Fly-fishing The Valles Caldera

Fly-fishing The Valles Caldera

Big fish? Little fish? It's hard to beat the Valles Caldera National Preserve for serene fishing and high-mountain solitude, where luck of the draw tempers the fishing at New Mexico's newest brown trout venue.

By Art Merrill

Atomic warfare has an unexpected connection to secluded fly-fishing on a mountain meadow stream. If you travel to New Mexico's newest trout fishing opportunity at Valles Caldera National Preserve, you'll probably stay overnight at nearby Los Alamos, home of World War II atom bomb labs and modern-day warfare. In contrast to the original violent purpose of Los Alamos' defense industry, Valles Caldera guards its peaceful serenity as jealously as the military guards protect weapons secrets.

"Preserving solitude is our overriding concern - that's where we draw the line," said Valles Caldera NP spokeswoman Julie Grey. "Our biggest hangup has been the fishing reservations."

The United States government built Los Alamos in 1943 to provide physicists a secret location in which to develop an atomic bomb. In the 1960s, except for the Los Alamos National Laboratories complex, the government turned Los Alamos over to private hands.

Valles Caldera, a working cattle ranch just west of Los Alamos, went from private hands to public lands in 2000 when the government purchased the 89,000-acre ranch for $101 million. Last year the preserve opened about half of its 20 miles of streams to strictly controlled fishing from July to October. The problem, as Grey mentioned, is that anglers clamoring to be among the first to fish the Caldera overloaded the system.

"We received 900 requests for reservations to fish on opening day," she said. Unfortunately, the Caldera can only host 22 anglers per day.

I fished the Caldera with a friend in September, about six weeks after it opened to angling. I spoke with anglers there, and with others at a Santa Fe fly shop, that had fished the Caldera. As you'll see, your chances of hooking into a decent brown trout there depends not upon your choice of fly but upon a throw of the dice.

Ryan Tracy learns that the reward of a stealthy approach at the Valles Caldera is non-stop action with hungry browns. Photo by Art Merrill

RESERVING SERENITY
Because the first priority of the Valles Caldera National Preserve is to preserve its resources and climate for serenity, officials limit the number of people they admit each day. For anglers, that means tough competition to reserve a fishing spot - literally up to 3/4 of a mile of serene, all-by-yourself stream fishing for brown trout.

Preserve officials divided nearly 10 miles of San Antonio Creek into 11 fishing beats, then limited each section so that only two anglers fish a beat each day. Fishing starts at about 8 a.m. when a shuttle van leaves the parking/staging area in a 40-minute drive to drop anglers off along the creek. The shuttle van returns in the afternoon to pick up anglers for the ride back to the parking area. (Every party gets temporary loan of a handheld radio in case they want to leave early.)

My fishing partner, Ryan Tracy, and I were assigned Beat 1, the highest point in the stream open to fishing. Here the stream is very narrow and shallow. Riffles and runs are only inches deep, with the best pools boasting only a foot of water. In many places it is easy to cross the stream in one jump. The bottom varies from silt to gravel, and the banks are undercut with overhanging grass.

Wading is not allowed anywhere in the preserve, which is protection again the damage 22 anglers per day could cause to the stream bottom. The stream is so tiny and the fish so spooky that wading is out of the question anyway.

GO TERRESTRIAL


While mayflies hatch virtually each summer day on San Antonio Creek in Valles Caldera and browns rise to spinners that hit the water, hatches are rarely worth celebrating here because the trout feed continuously on terrestrials.

 

I experimented with various terrestrial patterns and was rewarded with a strike on just about every other cast.

 

"The trout are so opportunistic that if it doesn't look scary, they'll eat it," said Karen Denison at High Desert Angler in Santa Fe (505-988-7688). She was right. As long as my presence went undetected, the trout literally hit everything "leggy" I threw at them, including grasshoppers, beetles, Elk Hair Caddis patterns, and even Stimulators and blue damselflies in sizes 14 to 20. -- Art Merrill

 

I started with a 4X leader and tippet to cast a No. 16 yellow 'hopper. It was a good decision, and I ended up using it much of the morning. In later conversations, other anglers said they started with 6X tippets, but changed to heavier 4X after snapping off the 6Xs in the grass and losing flies.

