Game & Fish is taking steps to mitigate the drought and improve conditions long-term.
“In the past several years, we’ve done a ton of habitat work and stream restoration projects,” he said.
Those include restoring river banks with native vegetation and adding boulders in selected spots to create the pools fish need to reproduce.
But for now, anglers should try to make the best of less-than-ideal conditions.
“The message we’re giving is to get out early,” he said. “The middle of summer may be tough. They may need to go to higher elevations where the water is cool enough.”