Fishing | Travel | TROUT Magazine

San Juan New Years in the Old Years

End of the year on the San Juan.
Photo by Toner Mitchell.

It’s difficult to remember exactly when it began, our annual New Years fishing trip on the San Juan River below Navajo Dam. We had hair and it wasn’t gray, and some of us still had muscles. We brought our kitchen kits and coolers, cooking our meals and washing dishes, then staying up half the night playing cribbage, watching bowl games and, of course, drinking to excess as the icy wind blew unobstructed beneath the door of our budget hotel room. 

Usually Stucky and I woke at first light and busted up to Texas Hole to get our skunk off. After the first fish, our cloth bag nets froze into tennis rackets. Remnant alcohol pinching us between the eyes, we suddenly needed sleep, not to mention every millimeter of our neoprene waders. Then we’d head back to the room, where we settled for breakfast. 

There weren’t a lot of go-to fly patterns back then, just the worms, pheasant tails, Griffith’s gnats, black buggers, and red annelids. It was before beadheads, when for some reason we could get away with size 18s instead the current requisite No. 22. It was “red worm at morning, orange at dusk.” That much hasn’t changed, though pretty much everything else has, maybe because we’ve accumulated so many more fishing days over the years. As the sample size grows, deviations from the norm have a tendency to become it.  

San Juan Rainbow. Photo by Toner Mitchell.

We’re now into our third lodge owner, and our sixth president since the ritual began. Assuming/praying that the current administration’s attack on the Waters of the U.S. Rule crashes into a wall of sanity, the only direct impact of national events on the San Juan was after 9/11. Right below the dam was my favorite spot, but after the towers fell, they closed off that area to aspiring terrorists. It’s really rough to fish within spitting distance from a spot you know so well, but after so many years away from, you realize you don’t anymore. 

We all married, had kids, and developed careers, softening enough to require the convenience of lodge-made meals and easy chairs. Parents are passing away, kids are growing up too fast. The operations have started, on hips, knees and cancers.  

The fear of the kids leaving is a subject that consumes more of our conversations than ever. Members of our gang with older children are expressing doubts. During mid-year poker games when we lay out our San Juan plans, they mumble about pushing the dates to the week after New Years, after their kids have gone back to college. 

For now, those of us with younger kids are resisting successfully. The San Juan trip still isn’t about stoking the Christmas fever and keeping the party going through New Year’s Eve midnight. It’s about winding down from Christmas, yet also about remembering all that’s happened this year. Postponing winding down for a week would be like double winding down. Heck, drinking at our level best, we haven’t made it to midnight in a decade; we can barely wind down once before falling asleep. 

I think what worries me about pushing back the trip is realizing that we will already have caught the next year’s wave by the time we head to the river. What we had put down before Christmas will have been picked up again, perhaps happily. The old year will be a week gone, the new a week begun. There will be no passing to commemorate and no welcome to celebrate. The trip will be a formality, when everything will be stale. 

Maybe we’re admitting that, in spite of claims that we’re just relaxing, our New Years trip actually means something. I won’t deny it. This year I found myself missing my family horribly — I’d left them back east to come to the San Juan — but also realizing in my deepest center that the space between what was and the year to come needed to be inhabited, if only for a few gorgeous days. 

Light snow on the San Juan. Photo by Toner Mitchell.

I became aware of this space is during the onset of a very long hatch on our second to last day, when my nymphs stopped working in direct proportion to the evolving riseforms around me. Faint ripples became wavy bulges became slurps and splashes, at which point I may as well have been throwing rocks.  

Midges were everywhere in quarter-sized clusters, but amazingly the fish ignored them. Then the snow began to fall. The sky reflected white on the water surface, which usually makes for tough dry-fly fishing. One exception is when mayflies are on the water. They become rather obvious, floating like tiny sailboats until sunk by pink cheeks.  

The rises were suddenly everywhere, all within a leader length cast. I caught some, but only after great effort changing flies, lengthening tippets, landing a decent parachute cast. The work was frantic, but also delicious. The fish seemed to be waiting for me to find the silver bullet until, as I knew would happen, the moment came when the pretty sailboats just drifted off downstream undisturbed. I tried to act surprised, even disappointed, as if believing that the clock was broken and would go on forever.  

I wanted to believe, as I do every year on the San Juan, time would stand still for me. I was fishing, so in a way, I guess it did. 

Toner Mitchell is the New Mexico water and habitat coordinator for Trout Unlimited.