New Mexico's Pecos River and its many tributaries offer some of the most productive and varied high-country trout angling in the state.
The Pecos offers a mix of water types that will challenge the most discerning trout anglers. Photo by Patrick Meitin
By Patrick Meitin
The Pecos River heads in the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains deep in the Pecos Wilderness Area, flowing south and gathering tributaries as it cuts through rough canyon country. The river departs the mountains to flow across the high plains of New Mexico and into Texas.
In those high-country beginnings, the Pecos and its many tributaries are tiny Rio Grande cutthroat streams accessible only by hiking or horseback. As the Pecos grows in volume and exits the wilderness, it becomes excellent brown and rainbow trout habitat. Throughout its mountain course the Pecos offers some of the finest trout water in the state. In particular, the section from Panchuleta Creek above the village of Cowles south to its confluence with Holy Ghost Creek offers the most productive and popular waters along its course. The canyon areas found from the Terrero General Store to the confluence of Willow Creek and the special regulations water found within the Pecos Box are favorites of area flyfishermen.
Aside from wilderness area cutthroat waters and high-country lakes, the Pecos offers easy access for the most part. Found in the northwest corner of San Miguel County, the Pecos offers a quick commute from either Albuquerque or Santa Fe via Interstate 25. State Highway 63 parallels the Pecos on much of its lower stretches; NM 63 is accessed by following NM 50 from the Glorieta exit (18 miles east of Santa Fe on Interstate 25). A few miles above the town of Pecos, the river flows through the Pecos Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest.
Be aware that there are private in-holdings where access is restricted; property rights should be respected. Guided trips on some of the most productive private waters of the lower Pecos can be arranged through the Reel Life in Santa Fe, (505) 995-8114.
Public fishing on the lower river is permitted at Forest Service Recreation Areas like Dalton, Field Tract, and Windy Bridge, and at the Bert Clancy Fishing and Wildlife Area managed by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. At the Terrero General Store the road becomes improved dirt, easily passable with the family sedan unless it has rained extensively. The dirt road continues to follow the river to Cowles. Above Cowles the road crosses the river and winds uphill to Jack's Creek Campground, where the road ends and the river flows out of deep wilderness.
The National Forest sections of the Pecos River offer plenty of public campgrounds, but these can become quite crowded during summer weekends. The Forest Service charges a small fee to camp in Panchuleta, Holy Ghost, Field Tract, and Jack's Creek camping areas, while the NMDGF charges nothing to camp at Mora Creek, though, the latter is often quite crowded.
The areas around these campgrounds, as can be imagined, are fished hard, but the Pecos is one of New Mexico's most heavily stocked streams. Frequent summer plantings arrive from the Lisboa Springs Hatchery near the town of Pecos. Bait dunkers might catch 75 percent of these trout within the first few days, but those who survive quickly adapt and become selective feeders. Many of the rainbows caught, even in the more heavily fished areas, are between 9 and 14 inches long.
Those willing to hike away from crowds find the best fishing. Twenty miles of the Pecos River above Cowles has been designated a National Wild and Scenic River, and access to this portion of the river and its tributaries is gained only by trail. Larger headwater creeks - Panchuleta, Jack's, Cave and Horsethief - and the Upper Pecos proper hold hordes of small brown and cutthroat trout in the 6- to 9-inch range. These are small jump-across creeks that average 3 to 6 feet across in most places, with trout found in periodic plunge pools and deeper holes. These hike-in waters are accessed from Jack's Creek, Iron Gate and Panchuleta campgrounds and offer the best chances for solitude.
Many locals agree that the very best rainbow and brown trout fishing on the Pecos is found between Terrero and Cowles. The section just above Terrero is best fished by beginning at the Terrero General Store (parking across the river along the road at Holy Ghost Campground) and fishing upstream. The upper canyon, also known as the Pecos Box, is accessed by hiking in from the parking area along the river just above Mora Creek Campground.
