Friendliness on the San Juan River

Friendliness on the San Juan River

Catching a 20-inch plus fish on a size 20 or smaller barbless fly on the San Juan River is a joy with several friends.

One of our very own Bob Marriott Pro Staff and part time Travel Coordinator, Joe Frisch recently joined our group at the Soaring Eagle Lodge in New Mexico, and here is a little diddy and what he had to say...


One of the things we all love about fly fishing is the beauty of the river itself. We’re lucky here that our fisheries feature a multitude of American Beauties, more than a Miss USA pageant. The San Juan River is no exception to that rule, but at the risk of straining my beauty pageant metaphor, she’s also the odds-on favorite for Miss Congeniality.

First, understand the San Juan is not a place you would go to find solitude. In addition to the several guides who work the river, the fishery is popular with wade fishermen and local families.

Yet, with all the traffic, there’s a very collegial atmosphere on the water, fostered by the guides who exchange pleasantries and insights as they pass each other, one rowing upstream to get back into the rotation on a run, the other drifting downstream, sometimes the oars within range to give each other a shoal-cut high five.

 Lunch on the San Juan

Laughter comes very easy on this river, in large part due to the camaraderie of the guides out of Soaring Eagle Lodge, as well as the fact the river is just so fun to fish. There’s plenty of opportunities to catch many of the browns and rainbows that fill this river—and those opportunities frequently result in very large fish, often on the smallest of flies.  If you’ve ever desired to join the 20/20 club, this is the place for it.

Even your misses and failed sets will trigger a chuckle and a light-hearted expletive, mostly because you know another chance is available on the very next cast. You’ll also find yourself laughing at your fate as your indicator floats unscathed at times through surrounding rise forms, like an oblivious soldier somehow managing to navigate a minefield out of sheer dumb luck.

How to fish the San Juan isn’t what you would call easy.   There’s a definite approach to landing a 20-inch plus fish on a size 20 or smaller barbless fly, and I now have greater respect for a well-set drag, the tip section of my 5-weight rod, and for 5x fluorocarbon tippet. I am also glad the Soaring Eagle guides were the ones tying on the tiny midge larvae flies and RS2 flies on the end of that tippet in a cold rain. I would have hated to rely on the knots tied by my own hand under those circumstances with a big ill-tempered rainbow on the other end.

November on the San Juan River

Because of the light tippets and the way the fish take the small flies, the hook sets must be straight up and not overly aggressive. Furthermore, the takes can be very subtle, which is just brutally unfair on this river, because it asks you to pay constant attention to your indicator and drift—difficult to do when your focus is easily distracted by the incredible sandstone rock formations and by a variety of ducks, geese, eagles, osprey, and kingfishers that thrive on the river, and especially by the patient herons who pick their shots with deliberate slowness.

On this particular trip, the San Juan was showing off her fall fashion as well, with yellow leaves still thickly adorning the cottonwoods and contrasting with the pinion pines. Those who had fished the river before also sang the praises of a winter landscape, when the cottonwoods are reduced to “bare, ruined choirs” as Shakespeare said.  On this trip, deer were frequent visitors to the river, even coming right down to the lawn between the Soaring Eagle Lodge and the banks of the river.

Soaring Eagle’s inviting set up lends itself exceptionally well to large (8+ members) groups providing a perfect environment for geniality.   The dining room accommodates large groups very nicely. A hospitality suite that was included in our group booking beckoned one and all with a large flatscreen, shuffleboard, pool, darts and board games and playing cards. It is hard to see how one might come to the lodge without a large group of friends or family.  Sort of like Hemingway’s assessment of Paris, the experience is a movable feast of friendship that relocates from the river to the dining room and then to the hospitality suite. The lodge has an unpretentious vibe that makes all feel welcome and very much at home in all the settings.

All the same, the room/suites do provide a seductive retreat from group dynamics when needed and are extremely roomy for the two people for which they are meant. The suites include a refrigerator, microwave, coffee machine, and a television—everything you need to hide away for a moment of self-indulgence, or to just simply wind down from the day. 

The Soaring Eagle shop can cover most all your needs for the various weather conditions for the most under-prepared guests, and the guides provide the rod, reel, line and terminal tackle for your visit, reducing your packing considerably. However, one should bring warm layers and a wind-resistant rain jacket to handle the fall and winter conditions. Bring waders or bibs and high boots as well in the late fall and winter.  You’re unlikely to wade when you’re with the guides, but you may want to get in some quick fishing right in front of the lodge before breakfast or right before dinner.  The sun at this altitude, even in cooler seasons, can be unforgiving, and it wasn’t unusual to see guides and guests alike sporting a distinctively visible layer of sunscreen, nearly mimicking a noh theatre performance.

The shop and lodge do not offer any alcoholic beverages, so a stop at the nearby Safeway in Aztec is a must-do on your way from the Durango airport.  In addition to drinks, you may want to stock up on snacks for the post-fishing period before the 6:30 dinner.  Fishing burns up a surprising number of calories and even the overly-generous lunch packed by Soaring Eagle may not be enough to sustain you until dinner.

All the meals are hardy and the lodge can readily accommodate special dietary needs, if they’re known in advance.  So, basically, you’re out of excuses to come visit this special fishery.

 Even if you come here as a single angler, you’ll quickly generate a group of new friends among the fellow anglers and guides.  Like our metaphorical Miss Congeniality, the San Juan River and Soaring Eagle both do all they can to make you feel welcome and an important part of the group.