I saw my first sign of spring to come – a gaggle (gang, flock, herd? – even Google was unsure!) of wild turkey hens came by our yard pecking the ground in search of breakfast. Other signs are the warm spells are getting a bit longer and the river ice is retreating upstream. We will have cold snowy weather before spring, but the vernal equinox (March 21 first day of spring) is coming! We still desperately need water – hopefully snow or rain keeps coming. Fire danger is currently LOW throughout the Santa Fe National Forest. Forest roads remain closed until April 15.
Some of the high-country trails accessible from NM 4 are starting to open – and hikers are getting active. These trails still have snow patches and fallen trees to contend with but will get more walkable with use. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) trails in the Ojito and Cabezon areas still offer nearly snow-free hiking and are quite comfortable in the cooler weather. Winter fishing for stocked fish on the lower Jemez River is still good. Wild fish are starting to get more active and can be found in the lower Jemez and Guadalupe drainages. Winter sports are on the wane – by March skiing and skating will be something to look forward to in 2023. The scenic drive season is limited by forest road closures.
HIKING – As spring is approaching soon this will be my last article on the arid lands surrounding the Jemez for a while. The map below is an overview of Cabezon Road – the primary access to the eastern public lands owned and managed by BLM. The road breaks naturally into 3 segments:
From US 550 to Gasco Road – including the White Ridge Bike/Hike trails
From 5 to 8 miles in from US 550 – shooters heaven!
Ojito Wilderness – Seismosaurus, Hoodoo, and other trails – no shooting zone.
Last edition I described being thwarted by a sign at the Bernalillito Mesa Trailhead (TH). I went back in late February and tried it. The reviews I had read online said the trail was faint to gone, but if one just followed the mesa edge it was a decent hike. They were spot on – the trail was difficult to follow (at best). I followed the mesa edge for a little over a mile – nice walk, nothing special – there are better trails nearby.
But sometimes life gives you lemonade! On the way back I saw a sign that said Route Closed, Wilderness, and symbols for no vehicles. I could see a trail from the road, and it looked as if there had been a parking lot there at one time. I struck out and found a wonderful trail with great views, rock gardens, and small canyons. I hiked it for about 1¼ miles and found it delightful. In the list above I call it Cool Trail, and the trailhead is 9.7 miles from US 550 (at the White Mesa Turnoff 3 miles east of San Ysidro). It was Saturday and I did hear distant shooting as I was close to the shooter’s heaven area, but everyone was obeying the no shooting rule in the Ojito Wilderness. I hope BLM turns this into a more formal trail - it’s a beauty!
As things thaw some of the high-country trails with NM 4 access are starting to open. I hiked up the East Fork Trail (#137) for about 1.2 miles from Battleship Rock the 3rd week of February. Many people had been hiking it and they had hand-cleared the five downed trees I encountered enough to get by with a little climbing. There were ice patches, but the worst were coming in from the upper Battleship parking lot to get to the TH. This was Saturday afternoon and there was a good bit of traffic, but not crowded. The forest was gorgeous amid the white snow background. It got to 55 degrees in Albuquerque that day, but on the trail, it was cold – if you go be prepared to bundle up.
Other sections of the East Fork Trail such as Las Conchas Rec Area and Fishing accesses will start seeing more traffic with good weather and will probably be hike Sign at Cool TH, entering rock garden, and sculpted monolith with hoodoo. worthy in early March. This will also be the case for the Cerro Grande Trail, but late March might be a better bet. The Valle trails availability will depend on the backcountry road conditions, and it holds snow sometimes into April so call ahead.
DRIVES – Forest roads won’t open until April 15, so until then scenic drives are a bit
limited. Here are some drives that are open and fun for early March:
NM 4 from San Ysidro to Los Alamos - this is always a great ride with access to the East Fork and Cerro Grande trails.
NM 290 from NM 4 to about 3 miles north of Ponderosa (USFS boundary). There’s
a great hike on FR 269 about 1.5 miles north of Ponderosa, and of course the winery is always a fun stop.
NM 126 from La Cueva to the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery. Fun stops include Fenton Lake and the hatchery.
US 550 to Cuba - admittedly about an hour’s drive, but worth it for the great restaurants. This drive can be extended in good weather by taking NM 126 (this is the paved end of NM 126) as far east as the FR 20 intersection.
Cabezon Road is a great drive at this time of year if roads are dry. Many trails along
the way – try some (see Hiking section above for Cabezon Road overview).
CAMPING – Nighttime temperatures are still dipping into the high teens now and again, but generally they remain in the 20’s with a few nights in the low 30’s. I still don’t recommend tent camping again until late March. Only a few campgrounds are open (Vista Linda on NM 4, Clear Creek and Las Vacas campgrounds on NM 126). RV camping at this time of year isn’t much better, but if you do go be sure to watch the 7-day forecast before launch – ending up in a snowstorm in an RV can be hazardous. The Jemez campground table will reappear in April.
FISHING – The lower Jemez River and Fenton Lake continue to provide late winter fishing opportunities. To track these stocking levels, see the table opposite. The ice never got thick enough at Fenton for ice fishing, and this may be the reason the lake stocking seems low. The edge thickness was a problem all winter. The lower Jemez should fish well in early March. Wild fish are tough to find at this time of year with forest roads closed, but fishing opportunities will improve continually through March.
