Fly Fishing New Mexico Lakes

by Dr. Jim Buckmelter

This article was originally written in 2001, but recent drought conditions have made it necessary to update conditions on most of the New Mexico lakes described. I have left the original description intact, so that a comparison can be made for “before and after” the drought. The updates are in the summary section at the end of this article. The drought apparently ended with a wet winter in 2004 and conditions should get very good and soon due to the fertility of these lakes. I’m looking forward to finding out.

For the last few years, Stone Lake on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation was exceptional. An extensive and expensive restoration effort in 1993 eradicated a Carp problem and the trout stocked then grew quite large (21 inches plus). Although there may not be many of the 1993 year class left, later stockings have also done well. In fact, the fisheries biologist for the tribe claims that the highest frequency size fish caught is 21 inches. In addition, these fish are extremely fat and strong and a 21 incher is likely to weigh approximately five pounds. Another Jicarilla lake, La Jara, was renovated in 1995 and was quite good in 1996 for fat 14 inchers. Mundo Lake is supposed to hold some large Browns. Horse Lake had some large Cutthroats, but this lake seems to be temperamental and the dirt/mud access road makes this lake one of the least crowded anywhere. Horse Lake also apparently suffered a total winter kill in the 96-97 winter and may again in 2000; however, this lake is extremely fertile and could bounce back rapidly. Dulce Lake is another Jicarilla lake that has been very good in the past, but it undergoing renovation now and may not be worth fishing until extensive rain. Unfortunately, drought conditions in 2000 affected Stone Lake for the worse. PH changes due to extensive vegetation and low water killed a lot of fish. Year 2001 conditions improved in spite of continued low water because somehow, the vegetation growth was not as extensive. In addition, the tribe has purchased a weed harvester that will be used to remove biomass from the lake. A stocking program in the fall of 2000 had very good growth rates and some of those fish are at twenty inches now. In addition, Jim White, the tribal biologist, claims that a few fish survived the drought. There are only a handful of these, but they ought to be really big! The bad news from last year has also kept the crowds down, so that, if Stone isn’t the great experience it was in 1999, it is still very good! Dulce has still not refilled and La Jara is low; however, La Jara does hold some good fish. Horse Lake is a mystery with low water and an extensive algae bloom, but it was stocked last spring and might have something for anyone who can figure that lake out.

MacAllister Lake, near Las Vegas, is notorious for wind and very finicky fish, but it may have some of the largest trout in New Mexico. I have been skunked more at MacAllister then everyplace else put together, but I’ve also hooked and lost some very strong fish there. In addition, the bird life is always interesting ranging from White Pelicans to many ducks and hawks. The drought probably affected this lake the least, possibly because water levels are kept high for the wildlife refuge?

Ramah Lake and Quemado Lake in the southwest part of the state can also be excellent trout lakes. Both share very lovely countryside and although the camping is better at Quemado, the mesa country around Ramah is some of the prettiest in New Mexico. El Moro National Monument is close to Ramah and is worth a trip by itself.

All these lakes share an attribute, which produces large fish and a problem. These lakes are fairly shallow and extremely fertile which produces enormous plant and insect growth, which in turn produces rapid fish growth. Unfortunately, this fertility can result in summer algae blooms or oxygen deprivation in the winter, which both kill fish. Some bad years can result in total fish kill, but when conditions are good for a few successive years, exceptional fishing is the result. Fishermen who plan to release fish should be very careful as warmer summer water can make reviving a “played-out” fish a real problem. Some of us simply do not fish these lakes when the temperature gets too warm!

How does one fish these lakes?

Obviously a boat is the simple answer. Some can be fished from the banks, but this gets difficult when the weeds grow. A float tube is the best answer for several reasons, of which the most important is that it is just a lot more fun! Float tubes are also surprisingly good in windy conditions, since your legs provide a lot more drag than the bottom of a boat or canoe.

There are two basic fly fishing techniques for lakes.

The first is traditional trolling with a sinking line. Trolling Woolley Buggers or streamers is often very effective, especially in the spring. An intermediate or full sinking line is recommended and it is difficult to troll too slowly. A twitch or strip retrieve can be an effective modification to this technique. The other technique, sometimes called a bobber and fly technique, is a still fishing method where a floating line is used with a strike indicator above five to nine feet of leader. Adjust leader and tippet length for the depth of the water; however I don’t like more than ten feet of leader since I don’t want the indicator preventing netting a fish when the indicator reaches the rod tip. Again a twitch modification can often induce a strike. It can be very surprising how effective a nearly motionless fly can be in a stillwater situation. Patience and concentration are the keys to this technique.

What are the most effective flies?

Since the best New Mexico lakes tend to become weedy, the most common food may be damselflies, snails and scuds. There may be more variations of the damselfly nymph than any other fly, but the one that has worked well for me is the “Dirty Damsel”. The key element to this variation is a pearlescent mylar body to give it some flash in the often murky waters in these lakes. The Double Hackle Peacock is said to be a snail pattern and size 12 works well, but I fail to see how trout can digest something that large and hard. It works well though in lots of different variations. I’ve also had good results with black, brown and olive Woolley Buggers in sizes 8-12, since these resemble all sorts of stuff including minnows, leeches and crayfish. Another pattern that has worked well has been a size 12 Grey Nymph. My original reference for this fly claimed a resemblance to a Dragon Fly nymph; however I now believe that it much more closely resembles the Callibaetis nymph and the midge nymphs that are very common in these lakes. Another fly that has produced for me is the traditional Mickey Finn streamer. I’ve used this because I grew up in the East fishing for Brookies, but it has worked particularly well at Ramah Lake. Scud patterns are a new addition to this article, based on a conversation with a biologist, who claimed that these lakes are just full of scuds. One recent trip using olive scuds confirmed that it is a useful fly. I also once had a memorable day at Stone Lake using a Crayfish fly. I took 15 fish ranging from 18 to 22 inches on a crayfish tied mostly with Pheasant Tail fibers, fished with a floating line and a strike indicator. Salmon Egg patterns are also very good, especially in the late fall and early spring.

