“When is the San Juan going to open?”
It was the question every fly shop around the Four Corners has had to answer every day for the last year. Last week, anglers finally got their answer.
New Mexico reopened its state parks to nonresidents with a sudden announcement Feb. 27, and license-holding anglers from surrounding states rejoiced. For those across the Four Corners, a beloved stretch of water was finally accessible once more.
“Didn’t realize how much I would miss this place until it was taken away,” said Durango’s Chris Eagen, owner of his independent guide company, The Kokopelli Angler. “The fishing is lights out right now. Those fish haven’t seen their usual pressure, and it shows. The lake didn’t turn over as much this winter, so the water is stunningly clear and lacking the slime that’s typical of the season. Conditions are honestly spectacular.”
The “Quality Waters” section of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam, which stretches for 4.5 miles and boasts one of the best trout fisheries in North America, had been closed to nonresidents for nearly the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham originally closed all state parks, including to residents, March 16, 2020. Eight state parks opened for day-use only to all visitors May 1, but Navajo Lake did not reopen until June 1.
COVID-19 cases surged around the country after the Fourth of July holiday, with mass gatherings largely blamed for the new outbreaks. Citing the scene of visitors at Elephant Butte Lake in Sierra County, which is 340 miles from Navajo Lake, the governor closed all parks to out-of-state residents July 13, and Lujan Grisham’s order asked any out-of-state resident to self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering New Mexico.
That left anglers, even those who had purchased an annual fishing license effective April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, largely without access to New Mexico waters.
According to the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish, 13,139 nonresidents purchased an annual fishing license in New Mexico last year. Of those. 1,976 were sold to Colorado residents. Another 3,776 junior licenses were sold to out-of-state residents, with 229 of those coming from Colorado.
An annual fishing license for a nonresident costs $56. It also requires an additional $5 habitat stamp. A junior license is $15 and also requires the habitat stamp.
That translates to $876,799 in fishing license sales to nonresidents with $125,116 of that coming from Colorado. The majority of those anglers never got on New Mexico water. New Mexico Game & Fish said state regulations dictate it does not issue any refunds for licenses unless there is an instance of death, serious injury or illness, or a military deployment to a license holder.
“I’m not a skier or a snowboarder. I don’t buy a pass to Purgatory. I buy a New Mexico fishing license,” said Durangoan Brice Ward. “That’s how I spend my weekends living here. They already took my money, and the decisions haven’t made any sense. If you’re going to have a Gold Medal fishery, and you know that’s where most of the people with a license go, there should be some reimbursement or carry over for those who bought a pass last year into this year. That’s what I would like. Otherwise, all of us with a license last year, we got our money taken.
“But I mostly feel bad for the guides. For me, it’s not so much the money lost as just not getting to fish down there. But for the guides, that’s how they make their living.”
Huge challenges for guidesA guide permit for the San Juan River in New Mexico costs $500. A shop such as Duranglers Flies and Supplies in Durango might buy four in a year, but its guides, who operate as independent contractors, mostly purchase their own permits. Eagen said most guides didn’t make enough on the San Juan last year to cover the cost of the permit or the insurance they are required to have.
Tom Knopick, co-owner of Duranglers, said his shop does 60% of its guide business on the San Juan River during a typical season. During a drought year such as last summer, that number grows as high as 70%. But because of the closure, Knopick said the shop did only 20% of its business on the San Juan last year. Guides have only the month of March to try to cut into that deficit before guide permits need renewal April 1.
“There are probably 75 to 100 guide cards out there,” Knopick said. “Even guides in New Mexico, they weren’t supposed to be guiding somebody in their boat if they weren’t from New Mexico. It’s been hugely impactful to the companies.”
Guides were forced to adjust and send more business to high-country creeks, which saw a short season because of low water levels. It also meant a lot more trips to the Dolores River and on the Animas River in downtown Durango. Still, guides were happy to see Colorado keep its public lands open during the pandemic. While camping areas did close, access to fishing remained open.
