In a couple of months I hope to revisit northern New Mexico. Four years ago I enjoyed a fishing camp-out on the headwaters of the Pecos River in the southern Rocky Mountains. Beautiful country, wild and scenic. Last summer I returned but had only partial success. My wife and I were staying downstate with her father. The Las Alamos fires were raging due to the scant rainfall in the region. When the infernos cooled I made an end-run past them, traveling north of Santa Fe, thinking that the national forests had been reopened. I was wrong.
It’s a big jump moving from Alamogordo and the harshness of the White Sands wilderness to the lush coniferous forests in northern New Mexico. It’s a move from the waterless blue to the rivertops of the American Southwest, from tremendous dust storms to the breezy whirlwinds of a fishing fantasy. Little did I know that the fire danger had remained “extreme,” that the public would be denied access to the forest regions till the “monsoon” rains, long overdue, finally moved across the mountains.
Having driven as far as I did, my options were few. All public campgrounds were off-limits. If I stayed a night or two in a private campground in the foothills I could fish the Pecos next morning down below the national forest lands. The river had some fine looking water in it, and I was bone-dry ready.
Mice and lizards of the White Sands wilderness have evolved an off-white camouflage in order to survive in an incredibly hot and dry region. I thought of them as I suited up in fishing shorts and sandals at the river, happy that my own adjustment got accomplished in a matter of hours rather than eons. I gained entry to the river under watchful eyes. The water was low, clear and cold. A small Latino boy observed me from the bank beside a private camping area. He dashed off but returned with a plastic fishing pole and reel. He made awkward casting motions. I imagined him throwing the oversized bobber so it bounced right off my fishing hat. When his parents joined him at the bank they asked me what kind of flies I was using. “Dries,” I answered. “Stimulators, Adams, Elkhair Caddis.” The elders nodded in approval. The Elkhair was their favorite on the Pecos.
The river poured itself, pool by riffle, past a steep and arid ridge. It poured gently from the heaven of a wilderness beyond, and I thought of how I almost missed it. Had I learned of the forest closings while down in Alamogordo, I would not have come. It felt good being here. My first two fish were rainbows caught near the bridge. After that, it was wild browns all the way. From my camp-out a few years earlier, I knew that the native Rio Grande cutthroat could be found in the back country of the headwaters. After I released my twentieth brown trout of the morning, a hefty and colorful specimen, it was almost time to leave.
I probably could’ve done better, not that I was complaining. I’d been moving lightly, with a minimum of flies and gear. One pod of browns that I encountered was selectively feeding on the surface and refusing my offerings. Had I brought a creme-colored spinner fly I might’ve had the ticket, but traveling this way you can’t be prepared for every conceivable situation. It’s part of the cost for fishing quietly in a beautiful location. If I couldn’t get into that “blank spot on the map” (Aldo Leopold) beyond me at the headwaters, there was enough joy and challenge to be found nearby. Enough for one day, and enough to call me back again.