These canyon waters offer a moderate-sized stream averaging about 12 feet wide, with bottoms much narrower and rough than in more moderate valley sections. This is fast-flowing water, with pocket water, plunge pools and a few riffles. The stream bottom is not extremely hazardous, with a gradual gradient, but with sudden falls and rapids.
The Pecos is easily waded in hip boots, or wet during warmer summer months. Because of the slipperiness of the river's bottom and polished rock, felt soles are a good idea. If snowpack is unusually high, be extremely careful wading during May to mid-June run-off - though, with recent drought this has been less of a concern.
The river asks for skillful roll casting when fly-fishing. Overhanging vegetation and tight quarters are most often the norm, though casting distances are rarely more than 10 or 20 feet if you are stealthy in your approach.
Rainbow trout are quite abundant in the Pecos, but wild brown trout are perhaps the biggest draw. There are occasional plantings of browns, but most are stream-bred and bright, and gorgeous as only wild fish can be. These trout range from 6 to 12 inches long, but most of them are from 10 to 12. Any brown more than 15 inches long is a prize indeed and should be quickly returned to the water to breed. The small size of the Pecos' browns can be attributed to being isolated to the cold, unproductive upper portions of the watershed. They also compete with large numbers of stocked rainbows.
|Pecos Wilderness Lakes|
Lake Katherine, Spirit Lake and Stewart Lake are the Pecos' most productive high-country trout lakes.
These glacial lakes are reached by the trailhead at Windsor Creek Campground, up FR 121 from Cowles. Winsor Trail climbs steep ridges to Stewart Lake (six miles), Spirit Lake (seven miles) and Lake Katherine (eight miles). The lakes can also be reached from the Santa Fe Ski Basin; Katherine is seven miles from the trailhead. This is high-altitude, rugged terrain, with nasty weather and summer snow possible.
The lakes harbor a mix of stocked and wild rainbows and cutthroats. Midsummer fishing is excellent. Spirit Lake is the shallowest of the three, Katherine the deepest.
Match the weed-dwelling insects and you'll be successful. Damselfly nymphs and adults are most effective, with speckle-winged quill hatches important on Katherine, where spinner falls bring large trout to the surface. Midges are important on all three lakes. -- Patrick Meitin
PECOS HATCHES The Pecos is mostly under ice during winter. Spring fishing begins with ice-out, normally by mid-March. You will catch trout during this time of year by patiently drifting small Hare's Ear nymphs and stoneflies, but better fishing is normally found by mid- to late April. The first major hatch of the season is the renowned Giant Stonefly hatch of May to mid-June. Depending on snowpack, this can mean fishing during high run-off, though, that has not been the case in recent years.
This hatch begins in the lower sections of trout habitat by early May and progresses upstream as weather warms, normally reaching the Pecos Box section by the first week in June. By July another large stonefly species begins to hatch on the Pecos. The Golden Stone is every bit as large as the Giant Stone, often reaching lengths of 2 inches. These stones are actually more abundant than the Giant, but hatch for a shorter duration, typically for the first two weeks of July.
Early on matching these two Pecos stoneflies is not difficult. Try a Wit Stone, Brook's Stone or Casual Dress when nymphs are asked for. When simply prospecting for trout not hitting apparent emergers try something simple like a Woolly Bugger. Tie or buy any of these on 3X to 4X long-shanked hooks in sizes 6 to 12. Bounce them along the bottom. You are likely to loose a few flies, but you'll also catch high numbers of trout. Being right on the bottom is the most important thing in stonefly fishing.
When you begin seeing stones fluttering on the surface it's time to go dry. Try a size 8 to 12 Elk Hair caddis tied on long-shank hooks, or any of a number of other standard stone patterns in the same sizes. It does not seem to matter. Look to heavily hackled flies with deer-hair wings to help float them in rough water. Dead drift is the standard mode of operation, but if you are not getting your share of strikes, try imparting a small twitch to your pattern.