“We did more in the national forest than we would normally do, fishing where and however we could,” Knopick said. “Dolores, McPhee, we have permits all over the place. But not having the quality waters of the San Juan, the challenges were huge. Generally, you can’t get customers into these places. A small percentage of our clientele have the mobility ... to even get into places on small creeks. It’s a struggle knowing you had to put clients into positions and conditions that were less than ideal from the experience we can normally give them.”
The Animas River was under heavy pressure all year. And as water temperatures rose, guides could only take clients to the Animas during early mornings or late afternoons to help alleviate already stressed fish.
“It got challenging when things got low and hot,” Knopick said. “The Animas in town really got hit hard. That was compounded by the Southern Ute water also not being available.”
Many anglers in Southwest Colorado also buy the Southern Ute annual fishing license for increased access to the Animas, Piedra and Los Pinos rivers. An adult annual license costs $50, and a junior pass is $30. Southern Ute waters have been closed to non-members since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but anglers have been more accepting of that closure by the Southern Ute Division of Wildlife Office and haven’t risked federal fines to try to get on tribal water. Requests for comment to Southern Ute wildlife department were not returned.
Pushing the limitsSome guides and weekend anglers did try to get on the San Juan. At first, authorities from New Mexico State Parks looked for out-of-state license plates in parking lots and issued warnings on vehicles to those not from New Mexico.
“As things got testier, some were pushing the limits because their livelihoods were on the line,” Knopick said. “Some would find an old beater truck for sale with New Mexico plates or borrow a car from someone. The Colorado guides felt there was no way 90% of the customers the New Mexico guides were taking out were from New Mexico, so they were finding ways to get out there, too. It got weird for awhile, and then they started checking IDs and rangers were checking on guided trips as well as people in parking lots. Some fines were given.”
Eagen, who opted to stay away and spend most of his time guiding on the Rio Grande in Colorado to save his season financially, said he couldn’t believe some of the enforcement that coincided with the San Juan closure.
“Never in a million years would I have ever considered the possibility of being kicked off a river because I had the wrong license plates,” Eagen said. “The Four Corners is its own community. Everything we do is woven together with each other regardless of where the state lines are. Half of New Mexico was up in Colorado all summer long without a care in the world about their governor’s orders.”
While Durango’s two fly shops, Duranglers and San Juan Angler, have stayed open through the pandemic when allowed, Abe’s Fly Shop on the San Juan River closed for the majority of the season before reopening last month.
What everyday anglers and guides alike don’t understand is why access to fishing was ever restricted. Through all the information gathered related to the novel coronavirus, outdoor activities have been deemed safe, especially when paired with social distancing. While club sports such as baseball and soccer played through last summer, anglers were left without their ultimate playing ground and nothing but frustration.
“Who is going to be right next to each other at a state park? Fishing down there, if you’re within a rod length of somebody, 9 feet, you’re way too close to somebody,” said Ward, who also has been frustrated trying to renew a state parks parking permit since last spring and missed duck hunting season in New Mexico last fall.
“I just wish we could have gone fishing,” Knopick said. “There was never any communication from New Mexico, and we couldn’t ever hardly get a hold of anybody at state parks to get any answers. Pre-pandemic, that wasn’t the case. But even the people at the state parks haven’t known what the heck is going on. Fishermen, we are all about being safe with this virus. We’ve had safe protocols and ran a lot of trips with no issues with COVID. Guides are very particular and are very safe out there, including canceling trips if anyone showed any signs of sickness. It’s important for people to recreate, and fishermen have been social distancing for a long time.
“Not being able to go down there, it hasn’t benefited anything. That’s the frustration, and I would be very surprised if they extend licenses into the new year or try to work with guides for any kind of financial compensation.”
And after a year of distrust, many anglers are wary of renewing a license and giving New Mexico more money after their current licenses expire March 31.
“Even with it open now, I’m hesitant,” Ward said. “They could just as easily shut it down again and tell us we can’t come there. Think about the New Mexico economy, they open up right before licenses go on sale again? It feels money motivated. If their fear really existed, they wouldn’t have opened it up again. It feels like it’s all about revenue, and they could just as easily close it again in April with no explanation.”