Most people don’t immediately think of fly fishing when the Southwest United States is brought up in conversation. Vast deserts and desolate mountains dominate most of the landscape. Some of New Mexico fits in to these categorizations, but scattered throughout the state are five National Parks, grasslands and great fly fishing. Impressive trout populations as well as warm water fish are prevalent throughout the waters.
It is a great location for those seeking solitude. It’s far enough away from the normal fly fishing hotspots that it doesn’t get as much attention. This list of 11 best places to fly fish in New Mexico will take you all over the state and put you on numerous species of fish ranging from trout to musky.
1. San Juan River
The average size trout on the San Juan is nearly 17 inches. This should be enough of an explanation for people curious about whether or not New Mexico is worth fishing. Located an hour from Durango, it flows out of the Navajo Dam at the bottom of the Navajo Reservoir. Since it is a tailwater, the water temperatures stay consistently chilly all year. Brown and rainbow trout haunt the waters with an estimated over 7,000 fish per mile. These cold trout waters require waders. The air temperature may be 100, but mid-40 degree water will freeze your lower half.
Some people opt to hire a guide to float the river. It is not a simple river to fish, but it is wide and doesn’t require lengthy casts. A 5 of 6 weight rod is what you’ll want. The fish see a decent amount of pressure so 5 or 6x fluorocarbon tippet is the best option.
The San Juan is barbless water so bring forceps to crush barbs. The cold water only allows midges to hatch. Small midges and annelids are what the fish will eat. Size 20-26 WD-40’s and Pheasant Tails will work. Keep as much of a drag free drift as you possibly can.
Where to fish on the San Juan
Try fishing the Upper Flats or the Texas Hole. The slower moving waters makes life easier. The Upper Flats are located right near the Catch & Release section at the beginning of the river. The Texas Hole is in between the Upper Main Channel and the Middle Main Channel. There are plenty of maps located online for the river, but here is the location of the Texas Hole:
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2. Rio Grande & Major Tributaries
The Rio Grande in New Mexico is a great fishery with many wild trout. It does require some difficult hiking because a lot of the river is located in deep gorges. Hikes with 1000 feet in elevation drop are not uncommon. Your best bet for water clarity is going to be late summer into fall. The thunderstorms throughout the summer often muddy the water. You can catch rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout.
There is a Little Black Caddis hatch that happens in the middle of April that can lead to some great fishing. Otherwise, Western March Browns and BWO’s will work. Much like the San Juan, there are plenty of midges so nymphing is always an option. Sculpin Streamers will produce fish in the deeper pockets. Bring along the 5 or 6 weight. If it can break down that’s a plus because you will likely be doing some hiking.
Where to fish on the Rio Grande
Since a majority of the river is difficult to access, try fishing at the John Dunn Bridge. You’ll have an easier time covering the river. Hike up river a ways to distance yourself from the people. It’s a fairly popular picnic spot, but it is possible to find solitude.
3. Red River
The Red River is a tributary of the Rio Grande and can be broken into two sections. The first being above the town of Red River. This upper section requires more technical fishing and can be accessed on state highway 586. Stocked rainbows are the most common catch.
The lower section is found below the town of Questa. This section is located in a bit of a canyon so hiking can be difficult. However, the pocket water makes it worth it. There are wild brown and cutbow trout scattered throughout it. It’s best fished during the springtime with BWO’s and Little Yellow Stoneflies. Late summer brings about the terrestrial bite. Ants, beetles and grasshoppers will attract fish. You won’t need anything more than a 5 or 6 weight with some fluorocarbon tippet.
Do you want to really dig into Fly Fishing in New Mexico? I highly recommend the book Flyfisher’s Guide to New Mexico (Amazon link) A great read for planning your next trip or exploring some new water.
Where to fish on the Red River:
The easiest access to the river is from the Red River Fish Hatchery. You can access it here:
4. Rio Guadalupe Fly Fishing Paradise
The Rio Guadalupe is a 12 mile stream that flows through primarily public land. Located north of Jemez Pueblo, the lower three miles are private, but the nine miles of public hold plenty of good fish. There is a Special Trout water section that stretches from Porter Landing Bridge to Llano Loco Spring. Only flies and artificial lures are allowed. Rainbows are stocked and there is a population of wild brown trout.
The best fishing is on the upper section, but it requires some scrambling to access. From Jemez, go on NM 4 for four miles north and then left on to NM 485. This will take you to the entrance of Santa Fe National Forest. If you’re used to tighter streams, you’ll have no trouble. Bring anything from a 4 to 6 weight rod and 5 or 6x tippet. The wild browns will be much more picky than the stocked rainbows. Small WD-40’s and Pheasant Tails will work. Also, BWO’s are going to find fish.
5. Gila River
The Mainstem of the Gila will provide you with numerous options. Along with the rainbow trout there are smallmouth bass, sunfish and catfish. There are two other sections of the Gila; the East and West Forks. The river is located in the Gila National Forest. You can start at the headwaters a close to the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument.
At nearly 7000 feet elevation, you will be susceptible to some difficult weather and hiking. A forest fire in 2012 and a major flood in 2013 has put the river in recovery mode of the last few years. However, there are more and more fish being caught in recent years. Mayflies, stoneflies, midges and caddis’ will all hatch on the Gila. Smaller is better just like many of the rivers in New Mexico.
The East Fork will be home to the smallmouth bass that can be caught on minnow and crayfish patterns. The beautiful scenery will keep you company if the fishing gets difficult. The water temperatures in the East Fork can reach over 80 degrees so don’t expect too many trout.