After spring run-off passes, say, during the latter part of June through early August (the former more likely today), March Browns are the hatch of the day. New Mexicans call these flies Red Quills. These mayflies come off in huge numbers and are the No. 1 mayfly on the Pecos. The nymph resembles a size 12 to 14 cream to natural Hare's Ear. The adult fly is more grayish than red, a close approximation tied by substituting an Adams' muskrat body with Hare's Ear dubbing.
You might catch a small but fun hatch of light-colored mayflies during the month of July, covered with a size 16 Light Cahill, a hatch many seem to overlook.
From mid-June through late August, depending on the year, several caddisflies bring trout to the surface. A selection of weighted Hare's Ear Nymphs in various colors, in sizes 12 to 18, are all you need to match the larval and papal stages of any of these insects. Floating adults are easily matched with standard Elk Hair caddis, in sizes 12-16, in tans and light grays.
On the Pecos, as on the nearby Rio Grande, craneflies are a great bet. It's an excellent prospecting pattern that's easy to tie. A simple cream-dubbed body ribbed with gold wire, over a 2X or 3X long-shank hook, in size 10 or 12, will do the trick. This simple pattern often fools bigger trout when more elaborate patterns fail.
Of course, as in all waters with limited food, bright attractor patterns are real killers during hot summer months. It does not matter if it is a Royal Wulff, Royal Trude, or Royal Coachman - the trout don't seem to mind, and will most often smash it if it's placed over their heads in wilderness water.
The Pecos Box, just upstream of the river's confluence with Mora Creek, is managed as special trout water by the NMGFD. This special section takes in waters from a half-mile above the junction of Pecos and Mora Creek and continues through the Box to a point one-quarter mile above Cowles Bridge. Only flies and lures with barbless hooks are permitted here, with only two trout per day 12 inches or longer allowed in your bag. Some small tributaries, Jack's Creek for instance, are catch-and-release fisheries to help protect beleaguered Rio Grande cutts. Check regulations.
MORA CREEK BROWNS Mora has been called one of New Mexico's premier brown trout streams. The lowest mile of this small stream is often crowded, especially on weekends, but upper sections offer many fewer anglers. Mora Creek ranges from 20 to 30 feet wide at the Pecos proper, but is only 6 to 10 feet wide on its upper reaches. The Mora offers a diversity of riffle and pool structure and freestone character.
Trout are often found in water only a foot deep, with gin-clear holes up to 10 feet deep also common. Wading is easy for the most part, but its cold waters demand hip waders with felt bottoms. Old-growth trees grow right to the bank on the lower sections, but casting is not restricted. Higher, above Mora Flats, willows line the bank and make for more challenging casting.
The easiest way to access the Mora is via the NMGFD campground on NM 63 at the junction of the Pecos and Mora, about 2.5 miles north of Terrero. Pack a daypack and walk until you leave the crowd behind, which surprisingly does not take much effort. After Mora's junction with Bear Creek, the trail climbs away from the river.
The Mora becomes wild canyon country extending 5 miles to Mora Flats. This section of the river is rarely fished, holding some nice browns for those willing to work at it.
The upper Mora at Mora Flats can be reached by hiking from Iron Gate Campground at the end of FR 223, a rough, steep four-mile dirt road that can be navigated by car (carefully) in dry weather. Follow FS Trail 249 toward Hamilton Mesa for a half-mile, and turn right onto Trail 250. Mora Flats is about three miles farther. There are four miles of fine fishing upstream from Mora Flats.
Stocked rainbows, like most of the Pecos region, are the mainstay on the lower-most Mora. These range from 8 to 14 inches, with only an occasional trout taping larger. Farther upstream the Mora is a brown-trout fishery. Most range from 8 to 12 inches long, but larger browns are certainly possible in
the deeper pools found beneath the small waterfalls along its entire course. The same Pecos hatches apply here, but these trout are more lightly fished; large, bright attractors make as good a choice as any during summer. Early try Woolly Buggers and bright streamers.
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