New Mexico has a world-class rainbow trout fishery in the San Juan River, but it also has other desert streams of unusual quality. One of the lesser known spring creeks is fished by various angling notables and is definitely worth the effort of obtaining access to. The Rio Penasco is a 40-mile spring creek near the Sacramento Mountains in the Pecos River watershed and one of the finest trout streams of the desert country.
The stream’s headwaters are in the Lincoln National Forest in the Sacramentos near Cloudcroft, New Mexico. The fishing starts to get interesting downstream of Mayville, along U.S. 82, but most of the good opportunities are on private ranches where the river is leased by angling clubs. In the past, while visiting family in Alamogordo, I’d been deterred from traveling to the river because of the expense, but I recently found a way of fishing and enjoying the Penasco at a modest cost.
I became a member of Mesilla Valley Fly Fishers, Inc., (MVFF), a conservation-minded group of anglers based in Las Cruces, NM, that has a two-mile lease of the Penasco at the Runyon Ranch. For the purchase of a daily permit (very reasonable) from the MVFF, you can fly-fish for trout that are both stocked and wild. The club stocks German browns and small rainbows that can grow quickly in the nutrient-rich waters. The rainbows reproduce in many parts of the stream and are able to grow to healthy sizes, some of them obtaining lengths of 20 inches or more.
When Chuck Mueller, president of MVFF, volunteered to drive up from Las Cruces to meet me in Alamogordo and then to give an introduction to the river, I jumped at the opportunity. We drove out to the ranch and began to fly-fish where the regulations are strictly catch-and-release with barbless flies only.
The stream was running a little high and muddy from recent “monsoon” thunderstorms, but it was fishable. The only morning flies we noted were some Blue-winged Olive spinners, but no rise forms were detected. I worked downstream casting a variety of imitations including Grasshopper and foam Beetle, but nothing was working. Rejoining Chuck at lunch-time, I learned that he was having some success with streamers.
After lunch (have plenty of water because the dry heat can drain you in no time), Chuck insisted that I fish with him upstream. I would shorten the leader to about a 3X diameter and tie on a big old pattern like the Olive Sculpin. We would fish the afternoon with streamers.
We didn’t catch many trout before the typical mountain thunderstorm rolled in around 3 P.M., but the one I caught made the effort worthwhile, to say the least. Returning to the city, I was thankful for the river guidance and vowed to stay in touch with Chuck and the MVFF people who involve themselves with excellent conservation projects, not to mention all the fishing trips that members plan together. I was ready to return for a solo excursion in a couple of days.
Back on the stream, I found that the water had risen a little from the latest storm, but the fishing was improved. I covered old ground and forged on to some new water. It felt good to fish in desert solitude, in the dry air at an elevation over 5,000 feet, but occasionally the unfamiliarity of it was unnerving.
Greenhorn that I was, I had come prepared for wet wading, but instead of arriving with neoprene wading socks and shoes (as Chuck had), I fished in shorts and sandals (boat shoes) totally inadequate when sinking almost knee-deep into silt, or when traversing steep banks while keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes.
The Rio Penasco is frequently a clear spring creek that requires the use of long fine leaders, but in two days of fishing the water, it was relatively high and off-colored. There are lots of deep holes in the river, and the trick was to get the fly down quickly. Unlike many eastern spring creeks, the Penasco didn’t have the bane of vegetation that tangles with a wet fly.
Although dry flies weren’t producing, weighted nymphs and streamers (Prince and Copper John and Sculpin) were the ticket. I caught a number of heavy rainbows, and look forward to another visit some day. The high desert country has an undefinable allure, and I find that when its waters call me, it is difficult to ignore.