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San Juan Shuffle July 2002
Brad Birdsell  

I was facing yet another weekend in a seemingly unending string of homeowner hard labor when my savior, I mean my brother, called. He said, "Hey bro, I was thinking of going fly fishing this weekend at --" "Sounds great when do we leave?", was my response. "Well, I didn’t even tell you where", he protested. "Doesn’t matter, just get me out of this drudgery and heat", I pleaded.

It turns out that he was going to be in the Four Corners area to pick up his son from camp, which is very near the quality tail-water trout fishery on the San Juan River below Navajo reservoir. This is a world renowned trout fishery because of the size and numbers of the trout that grow here. They produce well and grow fast because of the combination of cold water from the base of the dam, regulated flows, and abundant food in the form of a little critter called a San Juan worm.

Eric Hansen had just missed a fly fishing trip the weekend before because of spousal duties so getting him to ride shotgun for the 8 hour drive was a snap. Eric and his wife are getting ready to have their first child, so this was to be Eric’s last hoorah for awhile. Well, OK, his latest last hoorah in a 9 month string of last hoorah’s.

So Thursday after work (yes, 2:30 PM is after work if you’re dying to go fishing) we loaded the canoe on top, loaded the back with enough camping stuff and provisions to supply an army for a three day weekend, and headed out.

We hooked up with my brother at about 1:00AM. He had camp set up just outside of the small community of San Juan Dam. There is a campground nearby also, but we opted to camp on BLM land and avoid the crowds.

Bright and early Friday morning at 10:00 AM (hey this is fly fishing not bass fishing) we were in town getting the scoop on the hot fly patterns and the best local food. Both the information and the food were found at Abe’s Fishing Supplies - Guide Service - Gas Station - Restaurant. I am not sure, but I think Abe is the Sheriff and Fire Chief also. The food really was outstanding, the breakfast burrito alone was worth the 8 hour drive.

The people at Abe’s not only informed us of which patterns were hot, but they also showed us how to tie the "San Juan rig." This local configuration consisted of a San Juan worm tied to the leader as an attractor, the Nymph de Jour was tied 12" to 14" below that using 6x tippet, a #2 - #6 split shot was mounted 12" to 14" above the San Juan worm, and a strike indicator mounted 1.5 times the depth of the riffle being fished. This rig is to fly fishing what the "ford fender" is to spin casting. Casting this charm bracelet of trinkets required a steep learning curve. The penalty for not getting it right was 12 feet of leader, tippet, flies and such all snarled together into a birds nest. But the benefits of getting it right were near twenty inch rainbow trout that make reel burning runs from one end of a pool to the other.

We fished the first two days from canoes. There is a very easy 3 or 4 mile shuttle to set up a float of the same length. Most of the time spent on this section is right at the put-in. This is called "Texas Hole," and rightly so -- every fish in there is Texas big. These two days definitely produced quality and not quantity. Eric hooked into three nice fish, two the first day and one on the second, but he never managed to land one. My brother picked up a beautiful 19" Brown on the first day, and a 17" Rainbow on the second. I picked up an 18" and a 19" Rainbow on the second day on back to back casts from the same riffle. These are big healthy fish and it takes quite awhile to ease them in on 6x tippets and #24 flies with no barbs. Fun, fun, fun.

The last day we decided to wade instead of float. Wading the San Juan is called "The San Juan Shuffle". The locals say that this name came about from fisherman shuffling their feet to kick up the worms and nymphs. The story goes that fishermen would get a gaggle of fish feeding down river from them and proceed to fish the feeding frenzy. The fish do tend to follow you around in this manner, and in fact there is a law prohibiting fishing in your own or someone else’s wake.

I personally think the term "San Juan Shuffle" came about because you must be in constant motion of arm flailing and side stepping to keep your balance on the river bed. It is particularly slimy and the entire riverbed is covered in football sized river rock.

Most of the waders head up river from the boat put-in. We had seen lots of waders in the boatable section, but I was not ready for what we found up river. When we came to the first pool (I believe it is called the kitty hole or kiddy hole), there were 15 or 20 Orvis clad, fishermen and women working this one little pool. The pool had a main channel down the middle and the fishermen were lined up on either side of the channel like a spanking machine of flycasters. The real amazing part is that they were catching fish!

It was all dry fly action. I refused to fish the spanking machine and went up river to try some dry fly casting in some smaller riffles. After an hour or so and no rises, I shuffled over to the kitty hole and joined the ranks of the spanking machine. I picked up 3 fish in the 14" range and lost one that probably would have gone 16". My brother picked up one of similar size from the spanking machine before he headed home. Eric fished the slack water around the edges of the kitty hole. He got a lot of fish to rise, but no takers. He may not have brought a fish to net, but that pretty much guarantees a return trip, so I don’t see it as bad luck!

If you are going to try out the "San Juan Shuffle", here are some specifics for you:

Season: Fishing is legal and can be good year round.
Permits: About $15.00 for a 5 day permit (out of state).
Access: Multiple parking and pull-out areas.
Gear: 6 or 7 weight rod, 6x and 5x tippets/leaders. Barbless flies only (get them at Abe’s while you are having breakfast). Lead split shot (#2 to #6). Strike indicators (the kind that you can move). Warm waders (neoprene is probably a good idea). Felt bottom boots would probably keep your shuffle in control.

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