Summary of best lakes:

Stone Lake
Lots of big strong fish. Exceptional! Two fish limit. Single barbless hook required. Very popular float tube lake. Dropper fly is o.k. 440 acre lake. Stone Lake was restocked in the fall of 2000 and those fish seem to average 18 inches with some to 20 inches in the fall of 2001. This lake apparently had a total fish kill in 2003 due to ph changes resulting from extensive weed growth and low water levels.

Other Jicarilla Lakes
Also very good. Eight fish limits and bait is legal except for minnows. La Jara is the best bet in 2001. All the Jicarilla lakes have an $11 daily fee. Senior citizen (age 55) rates are less. La Jara Lake nearly dried up in 2003 and fish survival is doubtful. Horse Lake may not have many fish, but the ones that survive the summer and winter of 2000 will be huge. Horse Lake did have fish in 2003 because the water level was adequate; however, a winter fish kill may be likely?

MacAllister Lake
Notorious due to wind and finicky fish, but perhaps the best chance for a really large fish. Close to Albuquerque, approximately 130 miles. Difficult from shore. This lake remained in fairly good condition, perhaps due to its status as a wildlife Refuge?

Shuree Ponds
Located on the Valle Vidal in far northern NM east of Costilla. Not as good as a few years ago due to pressure from meat fishermen and poachers, but it is still beautiful high country with great camping facilities and wildlife. Easy bank fishing and a special pond for kids eleven and under. Restricted to single barbless hook and two fish limit. Unfortunately, these ponds are small and even a two fish limit hasn’t maintained the formerly great fishing, but it is still beautiful and also close to the Rio Costilla and Rio Commanche. Middle Shuree Pond was washed out a few years ago and has not been rebuilt. Upper Shuree Pond is down several feet, but still has decent fishing. The lowest pond seems to get more water and is in the best shape of any of these ponds, but it is small and vulnerable to pressure.

Ramah Lake
A real southwest jewel in Mesa country. Scenery is great and fishing has been too. Relatively close to Albuquerque at about 135 miles. Bass too! Next to El Morro National Monument. This lake suffered a lot from the drought, had extensive weed growth and a massive fish kill in 2003. There may be some left?

Quemado Lake
Another very fertile lake with potential winterkill problem. Has produced lots of big fish that can taste like the moss that grows in the lake. As of spring, 1999, Quemado Lake is infested with goldfish and may not be worth fishing? In 2003, Game & Fish stocked this lake with Tiger Muskies in an attempt to control the goldfish. Since there is no current state record for Tiger Muskies, this is the place to go if you want a record!

Recent Addition
Acomita Lake was famous twenty years ago for large trout, but problems with the dam resulted in an eighteen year closure. Last year (1998) the lake was reopened for fishing and this year it’s pretty good. My son and I fished it June 1 and caught approximately two dozen rainbows and one catfish in four hours at mid-day. Water quality appears great with good weed beds for bugs. Lake is about 70 surface acres, but deepest spot is about 40 feet, so fish have a good refuge for winter and summer. Best fish taken were about fifteen inches and best fly was an olive scud. Since New Mexico has had a lot of forest closures and water problems, this is a very welcome addition for fly fishing. Perhaps best of all, this lake is only 60 miles from Albuquerque! Be prepared to share space with lots of bait and spin fishermen. This lake was completely dry in 2004.

Honorable Mention
Maxwell 13 is 75 miles past MacAllister from Albuquerque and gets little or no attention from NM Trout members. This lake could be a real sleeper? Eagle Nest Lake. Quite large lake popular with Texans. Also mostly ignored by fly fishermen in Albuquerque. Heron Lake and Abiquiu Resevoir are another two very large and deep bodies of water that are probably worth a lot more attention. Navajo Lake is supposed to be great for smallmouth bass. High mountain lakes such as Pecos Baldy Lake, Horseshoe Lake, Middle Fork Lake and others can be good, but access is difficult via 4wd or hiking. These deserve a separate article.

Warm water lakes

There are a bunch, but this writer doesn’t have any experience with them, so someone else can write that article.

The San Juan River is famous and can be very crowded even in mid-winter. These lakes can produce even better fishing without the crowds and the fish will probably be stronger. Try to practice “Catch and Release”, because these lakes are becoming better known and the pressure has affected some of them already. This article was written mostly for the benefit of out-of-state tourists and the information is pretty minimal. For more detailed information on location or other, please consult one of the excellent guide books on New Mexico. Ti Piper’s book “Fishing In New Mexico” covers all the water in the state and “Fly Fishing In Northern New Mexico”, edited by Craig Martin covers the essentials of Northern New Mexico. Both books are excellent. A newer book by Taylor Streit “The No-Nonsense Guide To Fly Fishing In New Mexico” is also very good. JRB/March, 2005

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr. Jim Buckmelter and Rob Jiron for permission to reproduce this article on TotalFlyFishing.com. Dr. Jim Buckmelter is the author and a memeber of www.newmexicotrout.org. Rob Jiron is the webmaster for www.newmexicotrout.org, the site on which this article originally appeared. This article cannot be reproduced anywhere without their consent.