Enjoy winter fly-fishing in Northern New Mexico.
experience the stark, solitary beauty to being on a river in the winter.
By Tamra Testerman
The bigger animals native to our region are mostly in hibernation, most of the birds have migrated to warmer climes, there are fewer people on the roads and in the woods, and there is a breathtaking stillness not found any other time of year.
Northern New Mexico is home to world-class fly-fishing rivers, creeks and streams. You’ll find an impressive assortment of trout: Rio Grande cutthroat, Rainbows, Browns, Brookies and Cutbows.
You’ll also find some of the most passionate fishing guides anywhere who revel in the sport year-round and are well-equipped to give both the seasoned angler and beginner the experience of a lifetime.
Joey Phillips, owner of Blue Yonder Fly-fishing is one of them. His clients come from all over the world to fish all four seasons, and in the winter, some want a fresh powder morning on the slopes of the Taos Ski Valley, and an afternoon on the Red River angling for the elusive trout. Others are keen to stay for a few days or more fishing multiple locations. Phillips knows the waters of Northern New Mexico, and is an expert fly- fisherman.
Phillips said winter fly-fishing is special for many reasons. “The places we fish are less populated, the wildlife is quiet and it’s really serene. There are world-class winter fishing waters in Northern New Mexico. The San Juan River which is famous for its winter trout fishing, being a tailwater, the water remains 42 degrees year round. The Rio Grande is a spring-fed, freestone river so it is constantly flowing, maintaining temperatures and flows great for trout fishing year-round.”
Another advantage of winter fishing is when the water temperatures are at the low end of the thermometer, the trout gravitate to deep, slow holding water. Midges and mayflies are the predominant food source on the Red River and they can be found throughout.
Red River is a 30 minute drive from Taos and is a winter fishery haven from October through early April. The Red River provides anglers an unparalleled opportunity to fish and ski on the same trip to Taos. A myriad of springs flow into the river, increasing the flows and keeping the water temperatures in the optimum trout fishing range between 45 to 60 degrees.
Phillips has worked the streams, rivers and creeks of Northern New Mexico and the world for decades. He is a former fishing guide for Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, George Strait and other celebrities, and a venerated teacher of the sport to thousands. He began guiding as an occupation at the Ted Turner Vermejo Park Ranch where he started as a bartender. Although he’d been practicing the sport since he was a teenager, he’d not yet considered pursuing his passion as a vocation.
After work at the ranch, Phillips fished with the seasoned fishing guides at the ranch. His skills honed from years of practice and mentoring from the Northern New Mexico fly-fishing legend Chuck Rizzuto impressed them, and he was invited to lead expeditions not only in New Mexico but also for Ted Turner to the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.
Phillips said in any direction from Taos, within an hour or less, you’ll find some of the best trout fishing in North America. From the spring-fed canyons of the Rio Grande and the Cimarron River to the high-mountain streams Rio de Los Piños, the Red River and the Rio Costilla, and a bevy of small creeks. Northern New Mexico affords a diverse fly-fishing experience.
He started his guide company, Blue Yonder Fly-fishing, to share his love of the sport and do what he loves best: teaching beginners and being in nature. Phillips said he enjoys seeing a beginner catch their first trout, or that magic moment when there is a “strike” on their line. Blue Yonder Fly-fishing provides all the equipment you’ll need to enjoy a morning or afternoon on the river this winter. Waders, rods, and flys. All you need is to dress for the weather and a fishing license. Phillips suggests dressing warmer than you would on the slopes or doing vigorous activity.
There is a lot of standing still, which means you get cold faster, but the rewards are plenty and you will forget about the temperature when the fish are biting, and the beauty of a winter day on the river stays with you long after you’ve gone home.
Ice fishing: fun for the whole family
When you think of the desert of New Mexico, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not ice fishing. But believe it or not, it’s growing in popularity. All you need to do is research, plan and wait for the right conditions for ice fishing. Eagle Nest Lake is a popular ice fishing spot about 45 minutes from Taos. Be sure to call ahead and make sure the lake is open for fishing before you make the drive. When you call, ask the park service for any guidance they can provide for safety on the ice and picking a good spot.
“Eagle Nest Lake is probably the most popular ice fishing lake in New Mexico,” said Eric Frey, sport fish program manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. He also said “this 2,200-acre lake sits at 8,300 feet in elevation, has stunning mountain views and usually freezes hard enough every year to entertain ice fishermen.” The lake is full of rainbow trout, northern pike, yellow perch and kokanee salmon. Anglers say PowerBait, corn and jigs work best to get the fish biting.