6. Upper Pecos River
The Upper Pecos River is one of the more highly pressured bodies of water on this list. However, it’s a breath of fresh air compared to many of the others that require long hikes to reach. State Highway 63 follows much of the stream. Park and pick out different pockets you want to fish. Wild brown trout and stocked rainbows are the targets. It can be a difficult river to fish because of the runoff from the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Once the flow has slowed down by mid-May, fishing will pick up.
Fishing during the Stonefly hatch from May into June is the most consistent. Also, Salmonflies are hatching during that one month stretch. Beware of the Special Trout Water regulations. Only two trout, 12 inches long can be taken from ½ mile above the confluence of the Mora-Pecos upstream to a ¼ mile above Cowles Bridge.
7. Santa Cruz Lake
Located in the hills overlooking Espanola, Santa Cruz Lake is home to the state record rainbow trout. A 31-pound 33 ½ beast was pulled out of it in 1999. It’s only 35 miles of Santa Fe and is a great spot for a family day. There are plenty of trails along the shores that provide solid bank fishing. Sinking line is useful here because you’ll need to get close to the bottom if at all possible.
The Santa Cruz Creek enters on the north side of the lake, but the hike to it is a bit treacherous. Boats are allowed on the lake, but only at trolling speeds. Bring along the 6 weight so you can expand your casting range. The New Mexico DNR stocks the lake with rainbow trout. Minnow patterns and other streamers will find fish. Also, midges up along the banks will catch some. Stocked fish usually aren’t that picky, so don’t fret too much about fly choice! See what is hatching and match it up as closely as you can.
8. Ruidoso River
Located in Southern New Mexico in the Sierra Blanca Mountains, the Ruidoso River presents more great trout fishing. The headwaters of the river start near the Sierra Blanca Peak at nearly 12,000 feat. It’s home to brook, rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout.
Be aware of the No Trespassing signs, there have been some recent issues with unknown trespassing. The Ruidoso River Trail starts at Two Rivers Park in Ruidoso and offers river access. A smaller 4 or 5 weight rod should be plenty big for what you’ll be hauling out of the river. Pay attention to the Stonefly hatches. Otherwise midge patterns like Pheasant Tails or Flash Midge sizes 18-24 will work.
9. Fenton Lake
Fenton Lake is located in Fenton Lake State Park near Jemez Springs. It’s regularly stocked with rainbow trout all year long. The lake has good bank fishing opportunities, but beware of the overhanging trees. The forest makes things a bit more difficult for the unexperienced angler. This is another great place to spend a few days camping and hanging out away from the summer New Mexico heat.
It will fill up on weekends, but there is plenty of time throughout the week where you’ll have access to as much of the lake as you would like. It’s a great place to slide in a kayak if you have one. Again, the stocked fish won’t be too picky. Throwing the larger streamers will attract the angrier fish. Bring some sinking line as well to get to the bottom where the larger trout will be moving.
A classic Wooly Bugger has seen success. Otherwise, the darker midge patterns will catch them. Bring along a friend who wants to learn to fly fish. The lake is a great place to teach them. The Jemez River is located close by if they feel ready to try some moving water.
10. Green Meadows Lake
Green Meadows Lake is the most unique bodies of water on this list. Located inside of the town of Hobbs, this lake is home to white bass, brown and rainbow trout, catfish and warmouth. It doesn’t require a difficult hike like many of the other options on this list. It’s another great spot to teach someone who wants to learn to fly fish.
The stocked fish are more than happy to bite on just about anything you throw. Minnow patterns for bass and Wooly Buggers for the trout will work. Try out a new rod or new casting technique. It’s a fun fishery that doesn’t require much effort.
11. Cimarron River
The best access point for the Cimarron is the Cimarron Canyon State Park. Part of this river has private water so be aware. The stream begins just upstream of the Tolby Campground. Many say it’s one of the best small stream brown trout fisheries in the Southwest United States. It’s lined with cottonwood trees and is only about 15 feet wide on average.
There are many hatches and fishing is good from May all the way through October. Your best fishing will come from nymphs and streamers. It’s another tailwater fishery so water will stay cool all year round. The usual 4 to 6 weight rod with fluorocarbon leader will work best. Caddisflies, Mayflies and Stoneflies will hatch if you are interested in dry fly fishing. Don’t count this stream out because it’s the last on this list. It’s some of the best fishing in the state.
There is a decent population of Tiger Muskie spread throughout New Mexico. They can be found on Quemado Lake as well as Bluewater Lake. The length limit for both lakes is 40 inches. Fly fishing for Tiger Muskie is remarkable. You’ll need massive flies that can move a lot of water. Large poppers are going to do the trick. Don’t think you can get away with anything less than a 10 weight rod and some heavy line. It’s nerve wracking waiting for the bite, but the fight for them on a fly rod is unbelievable.
Recommended Gear For Fly Fishing in New Mexico
You won’t need anything more than a 6 weight rod unless you are targeting the Tiger Muskie. Also, the smaller flies are going to catch more fish. Occasionally a streamer will spook a big trout in to eating, but you’re best bet is to stay with nymphs size 20-26. They’re going to be the most productive overall.
Read the descriptions from earlier for which flies to use in what water, but darker beadhead nymphs are best. Light fluorocarbon tippet is also necessary. The wild trout will spook easily so don’t try and get away with anything too thick. Remember the sinking line for the three lakes listed.
Official References for Fly Fishing in New Mexico
- The state Department of Natural Resources is a great source of information with fishing reports and regulations. DNR Website: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/fishing/
- New Mexico Trout is dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of trout fishing in New Mexico’s waters: http://www.newmexicotrout.org
Popular Fly Shops in New Mexico
Abe’s Motel and Fly Shop: https://www.sanjuanriver.com
Taos Fly Shop: https://taosflyshop.com/flyguide/main
Los Pinos Fly and Tackle Shop: https://www.lospinosflyandtackle.com