Stocked Fish: The best locations to find stocked fish In a Jemez winter are:
Fenton Lake - From shore, ice, or boat – look for water depths of 5 – 7 feet.
Jemez River – the library run from the upper Mooney bridge to the Bodhi.
Jemez River - USFS San Diego Fishing Access.
I fished the library run in late February and caught some nice fish in the 12 – 13-inch range. I was euro-nymphing again and stayed busy fishing single perdigons. The stocking on the 18th of February had an average size of 12.4 inches and the fish seemed to be in excellent condition. With the high stocking numbers the lower river should have enough fish that they will spread out a bit – try fishing farther up and downstream from the San Diego site.
Fenton Lake should clear of ice in March and is typically a hot spot in the early season. Fishing from shore is productive with bait and lures, but there aren’t a lot of areas where a back-cast can be made so fly fishing is best done from small craft like float tubes, kick-boats, skiffs, canoes, etc. The places I’ve had the best luck flyfishing from shore are from the dam, the area between the dam and the boat ramp, and on the east bank at mid-lake there is a treeless flat area.
I need to apologize for the drop of a critical figure in the last edition. I had included a diagram of my euro-nymphing rig for Jemez (small) streams that got lost and thus negated the two paragraphs describing it. The diagram appears below with a list of notes. It has worked well for me all winter, although in the beginning I was admittedly flailing more than fishing!
The 2 feet of sighter tippet has knot tag ends that are cut about 2 inches long – they are very important for depth control and hit detection. Sighter tippet is sold by most tippet makers - I have been using a size 4X sighter by Umpqua.
Typically, I have been using about 14 – 16 inches of tippet depending on water depth. Connecting the sighter to the tippet is best done with a tippet ring.
Keep casts to 15 – 20 feet across and upstream with very little (or no) fly line outside the tip guide.
Move the rod slightly faster than the current leading it downstream while keeping it on the bottom.
Strike at everything sweeping downstream but keep strikes small so you can continue the drift if no fish hit. I use barbless hooks that are super sharp and help make small strikes work.
Stay at it! It’s awkward at first, but in a few hours on the water it will smooth out.
Wild Fish: Fishing for wild fish in early March can be both rewarding and exhausting. In general winter fishing is best done is slow deep water during mid-day (11 AM – 3 PM). Fish slower than you normally would and keep flies in the #14 to #16 range. I tried the East Fork in
Late February and didn’t land any fish, but I did have two brown trout follow my fly until they saw me. I was euro-nymphing with a #16 tailed perdigon. I was fishing upstream from Battleship Rock and the water was clear and a bit high. The streamside growth was a challenge, and I lost 3 flies before seeing the first fish. Several small trees had fallen across the river, and some big ones had fallen across the trail. I did not see any insect activity
above water, and it was too cold to turn over rocks - but I assume baetis and some small stonefly nymphs would have been active. There was a lot of streamside snow, but no ice along the river margins. Look for a warming period (l look for Albuquerque temperatures nearing 50 degrees) like the one we had before our late February snow if you go – the lower East Fork is loaded with wild browns, and they are going to get more active in March.
For an early foray into late winter fishing, I would also recommend the Rincon fishing access on the San Antonio – currents are a bit slower than the East Fork, and the vegetation challenge is less dramatic. Rincon seems to always have some brown trout in waiting – I also like the unmarked area (look for a pullout with a single small vertical sign/post saying “No Camping” just downstream from the main Rincon access). I don’t tend to fish the lower San Antonio below Rincon, but every time I walk into Battleship Rock from the upper parking area, I look at that great water just above the bridge and ask – why aren’t I fishing this? Note: Remember that access to Battleship Rock costs $5/car – the pay station is at the trailhead at the rear of the upper lot. For as gorgeous a place as Battleship Rock is it still needs funds to operate – please enter legally.
Soon the Las Conchas Recreation and Fishing Access sites on the upper East Fork will be fishable. These are great early season spots that routinely produce a lot of brown trout. No matter how you fish – indicator or euro – include an RS-2 in a size #16 or #18 – I’m not sure why, but it works better than any other nymph I’ve tried at Las Conchas.
The lower box of the Guadalupe is open year-round, and with better weather the hike in from the bottom of the box should be in better shape. It’s a tough hike out but can be worth it when conditions are right – pick a warm day and fish the late lunch hours. Small streamers have always worked well for me in the lower box in the early season.
For those who tie their own flies or are getting ready to buy flies for the upcoming spring season I have prepared a list of flies that I use in early spring. I have been tying these this winter trying to get ready for the new season – note that there aren’t any dry flies, I usually don’t start fishing dry until mid-April, the subsurface fishing is just too good!
Gold Ribbed hare’s Ear nymphs in size #14, often with a 3/32 or 1/8” tungsten bead.
Tailed Perdigons with orange hot spots and dark bodies with a flash rib.
Squirmy Wormy in pink and tan hook size #12, total length 1 inches.
March Brown wet flies in size #14 (very good at Fenton as a callibaetis emerger).
Fuzzy Chubs – gray marabou jigs in 1/64 and 1/32 oz. with flash in the tail.
Get ready – the spring is generally our best season for fishing, the exception being when we have one of those magic years when water levels stay up all summer.