Fly Fishing in a Volcano - Valles Caldera National Park
In May 2017, I found myself driving through Ruidoso, a small mountain town in New Mexico. At that time it became apparently inevitable that I needed to stop to go fishing. I was about 4,000 miles into a solo road trip and had never fished in New Mexico. I kept seeing signs for fishing but the only fly shop in town was indefinitely closed. With the spotty service I had, I pulled over and tried to call another fly shop. I ended up calling a fly fishing guide service by accident. A super nice lady answered the phone and set me up with a guide the next day further north in Santa Fe.
My guide called me as I was headed north to ask where I wanted to fish. He said the rivers were high and suggested two places: a little private spot with numerous stocked lakes or a more challenging tiny open trout steam located in an ancient volcano. My response was obviously the volcano...I can fish a stocked pond anytime! Early the next morning, after checking out of Santa Fe's Motel 6, I met my guide at a grocery store. I jumped into his Tacoma and we got amazing hatch green chili breakfast burritos from one of his favorite places. We drove for almost an hour as he told me about his life, New Mexico geology and Native American culture. After driving up a slightly sketchy road, we descended into a beautiful caldera. We had to check in, which was an ordeal. I sat in the truck and watched a gang of spotted prairie dogs while I waited for the "okay" to proceed. Once we had confirmation, we sped down a dirt road into a section of the park only we were allowed to fish. Everything in the truck was rattling as my guide apologized. I told him I didn't care and that he can go as fast as he would like ( I mean come on .. it wasn't my truck). He smiled and told me he just bought a new pair of Coopers, as I told him I also just bought Coopers for my FJ. I did however make him stop when we saw a coyote and when I spotted an american badger far out to our left.
We pulled up to a small abandoned cabin in the middle of the caldera and parked. We geared up and walked downstream. After spooking a very sizable brown on the way up a hillside, it became very apparent this would be a different fishing game than the murky waters of Lake Erie tributaries I was accustomed to. As we turned a bend, two huge planes flew over us and our small size in comparison to our surroundings once again became apparent. It was an amazing feeling to be the only two people in that section of the park.
Without a tree in sight and a river that ranged from 1-7 feet in width, I started casting. There were small families of suckers in this river and every time I would spook browns I just casually said: "Must have been a sucker". I was told that there was a fire in the caldera years before and that it took quite some time for the wild brown trout to return. It was most definitely a riparian ecosystem that I had never experienced before or since.
After jumping from river bend up to the next I finally got the hang of what the trout wanted and perfected a new casting technique…for that day was my first interaction with a dry fly on a four weight. I also learned " more line, more problems". There was a different strategy to be implemented than my previous experience with nymphing for steelhead near Cleveland. I found humor and appreciation for my guide’s comparison to casting a lighter rod to the motion that a wizard or a conductor would use to move their wand.
I learned a lot from Andy that day but mostly I picked up on him calling the trout “truchas”. Every time I hooked a brown I made sure to call it a trucha… and obviously I haven't stopped.
I often like to ask people if they would rather catch the most fish or the biggest fish. Answers to that question seem to highlight an angler’s motivations for fly fishing and normally I catch them off guard. That day, fishing was all about the numbers, not about catching a monster...because if you cannot learn to catch the small fish… how can you expect to catch the big ones... ?!
As we worked our way up the river we had to stop for lunch. We sat on the tailgate and ate one of the best chicken salad sandwiches I have ever had while taking in the scenery. We were only allowed to be in the park until 4:30 so we ate quickly and continued to fish upstream.
I nearly hooked a very sizable brown ( for such a small stream) but both me and the guide jumped at the excitement and it got away. As the clock continued to get closer to 4pm the trout started smashing dries. It was such an exciting way to end the day but also just made me want
to stay indefinitely.
“They say you forget your troubles on a trout stream, but that's not quite it. What happens is you begin to see where your troubles fit into the grand scheme of things, and suddenly they are just not that big of a deal anymore.” - John Gierach Two days later, I met my future boyfriend at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado. As we looked for gifts in the bookshop before climbing the dunes, I picked up a book on New Mexico Geology. I opened it to the most random of pages: A picture of that same exact rustic cabin I ate lunch at while catching browns in the middle of a volcano; Valles Caldera NP. I will always look back at that day as one for the books. There is something to be said about a guide who is willing to extend all of his fly fishing knowledge in a friendly and transparent way. Fly fishing is about exploring beautiful places, having fun and making sure the fish you land can thrive long after you catch them. As they say, life is always about finding the joy in the small things.