Two of my favorite New Mexico rivers to fish in the San Juan River and Cimarron River. This story is about the Cimarron. The Cimarron River is in Northeast New Mexico and emanates out of Eagle Nest Lake. Located on the eastern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this dry fly gem flows eastward through Cimarron Canyon State Park along US Hwy 64. After flowing into several other rivers this water ultimately reaches the Mississippi River. New Mexico Game and Fish estimates nearly 4,000 catchable sized wild browns per mile, this is unquestionably the healthiest wild brown trout fishery in the state and one of the healthiest in the southern Rocky Mountains. Most of the wild browns are 10-14 inches with the occasional big boy. This fishery is not well known but can still get a little crowded close to the roads during mid-summer.
I can easily get to the Cimarron within a one-day hard drive from my Fly Shop near Tyler, Texas and be fishing late that afternoon or early the next morning. The high mountain scenery is beautiful and the fishing is great.
My story begins in the middle of June 2002. During June, the stonefly hatch is in full swing on the Cimarron and big browns will eagerly attack a size 14 or 16 Stimulator with regularity. This is my favorite time of year to fish this river. This is dry fly fishing at its best.
Unfortunately, if you remember, this was during the time wildfires were engulfing many parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. The Cimarron Canyon State Park was surrounded by a couple of such fires.
I arrived at the Pine Ridge Hotel, only about a mile from quality fishing water, late Monday evening. This is a quaint little four-room hotel nestled near the entrance of the state park. After checking in, the hotel owner told me that the park was closed and had been since Friday. Because of the fire dangers, it was closed to everything including camping, hiking, picnicking and YES… fishing. Every park pulls off was barricaded in bright yellow. It seems like every other tree had a Park Closed sign nailed to it. I couldn’t believe it. I had driven 12 hours straight to spend some personal time dry fly fishing and… wouldn’t you know it… No Fishing. I was sick. If you have ever wanted to see a big man cry this would have been a great opportunity.
There were no other places nearby that I could fish unless I had a guide to fish some private waters that were nearby. I called my good friend, Doc Thompson, of High Country Anglers. Doc is the best fly fishing guide for the small streams of Northeast New Mexico including some private areas of the Cimarron. He was booked. No chance for me to fish any private water.
I was considering cutting my losses, packing up my gear and heading home with my tail tucked between my legs when I saw the park ranger turn into the motel parking lot. I eagerly approached him, explained my predicament and pleaded with him to be merciful on this misguided Texan. He indicated that there was little he could do. He was ordered by higher-ups to close the park. The area was very dry and the fear of the forest fire spreading was at an all-time high. He finally gave me a minuscule window of hope when he said that if the wind didn’t pick up or change directions during the night he would ask if he could open the park the next day. No guarantees. There was only a small chance of things falling my way but I decided to wait it out and see.
The next morning, bright and early, I walked to the hotel owners desk with my fingers and toes crossed. “Great news,” the owner said, “you can fish.” The park ranger called the hotel and told the owner to go tell Tex he can fish. The ranger opened the park to fishing only. No one could camp, hike or picnic. Fishing only. Best of all, he left all of the barricades and Park Closed signs up. My head began to buzz with this scenario. Could it be true? Is it possible that anywhere in this country there is a stream that is full of big browns, full of fish eager to slam dry flies, has had no fishing for five days, has Park Closed signs on every other tree and has bright yellow barricades at every pull off? Is this really happening? And most of all… is this really happening to me? YES… it was!!!
I almost broke a leg and a fly rod getting to the river so quickly. I was the only person fishing this 12-mile stretch of quality trout water. The ONLY person. The river has had no fishing pressure for five days. None. Notta. Absolutely zero. What a magnificent opportunity. I hit the water at 8:00 am. Knowing that the stonefly hatch would begin at about 9:00 am, I tied on a size 16 yellow Stimulator with a Copper John dropper on my 2wt rod. For the next hour, the catch was 50/50 on the dry and nymph. When the match started, I removed the nymph in order concentrate on the dry. My stimulator was repeatedly demolished by hungry trout. The hatch started around 9:00 am and eventually tapered off around 2:00 pm at the day warmed. During that time, I landed more than 40 nice brown on a dry. Most of them were in the 10 to 12-inch range. Some a little smaller and some a little bigger. The whole time, I saw no other person on the river. I was in total fly fishing bliss. Later that afternoon, as the temperature began to drop, they started hitting hard again and did so until just before dark. I lost count of the total number of fish that I caught that day. After a while, you just quit counting. The fishing was phenomenal and the solitude was even better.
During the day, when I would take a break at my parked Jeep for a shot of Joe or something, people would drive by giving me the stare of disgust. I could see their lips mumble something like, “that idiot Texan… can’t he read the signs?” I was in no way interested in setting them straight. I wanted the entire state on New Mexico as well as the whole wide world to think the park was completely closed and may never open again.
That evening, back at my room, the harsh realities of that summer were vivid. I sat on my front porch and watched the helicopters and other large aircraft drop loads of water on the forest fires that were scattered along the mountainside. Huge walls of smoke draped the horizon. I couldn’t help but become sorrowed because of the destruction that was unfolding before my eyes. When it was too dark to see, I retired to the confines of my room.
Later that night, as I lay packed tight in my cozy little bed, I found it difficult to sleep. As my mind drifted from the fires outside and danced with thoughts of my day of fishing, I giggled as I felt myself swelling with contentment. My angling experience kept running through my mind. I couldn’t help but wonder what the next day would bring. Would my fly fishing solitude come to an end? Guess what… it didn’t.
I hit the park early the next morning to be faced with the very same scenario. The signs and barricades were still in place and no one was in sight. Using the same flies and techniques I enjoyed equal success as I had the day before. It wasn’t until late that afternoon did I see the only other car in the park. The word was finally out. By then, it was OK. I enjoyed a few hours of good fishing the next morning before heading back to Tyler.
Is there a moral here? I don’t know. It was defiantly a fishing trip that I will never forget. In retrospect, however, it seems really unfortunate that my memorable fishing trip was at the expense of so much. The southwest lost an awful lot of good forest and helpless wildlife during that horrible time. Homes were gone and lively hoods were destroyed. I suppose the saying remains true, “someone’s good fortune is usually at someone else’s expense.”