Habitat remains promising for trout in the San Juan River's Quality Waters

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Serious issues including climate change and competition with non-native fish have resulted in the reduction of trout habitat in parts of the western United States.

The seriousness of those issues may command the attention of people like New Mexico Department of Game and Fish native fish specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Bryan Bakevich, Trout Unlimited staff member Toner Mitchell and Trout Unlimited volunteer Arnold Atkins.

But perspectives are different among those who make their living directly from one of the state's premier trout-fishing rivers.

Mark Nesbitt, owner of the Blue Sky Fly Fishing Guide Service in Navajo Dam — a small community in far eastern San Juan County that is largely dependent on the fly fishing industry on the San Juan River for its economic vitality — describes trout fishing on the waterway as the best it has ever been, crediting the state's restoration work on the river for that situation.


The Quality Waters section of the San Juan River is one of the more popular trout fishing destinations in New Mexico, attracting anglers from all over.

Too many fishing guides on the San Juan River

He seems unconcerned by the number of non-native species in the river or the possible effects of global warming, focusing his attention instead on what he says is increased fishing pressure on the San Juan — especially the nearly 5-mile stretch of specially designated Quality Waters just below the dam that trout fisherman salivate over. He jokes about days when the famed Texas Hole — the most famous and heavily trafficked spot on the river — is so crowded you have to keep your head on a swivel to avoid bumping elbows with another angler or catching a hook from a stray cast.

"There are over 30 commercial businesses and (dozens more) guide cards out there trying to make a living on five miles of river," he said. "That's a fair amount of pressure, including public pressure."

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Nesbitt said he has been arguing for years that New Mexico lawmakers need to tighten the restrictions for obtaining a guide permit for the state's waterways. Current state law allows guides associated with Colorado guide services to easily work in New Mexico, but Colorado law is far more restrictive when it comes to New Mexico guides working waterways in that state, he said.

As a result, much of the business that could be going to guide services, lodging establishments, restaurants and stores in Navajo Dam is instead being siphoned off by Colorado guide services working out of the Durango area, he said.

"The biggest thing the state (of New Mexico) could do is protect its resource," Nesbitt said. "It's obvious we have the resources because they come out of Colorado to fish it. They're taking my money, your money and everyone else's money in New Mexico."

But that argument has gotten him nowhere in the past, Nesbitt said, noting that he also faces the day-to-day pressure of running his own business.

"When it gets busy, it's hard enough for me to stay caught up," he said, adding that his complaints also make him unpopular with his fellow guides based in Colorado.

MORE:Fishing improving in the San Juan River despite murky water

Andy Kim, a guide who works not just the San Juan River, but the Chama River east of the San Juan and the Salida River in Colorado, believes there are plenty of trout in the San Juan, noting the abundance of both browns and rainbows.

"We've got plenty of fish in this river, no doubt about that," he said.

Declining public access to waterways

Kim's main concern is what he called declining public access to waterways throughout the West as riverfront property is gobbled up by private landowners. He said even small ranchers who used to be willing to allow him to take clients on to their property to fish now tend to make exclusive agreements for access with larger guide services, leaving independent operators like himself out in the cold.

He said he has heard concerns voiced about declining trout habitat, but he is inclined to dismiss those concerns.

"They're the ones who don't know how to catch fish," he said, smiling.

Nevertheless, he voiced the same concern about fishing pressure on the San Juan as Nesbitt did, adding he would like to see the Quality Waters section of the river extended.

"We don't have much room left to fish," he said.

Kim was leading a group of four clients on the San Juan on Aug. 8, led by Dallas businessman Phillip Glass and three teenage boys — Adam Long, Cade Crawford and Layton Glasson.

Glass said he owns a home in Durango and spends two weeks each summer fishing the San Juan, then returning in September with a group of two dozen clients. He said the concerns about declining trout habitat were news to him, but he did say he has noticed many more guides on the river now than he did several years ago.

MORE:Climate change may mean fewer fish for sport fishing, more die-offs across US

Nesbitt said his first impulse was to reject the concerns about declining trout habitat. But he acknowledged he has seen a lot of changes on the San Juan in the last 10 years.

"I want to believe, no, that's not going to happen," he said of the dire predictions for plummeting trout populations. "But if the climate gets warmer for trout, yes, we are going to lose a lot of trout. The temperature and the pH have to be exactly right."

Experts worry about future of trout

Two anglers fish from a drift boat, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, at the Texas Hole on the San Juan River.

Mitchell has serious worries about the future of the fish he has spent most of his career defending.

He noted the effectiveness of restoration projects and said New Mexico has even been able to add a small amount of territory to its native trout range in recent years because of its aggressive efforts. But it's hard for him to believe that trend is going to continue indefinitely.

"I'm proud of a lot of my work," he said. "It kind of turns the clock back in a lot of respects. But climate change makes me pessimistic."

Bakevich is more hopeful, expressing confidence in restoration efforts and voicing doubts about the ability of any scientist to forecast such a dire outcome for trout 70 years in the future.

"I'd have to read that as I don't think the data these days supports that," he said.

Trout Unlimited's Atkins simply wishes more anglers were aware of the issues posed by invasive species. But he understands that's not the reality.

"There are anglers who come here from Georgia, Tennessee, Washington state and Montana just to catch a cutthroat trout," he said. "That's because they're people like me who have an interest in native species. But most people think a trout's a trout. And sometimes their guides tell them that chub they just caught is a rainbow trout."

Mitchell thinks part of the answer to generating more support for restoration work is to expose more anglers to the Rio Grande cutthroat.

"One thing I'm working on is to expand the fan base of the fish," he said, explaining that the species has been so beaten back over the last 50 years, it is largely unknown among many New Mexico anglers. "You have two generations of people who have no knowledge of their state fish.

"I think it would be a good thing to create a little New Mexico pride," he continued. "I think that would go a long way toward improving the restoration effort."

Atkins has his doubts anyone can make that happen.

"I doubt that 5 percent of trout fishermen have a serious interest in preserving our cutthroat," he said. "It horrifies me to say that."

He said he enjoys catching browns or rainbows as much as the next angler. But that doesn't stop him from advocating on behalf of native fish.

"You just have to recognize those other fish were here first," Atkins said. "They are like the Native Americans. They are native Americans. They are very special."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.