Fishing on the Fly

Jul 12, 2005
Outside Magazine
San Juan River

In the parched and wind-abraded sandstone desert northeast of Farmington, the San Juan River is not only wet but surprisingly profuse with aquatic life. Well known to fly-rod-waving diehards but obscure to the masses, the four-mile, mostly catch-and-release section below the Navajo Dam is stacked fin to fin with up to 75,000 wild browns and stocked rainbows—some as plump as Oprah's thigh. The fish attain such super-salmonid size by slurping a never-ending buffet of gnats the way whales devour krill. Best of all, you don't need a master's in entomology to hook in.

My girlfriend, Lisa—who'd never fished—and I signed up for a day on the San Juan with John Tavenner, a guide there since 1991. John showed her the basics and tied on her flies. While I tried to coax a wily one to eat a No. 24 dry fly, Lisa landed lunkers as fast as John could dance around netting them.

After spending a sun-baked day under bluebird skies, you'll need someplace dark to sleep. Very dark. For the erudite troglodyte with a flair for the quirky, there's Kokopelli's Cave, a bed-and-breakfast an hour from the river on the outskirts of Farmington. With love, care, and plenty of dynamite, geologist Bruce Black blasted a plush, 1,750-square-foot, one-bedroom cave into a sandstone cliff 200 feet above the La Plata River. The cavern, 172 steps below the clifftop, features a waterfall shower and jetted tub, as well as a kitchen and two balconies for watching the sun set while spinning outrageous fishing yarns.

BONUS: Stop in Aztec for a Bus Driver (hash browns smothered in cheddar cheese and green chile) at the Aztec Restaurant (505-334-9586), about 15 miles east of Farmington at the junction of highway 550 and Main Street.

DETAILS: A full-day float with Tavenner's Sandstone Anglers (888-339-9789, costs $315 for two; Kokopelli's Cave (505-326-2461, rents for $220 per night.