At first I cast for trout holding close to the undercut banks with the predictable result (for me) of occasionally snagging grass. Walking over to disentangle the fly spooked the trout, of course, forcing me to move on. I soon found that casting to the center of the narrow stream was just as effective at producing a fish. It was exciting, even though it became routine, to drop the 'hopper in the middle of the stream and watch the wakes of two browns from opposite banks race for the fly.

The key in fishing Valles Caldera is stealth. Browns, as you know, are very skittish. Once they see you, all you can do is move on to the next spot. Because open meadow surrounds the San Antonio on the Valles Caldera, you'll be knee-crawling through elk droppings to sneak up on these fish. I noted one gentleman in the staging area had thoughtfully brought kneepads. He's a veteran.

The alternative is to make longer casts from farther away. But you'll have to drop your fly into an opening that's often no more than a foot wide and surrounded by two-foot tall grass, and sometimes with a wind to complicate matters. It will certainly test your casting skill.

I used my 3-weight rod this

day, but a seven-foot or longer 1-weight would have done just as well. The 1-weight I built to use on tight Arizona canyon streams is only 6 feet, 6 inches long, making my 3-weight the better choice for this meadow environment. I think a 5-weight would be overkill for the short distances and small fish.

You won't use your drag on Valles Caldera trout, so a reel is just a place to store line.

MIXED REVIEWS
The browns in Beat 1 are quite small. A really large one goes maybe 9 inches, and most of them are in the 6- to 7-inch range. What they lacked in size they made up for in aggressiveness and sheer numbers. It seemed as though almost every good cast produced a strike, if not a fish to land.

The San Antonio widens and deepens only slightly as it flows down through the other beats, and I got mixed reviews from anglers fishing below Beat 1. Those fishing Beat 2 were very disappointed; they had caught few fish, which were, apparently, as small as the browns on Beat 1. Beats 3 and 4 reported the best fishing. A lone angler on Beat 4 said he hooked about 50 fish and landed seven that measured over 13 inches. Two men fishing Beat 3 said they caught 60 to 70 trout between them, most of them 10 to 12 inches in length. No one reported catching anything other than brown trout.

Unfortunately I didn't get an opportunity to talk with the anglers who fished beats five through nine this day. However, I have read or heard other reports of 10- to 15-inch browns on Beats 9 through 11. It appears the larger fish are definitely in the lower beats.

WAS IT WORTH IT?
Back at the staging area I filled out a survey that asked if I felt the fishing was worth the entry fee. "Yes," I responded, "but it wasn't worth the eight-hour drive and the cost of lodging." However, it's not a fair question; it should have asked, "Was your overall experience today worth the entry fee?"

We are so accustomed to comparing the cost of fishing to the size of the fish available for catching that we do it almost unconsciously. A perusal of advertisements for guided fishing trips bears that out: If you want big fish, you gotta pay big bucks.

But Valles Caldera is not selling a primo fishing trip; what it's really offering is an opportunity for affordable fishing seclusion. Not all of us are in the game solely to catch large fish. We sometimes downsize our expectations in our pursuit of just being out there, away from everyone else. In this regard, Valles Caldera fills the bill. For a $20 fee I can have a private trout stream for six or seven hours. If I'm disappointed with a computer assignment to pull little trout around by their lips, I can explore, photograph or just lie on my back and watch the thunderstorms roll in as I listen to bugling elk. That's worth the price of admission right there.

And therein is the only real down side. Once you reserve your fishing day, the VCNP computer assigns you a beat at random - you don't get to choose. You lay down your money, throw the dice and see if you get to fish where the 15-inchers live. If you're lucky you get a heck of a nice day with decent-sized brown trout. The "unlucky" ones have to resign themselves to little fish, but being absolutely alone in the midst of a huge, silent meadow surrounded by pine forest is a pretty good consolation.

