The Albuquerque Journal, Eddie Moore, Associated Press
NAVAJO DAM, N.M. — A trio of wading fly fishermen worked the Texas Hole in search of rainbows and browns last week as the sound of trickling water mixed with motorized purring.
Front-loading tractors hummed and beeped in the background, digging a large hole on the southern edge of the San Juan River.
Upgrades are under way at the world-renowned San Juan tailwater fishery, improvements to the trout habitat that officials hope will keep the anglers coming — and keep them happy.
Catch-and-release trout fishing on the 4-mile stretch of river downstream of the dam lures anglers from across the globe and pumps an estimated $20 million to $30 million into the local economy each year, according to a 2008 report by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
Out-of-state visitors include Chris Arnold of Durango, who reported last week that his success on the San Juan has been waning.
"Three years ago, it was super good, and it's gotten more difficult over the last three years. When I started out, I was catching 40-50 fish a day sometimes," he said as he walked away from Texas Hole on a crisp, post-rain afternoon. ". I caught less than 20 today — (about) 12-15. And I had to walk from here down a mile to do it."
According to the Department of Game and Fish, which maintains the fishery and surveys anglers, the rate of satisfaction remains high.
But operating such a popular fishing destination comes with its share of scrutiny, and critics make their concerns known.
"There's a group out there that feels the fishing has declined," said Mike Sloane, the department's chief of fisheries. "We're not seeing it in our numbers, but we're hearing it."
In an effort to address known issues and to further enhance fishing opportunities, crews are tackling $300,000 worth of improvements. That includes creating a sediment retention pond at the mouth of the Rex Smith wash to slow the flow of sludge that rushes off a nearby mesa and directly into the river.
Marc Wethington, the NMDGF's fisheries biologist for the San Juan, said sediment has been a recurring problem since 1999. That's when a dirt berm was constructed next to the Texas Hole parking lot to protect the parking and bathroom facilities from flooding. But the unintentional result was that the berm helped funnel the muddy storm water directly into the river.
"That sediment . covers up the bottom; it smothers the aquatic life on the bottom," Wethington said.
Crews will also work within "The Braids," a section of river located approximately a mile below the dam. They will dig holes in the river's sandstone floor to create pools for trout habitat and use dirt to consolidate some of the islands in an effort to create fewer, but deeper, channels.
"It's about manipulating the flow to where it benefits the fishery and trout habitat," Wethington said.
Sloane said the work will also head off problems that may arise if Navajo Dam gets tapped for more water development in the future. The changes under way now would make the fishery more viable in the event of declining flows, he added.
Estimated completion date for the project is Jan. 8.
"I think we're going to have a good end product," Wethington said. "I think the bulk of the anglers are going to be happy."
According to his survey results, most of them already are. Wethington said 98-99 percent of the anglers he questioned last year "were either satisfied, very satisfied or greatly satisfied."
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