Seeking Colder Waters

As drought conditions hit fish, anglers and state Game and Fish Department staff adjust

Low water and warm stream temperatures this season are making for tough fishing conditions around New Mexico.

Experts say fish don't want to eat when the water is warm, so they're less likely to bite in the first place—but if they do, being caught and released can be fatal. Warmer temperatures and low water levels means there's less dissolved oxygen in streams, and that's particularly tough on trout.

Since the beginning of June, High Desert Angler has limited guided fishing trips to half-days, says store manager Ed L'Heureux, "so we're not out there stressing the fish in the middle of the day. It's also for the angler's sake—those fish really don't want to eat, so you probably won't catch anything."

They advise store customers to call it quits after noon as well. Recent rains have helped some, but haven't provided consistent flows; the US Drought Monitor still pegs Northern New Mexico in extreme to exceptional drought conditions.

"This last week has been noticeable in that the river levels keep dropping every day," says L'Heureux, who has been fly fishing in New Mexico for 26 years. "If we don't get rain in a week, we're going to be like we were a month ago, which is the lowest water levels anybody here has ever seen."

Concentrated, violent rainstorms mean most of the water runs off, instead of soaking into the ground for cooler storage out of the sunlight. That means no significant boost for streamflows and not much to drop temperatures.

"Things are getting better, but fishing's still punky in the hottest times of day," Toner Mitchell of Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving coldwater fisheries, writes in an email.

Trout Unlimited advises against fishing waters above 68 degrees, and suggests caution above 65 degrees.

For perspective: The San Luis Valley near the headwaters of the Rio Grande saw temperatures above 70 degrees along its main stem this July. Meanwhile, below Cochiti Dam, the US Geological Survey reported that the river's water temperatures had climbed to 74 degrees, and the Rio Mora near Terrero—upstream of Pecos in the Santa Fe National Forest—was just below 55 degrees. The San Juan River between the Navajo Dam and Farmington was about 48 degrees.

Choosing the right water or the right kind of fish to aim for is imperative for anglers who want to ensure good prospects for next summer. Mitchell suggests fishing tailwater stretches below dams where water temperatures are cooler, like the Chama River below the Abiquiú Dam, or going for warm-water species like carp and smallmouth bass—they're "a real hoot on the fly" on the Rio Grande near Pilar.

Other advice includes keeping the fish in the water throughout the fight and the release—rather than pulling them up for the grip-and-grin photo op; using a barbless hook to speed release; and using "the strongest line (tippet) you can get away with."

"Keeping fights short is something an angler should be mindful of no matter what the conditions are. Landing fish quickly requires a lot of skill, so it's worth striving for," Mitchell adds.

In some places, water conditions alone have killed fish. In early August, New Mexico Game and Fish Department staff responded to reports from Quemado Lake in the Gila National Forest that tiger muskies, goldfish, grass carp, crayfish and flathead minnows were dying. Low oxygen levels were to blame.

"There was a large quantity, but we don't have an exact number," says Tristanna Bickford, a spokeswoman for the department.

The Pecos River, Coyote Creek, Rancho Grande Ponds and areas near Elephant Butte have seen similar events. Fish will be restocked when conditions improve.

Still, Bickford maintains: "While it looks like there are a few waters that are a little low, by and large, the fishing is still good."

The department isn't distributing information about how fishing in warm waters might affect trout, Bickford says, but it's posting videos online and information on an app to encourage quickly releasing fish after they're caught and keeping them in the water as much as possible.

But it doesn't seem like a lot of people are aware of the problems facing fish, L'Heureux says.

"If you drove up on the Pecos Canyon on any given day, there's going to be people fishing from sun up to sun down," he says. "The Jemez Mountain streams are similar."

Cool weather and rain will help, whenever it arrives—and after a year of less snowpack than he ever thought we'd see, a dry spring and a so-so monsoon, he says: "We're always optimistic—as all fishermen are—but we're less willing to predict anything."

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