Written by: Noah Parker, Land of Enchantment Guides
We would like to propose the implementation of catch-and-release fishing regulations and areas on the Chama River’s three tailwater stretches (below the dams at Heron, El Vado, and Abiquiu Reservoirs). This would be an important first step in protecting the long-term sustainability and environmental health of this vitally important sport fishing resource and river system.
The Chama and Its Trout
The Chama River (or the “Rio Chama”) is a major tributary of the Rio Grande. The Chama generally flows from North to South from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado down into New Mexico. The overall length of the river is more than 130 miles, with the majority of its course (approximately 120 miles) running through New Mexico. From its source to El Vado Dam, its length is about 50 miles; its run from El Vado Dam to Abiquiu Dam is about 51 miles; and from Abiquiu Dam to the Chama’s confluence with the Rio Grande (near Espanola, New Mexico) is about 34 miles.
In 1978, the Chama River was designated as a State Scenic and Pastoral River, thus also designating part of the Santa Fe National Forest as the Chama River Canyon Wilderness. In 1988, 31 miles of the river were further protected and congressionally designated as a Federal Wild and Scenic River. Located below El Vado reservoir, this area is co-managed by Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service.
The Chama River is probably one of the West’s most undiscovered and diverse trout fishing rivers, with everything from high-mountain freestone sections to larger, high-desert tail waters. There is a self-sustaining population of wild brown trout throughout the Chama. (The NM Game & Fish Department doesn’t stock brown trout.) There are also a fair number of stocked rainbow, cuttbow, and Rio Grande cutthroat trout in many sections of the river. The three largest state-record brown trout in New Mexico were caught on the river below El Vado Dam, the largest of which was 35½ inches long and weighed 20½ pounds.
The Chama River trout fishery is an important resource for anglers and the local economy. The fish in the Chama River, especially the wild brown trout, are under increasing pressure from both anglers and environmental conditions (i.e. current drought conditions and water flows). There are serious concerns about the long-term sustainability and quality of this fishery. Below are some detailed reasons why catch and release fishing areas would be beneficial on the Chama River.
The Chama River has the potential to be a world-class trout fishery, if it was managed correctly and catch-and-release areas were created. Numerous studies have shown that catching fish to eat or catching a trophy fish is not the motivation behind most recreational fishing trips. A recent report shows that 60 percent of all anglers release most of the fish they catch; 18 percent release all the fish they catch; and only 21 percent keep everything they can legally. Those statistics are consistent with the reasons that most anglers choose to go fishing. Spending quality time in nature, with friends and relatives, away from the pressure of everyday life, consistently are the top reasons for being a recreational angler. This being said, areas where anglers have the highest chance of hooking fish are always the most popular destinations and locations where people go to fish. These areas (where the fishing is usually the best) are almost always locations that are designated as “catch and release only.”
Here in New Mexico, one needs only to look at the popularity of the Quality Waters section of the San Juan River tailwater. This four-mile stretch of the San Juan River is regulated as a Special Trout Water (STW) by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF), with catch-and-release-only regulations. Anglers are also required to use artificial lures only, with single, barbless hooks. Due primarily to these regulations, the STW section of the San Juan River has one of the highest densities of trout per mile of any river in the United States and is always listed as one of the top trout fisheries in the country, with extremely high angler satisfaction rates.
Catch-and-release is a conservation fishing practice developed to prevent over-harvest of fish stocks in the face of growing human populations, mounting fishing pressure, increasingly effective fishing tackle and techniques, inadequate fishing regulations and enforcement, and habitat degradation. Sports fishermen have been practicing catch and release for decades, especially on highly pressured fish species. The benefits of proper catch and release have proved vital to the future of a number of important fisheries around the United States as a means of preserving and enhancing fish populations. The core concept of catch-and-release fishing is that, by releasing fish caught via controlled sport fishing techniques, these fish will continue to be available for natural purposes: breeding, predation and provision of food to other species, along with being available for anglers to catch more than once.
New Mexico has recently been experiencing severe drought conditions which have caused some serious environmental issues and challenges for the fish that live in the Chama River system. The water levels in the river and the reservoirs on it are extremely low and this condition (i.e. lower water levels, higher water temperatures, less oxygenation, etc.) has impacted the health of the whole aquatic ecosystem, especially for the trout.
An assessment by the New Mexico State Engineer anticipates that climate changes will have a wide range of impacts on both water suppliers and users. Higher freezing altitudes, changes in snowpack elevations and water equivalency mean less available water overall. Higher evapo-transpiration losses will further decrease annual runoff. Milder winters and hotter summers, resulting in longer growing seasons, will increase plant and human water demands but lower, and earlier, run-off volumes will make less water available for irrigation and for ecological and species needs. Increased evaporative losses from reservoirs, other surface waters and soils resulting from hotter, drier conditions and increased evapo-transpiration by agricultural and riparian plants will reduce soil moisture in northern New Mexico. Extreme droughts will become more frequent. If catch-and-release fishing areas were created, these locations would offer sections of the Chama River that would become “safe havens” for the fish, guaranteeing that anglers would not remove them from the river. This would directly help to protect the already environmentally stressed fish and aquatic biomasses.
The Chama River has a self-sustaining population of wild brown trout. Currently, the larger brown trout in the Chama are often directly targeted and kept by anglers for consumption and trophies. Unfortunately these larger fish are the major spawning biomass of brown trout in the river and, as they are removed, it decreases the level of recruitment of juvenile fish back into the river system. The degradation of spawning habitat due to the current drought conditions is a problem that is only being exacerbated by the retention of fish. In catch and release areas, where the fish are returned to the river, all the fish have a chance to spawn and support a self-sustaining population.
If the fish in the Chama River were are allowed the chance to survive and reproduce, it would help to preserve the balance of the natural environment. This includes all the species that feed on fish and the small creatures (i.e. insects, crustaceans, and invertebrates, etc.) and planktons that require population control through consumption.
All major scientific studies show that mortality rates associated with catch-and-release angling using artificial lures for trout (which are the major sport fish species targeted in the Chama River) are typically low–less than 10%. When the use of single, barbless hooks is made mandatory as an additional regulation to catch and release fishing, the mortality rate typically drops even further–often to less than 5%.
Catch-and-release fishing areas on the Chama River would help to increase public awareness of environmental conditions in the watershed and a sense of propriety towards the river system as a whole. Anglers can have a powerful positive or negative impact upon the Chama River’s fishery and watershed. This goes far beyond just practicing catch and release, but catch-and-release fishing practices are a great place to start. The implementing of catch-and-release fishing areas is one of the most tangible things that individual anglers and state agencies could do to benefit the fishery and ecosystem of the Chama River.
How You Can Help
Below is a survey that asks yes or no questions about the implementation of a catch-and-release fishing program on the Chama River. Please print out the page and take the time to answer the questions and to fill out the section at the bottom of the survey. If you are unable to answer any of the questions, leave them blank. If you have the time to write an additional comment detailing your thoughts and opinions on catch and release and/or how catch and release would benefit the Chama River, it will be a big help as well.
Once you have the survey filled out, you can get it back to us by either of two methods, whatever is easiest.
Email it: You can save it as either a .pdf or a .jpg and them email it as an attachment to: email@example.com
U.S. mail: If you would prefer to print it out and mail it, please send it to:
Land of Enchantment Guides
PO Box 55
Velarde, NM 87582-0055
Noah Parker is a guide for Land of Enchantment Guides, in Velarde, New Mexico.