THE MAKING OF A SAN JUAN LEGEND  (or “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya”)

By Larry Gallegos

My wonderful wife Claudia first tried fly fishing on a trip we made to Aztec, New Mexico. Aztec is a charming little town just south of Durango that’s home to the Aztec National Monument and close to the 5-star Pinion Hills Golf Course. It is also only minutes from the world-famous San Juan River. I’d fished the San Juan a lot and Claudia had heard the stories. So, when I suggested that she give fly fishing a try, she was a good sport and accepted. 

Upon arrival, we rented boots and waders for Claudia and headed upstream from the Texas Hole parking lot to an area known as the “Middle Flats.” This section of the river is perfect for beginning waders. It’s wide, clear, and only knee-deep for the most part. Even though we saw plenty of fish as we waded out, I warned Claudia that San Juan trout are notoriously difficult to catch. Of course, she proved me wrong. 

We got started late and my usual spots were already taken. But a nice riffle behind a small island was unoccupied. Right away, Claudia started catching rainbows, mostly stockers, on a #22 brown/black Yong Special and a red annelid. She kept me busy netting and releasing fish, and untangling snarls, and I didn’t get a lot of fishing in. But I did get to act as a “casting coach” a bit, which I enjoy doing. Not that it did much good. 

Once that fishing spot cooled off we moved downstream into an area called the “Sand Flats.” Our results there were less productive but the scenery made up for it, with bright fall colors and an occasional deer splashing across sparkling riffles.  

After a while, we noticed that a deep run just upstream from us was unoccupied. There, Claudia started catching bigger rainbows pretty steadily. A couple of anglers a little ways off weren’t catching anything at all and were giving us suspicious, uncomfortable looks. 

The next morning we started earlier and got a great spot in the Middle Flats. We were on the far side of a wide (100 feet or more), mid-stream hole. A couple of other anglers were working a promising riffle along the opposite side. I stationed Claudia about 10 feet below and 12 feet to the side of a shallow plunge pool. You could see rainbows in the pool below stacked up and swarming around. Our waders were dotted with just-hatched black and grey/black midges.  

Naturally, Claudia was still struggling with her casts, her back cast slapping the water and her forward cast going straight up as much as upstream, resulting in a collapsed pile of line, leader, and flies (tiny KF Emergers and red annelids). But smacking her line on the water with every cast and mend didn’t keep her from catching a steady stream of bows in the 15″ to 18″ range. I, on the other hand, barely had time to wet a line. I was completely occupied netting Claudia’s fish and untangling snarls. Thankfully, Claudia sang out, “Larry, I got another fish” much more often than “Larry, I got a tangle.” With every fish, Claudia caught the anglers at the far-side riffle gave us side-eyed looks.

Once the catching slowed down we headed back to the sand flats and re-rigged with #20 Pheasant Tails and small black RS2s. Once again, Claudia started catching fish at a steady clip. I caught some too, but Claudia got the biggie, a colorful 18″ bow. This time I remembered to take my camera and got a photo. We need to work on Claudia’s fish-handling skills. 

After lunch, Claudia took pity on me and cut me loose to fish on my own. I worked my way upstream, ending at the mostly unoccupied Middle Flats. I did okay, catching a few stockers, until I switched to a grey RS2 and wine-color micro chenille worm. After that, it was “fish on” just about everywhere I cast. 

After a while, two guys came over and asked what flies I was using. Noticing that they had on unsuitable #14 and #16 beadheads, I offered them some tiny San Juan flies and suggested some rigging tips. I won’t say they were ungrateful, but they weren’t interested in my fly recommendations. 

“Was that your wife catching all those fish?” they asked. “She must have caught twenty fish a day. We’ve been here two days and I haven’t caught any. And he’s only caught four.” I searched my brain to find something to say about Claudia’s unexpected beginner’s luck. “She was doing something to get them to bite,” they claimed. “It looked like she was dabbing the water and exciting the fish.” 

I tried telling them that this was Claudia’s first attempt at fly fishing and that she couldn’t cast worth of beans. Her “dabbing” was just her clumsy attempts at casting and mending. Any success she had was entirely due to having the right flies, weight, and rigging. 

But they wouldn’t hear of it and actually argued with me. They were sure Claudia had some newfangled “dabbing” technique that got the fish excited and made them take her to fly. Nothing I said could convince them otherwise. They left in a huff because I hadn’t revealed her “secret.” I half expected them to splash water in my face. 

To this day, I bet those guys are completely convinced, adamant even, about what they think they saw. Maybe they tell their friends about the “secret dabbing technique” they’d witnessed on the San Juan. Perhaps they’ve added “dabbing” to the usual mantras fly fishermen use about “size, shape and color” and “match the hatch.” And to be honest, I hope they go on believing that dabbing is a way to excite fish. 

Because that, my friends, is how legends are made. I, on the other hand, am happy to remain a realist. I had a great time at the San Juan, maybe the best ever. We enjoyed warm days, clear water, and lots of fish. And to top it off, I was engaged in the activity I love with the woman I love. It may not be the stuff of legend, but I can’t think of anything that’s better than that. 


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2 thoughts on “THE MAKING OF A SAN JUAN LEGEND  (or “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya”)

  1. Larry, would you possible explain to me how your wife was rigged up for the San Juan
    I have one experience on the SJ and had minimal hook-ups
    Thanks in advance

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