The Red River

I am sitting in Yesterday’s Diner at a chrome and red vinyl dinette in Red River, New Mexico. Posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and the Rat Pack decorate the walls alongside pink poodle skirts and dirty roller skates. My server has a husky voice and an attitude. I order a Tecate and a massive burrito smothered in the famous New Mexico green chili sauce. Northern New Mexico is known for its green chili. Word has it that during fall roasting season you can smell it in the air throughout the region. They have red chili here as well, but my advice? Go green.  

The town of Red River sits at 8,750 ft in elevation surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountains which are covered in aspen, pine, fir and spruce trees. The town was established in the 1870's as a gold mining town and was named after the river which originates high in the mountains and snakes its way down through town cutting its own gorge eventually finding confluence with the Rio Grande. It is an exceptional fishery. I had the pleasure of fishing this river last Tuesday.

I entered the Red River gorge alongside my fishing companion above the confluence via a trail called El Aguaje. The well maintained path descends 800 feet down to the Red through a series of switchbacks, and despite the depth, is one of the easiest paths of the entire Rio Grande. At the rim I stuffed my vest and a water bottle in my pack and began to navigate the rocky turns with rod tip up. Less than a quarter of the way down I glimpsed her over the edge of a rock. At that height she was a thin silver thread disappearing and reappearing among sand colored boulders and tall pines. The first view of the water is always the most exciting. It starts my engine and the anticipation heats up with every step. I noticed that my pace quickened and I was almost jogging through the turns. As we got closer we got a better view and noticed that she was running slightly off-color, somewhere between cream and mint green. 

“When you guide this stretch of the Red if the water is yellow or brown turn around and go to plan B.” My companion for the day has been guiding these waters for five seasons and is a consummate teacher, taking every opportunity to share his wisdom. I make a mental note, “water yellow or brown, turn around” and continue down the path. When we hit the bank we turn up-stream and make our way slowly over boulders, through briars and under branches until we arrive at the first fishy stretch. 

My learning curve over the last four weeks has been steep. I arrived feeling confident in my abilities and although I am no novice I have been humbled by these waters which demand that I stretch and grow at every hole. These rivers are wild and rarely display the same character season to season, much less day to day or even pocket to pocket. Lesson #1: become instinctive. 

I took off my pack and rigged up, choosing a double nymph rig no longer than seven feet from fly line to final fly. I chose a #10 tungsten bead-head prince then dropped a#14 shit fly off the bend. The shit fly is a local gem, a simplified hare’s ear that consists of a bead head, red thread and grey dubbing. I have caught the majority of my New Mexico trout off this little fly which I learned to tie the first week I arrived. 

I waded in only slightly off bank and threw a small back hand cast onto the outer edge of the first run. Fish. It was a 10 inch brown. I stood in the same spot and threw another back hand cast onto the inner edge of the same riffle. Fish. Another brown. My fishing partner pointed out a good looking hole beneath a boulder on the far side of the river across fast moving water. I waded to the middle of the river and made a tight tip cast, bouncing the fly off the boulder and into the top of the pool, high-sticking in order to avoid the fast current between me and my fly dragging my line downstream and spoiling my approach. Just as the fly drifted around the bend of the boulder… fish. A juicy 13 inch brown. 

We fished for five hours, hopping around each other, sharing holes, trading off. He was continually teaching and I was learning and adapting. Toward the end of the day I stopped fishing and sat on a boulder beneath an ancient pine. I stared at the majesty of my surroundings, smelled the sage and listened to the chatter of the river and found myself giving thanks for the gravity of my passion. A pull so fierce it drew me away from family to a lonely land simultaneously foreign and familiar. I gave thanks for the solitude of streams and the rare experience of finding a life as wild and and unfettered as my own heart.