THE RULES
VCNP does not permit private vehicles to drive on the preserve except for the two-mile stretch of dirt road from the highway to the parking area. In addition to state rules regulating fishing, VCNP has a few more of their own:
  • Anglers may only use artificial lures with a single barbless hook. No bait.
  • No waders, no wading shoes, no fishing nets. In addition to preventing damage to the streambed, this rule is intended to prevent introduction of whirling disease.
  • Do not cross into an adjacent beat, even if it appears unoccupied. VCNP occasionally "rests" a beat to allow the fish and stream to recover.
  • You may keep a maximum of two fish, and those must be less than 14 inches in length. If you decide to keep them you must kill them immediately. Once you have two fish in your possession you must stop fishing.
  • Clean fish only at the designated spot near the parking area - do not clean fish in the stream.
  • Pack out everything you bring in.

LEARNING AS WE GO


The Valles Caldera National Preserve encompasses an area roughly 12 miles by 14 miles at an altitude of about 8,700 feet in northern New Mexico. It is where pine-forested mountains surround lush meadows at the lip of an extinct volcano that last erupted 1.2 million years ago. San Antonio Creek and the east fork of the Jemez River cross the caldera and drop down to the south, providing some of the best trout fishing anywhere in the Southwest before joining the Jemez River at Battleship Rock.

 

Nine trustees, all appointed by the president of the United States, make up the board that manages the VCNP as a government-owned, non-profit corporation with the purpose of protecting and preserving the land's scientific, scenic, historic and natural values.

 

An adaptive management plan allows the preserve to be operated as a working cattle ranch and the provider of public recreational opportunities. "We learn more as we go along," said VCNP spokeswoman Julie Grey. "There isn't a book we can pull down that tells us how to do this."

 

Fishing reservations may go to a lottery system this year, and officials may soon open some of the east fork for physically challenging hike-in fishing. As they consider the impact of even more anglers on the VCNP, biological studies on the east fork will determine whether it would be beneficial to remove smaller trout to encourage larger growth in the remaining fish. Officials are also considering a proposal to build small fishing ponds to cater to youngsters.

 

The New Mexico Game and Fish Department wanted to introduce endangered Rio Grande cutthroat trout to VCNP streams last year, but the feds balked at first having to kill all non-native brown trout. "We feel the public deserves an opportunity to fish here," Grey said. "But we also feel the native species should be here. It's a big issue, and over the next few years we'll be looking at the cutthroats." -- Art Merrill

 

OTHER OPTIONS
Like the fishing, the preserve is open to day hiking Thursday through Sunday, by reservation only. VCNP also offers lim

ited opportunities to hunt its elk, the second largest herd in the state. In past years the preserve has offered five bull elk tags for auction and 48 elk tags in a $25-per-chance lottery. Because the preserve must become self-sufficient by 2015, we may see more elk tags available in the future.

Officials are considering other recreation opportunities as well, including photography workshops by professionals and tours that highlight the geology, archaeology and biology of the Caldera.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
The Valles Caldera National Preserve entrance is 14 miles southwest of Los Alamos on Highway 4. Los Alamos is less than an hour's drive northwest of Santa Fe.

You can set up a VCNP fishing trip entirely on-line. To reserve a fishing spot, go to the VCNP website (www.vallescaldera.gov) for a calendar of available dates. Choose a date, and the computer will randomly assign your fishing beat. Enter the number of anglers and fishing rods in your party; the charge is $10 per person and $10 per pole.

When you've paid all the fees with your credit card you can print a receipt that lists your fishing date, beat number and directions to the preserve. You can also print a map of San Antonio Creek that shows the various beats.

VCNP may drop the first-come, first-served reservation system in favor of a lottery this year (see sidebar). Check the website for current information.

You will also need a New Mexico fishing license and a habitat improvement stamp. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department website (www.gmfsh.nm.state.us) has a link to a vendor that will sell you these for an additional $4.95 fee. A one-day non-resident fishing permit ($8), habitat stamp ($5) plus the convenience fee cost $17.95 total. The vendor will mail your license to you or you can print the receipt and carry it as your license. New Mexico residents can purchase licenses and habitat stamps from local vendors throughout the state.

Los Alamos has three motels close to the preserve; expect to pay $60 to $90 per night. I made my reservation through www.hotels.com; if you prefer to do this step by phone, their number is 1-800-715-7666.

Camping is available at the Jemez, Redondo and San Antonio campgrounds on Highway 4 along the Jemez River, which also has fishing opportunities. Call the Jemez Ranger District at (505) 829-3535 for more information.



Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Rocky Mountain Game & Fish


Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.