The Case for Catch-and-Release Fishing on a Southwestern Gem, and How You Can Help

Written by: Noah Parker, Land of Enchantment Guides

The wild brown-trout fishery in three tailwater sections of the Chama River deserve protection.
All photos courtesy Noah Parker

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 flows through the arid landscape of southern Colorado and New Mexico.

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.

Direct Benefits
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.”

Leaving a healthy Chama fishery for future generations is an important goal.

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.

Environmental Benefits
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.

Climate changes will lead to longer periods of low water, which stress fish populations.

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.

Preserving the trophy fish would be a prime benefit of catch-and-release regulations.

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:

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.

8 thoughts on “The Case for Catch-and-Release Fishing on a Southwestern Gem, and How You Can Help”

  1. This is a beautiful area! I’ve been there, but never fished the Chama River. The fishery is definitely worth preserving.

    1. Hi Jack,

      Thanks for the reply and you sure are correct in saying “this fishery [the Chama River] is definitely worth preserving”. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or need more information about our catch and release initiative.

      Thanks much and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


      Noah Parker
      Land of Enchantment Guides

  2. Thanks for this. I’ll fill it out and send it in.

    It should be noted that PROPER C&R techniques can reduce fish mortality rate to around 10%. Improper techniques, such as fishing water above 68 degrees, using barbed (GASP) hooks, prolonging the length of the fight or having the fish out of water for 10 minutes while you and your buddies film a cuss word ridden celebration with your Go Pro, is not C&R.

    1. Hi joshuacitrak,

      Good point on proper C&R techniques. We actually have a section on this on our website. Check out this page, near the bottom:
      And by the way, I don’t own a Go Pro!

      Thank you very much for your support; it is greatly appreciated. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or need more information about our catch and release initiative.

      Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


      Noah Parker
      Land of Enchantment Guides

  3. not sure about this. based on the evidence provided, most people already cnr the fish, and the fishery contains wild and stocked fish so there are mechanisms to replace harvested fish, which typically comprise a small total of any year to year mortality. with three sections of river that are separated from each other is this necessary for all of them? what are the current regulations? it sounds like stream flow rates are the main problem in this watershed, not harvest. how about advocating for more water which would likely I crews habitat and fish numbers too?

    1. Hi Mike,

      The figures referred to in the article above re. the number of anglers that release their fish are at the national level, not for the Chama River. Unfortunately the number of anglers that practice C & R on the Chama are significantly lower. Many anglers keep all of the fish they catch in numbers greater than their limits. Right now there are no gear type restrictions on the river, no size limits and little to no enforcement of state bag limits (5 fish per angler/ per day). As well, when the brown trout are spawning and up on their redds (spawning beds), they are heavily targeted with many being kept. There have actually been a few incidences of folks snagging larger, spawning fish.

      We are asking for 3 areas of 4 miles each to be made into C &R areas; single barbless hooks and artificial lures. The would represent about 10% of the Chama River’s distance/length of run in New Mexico and hopefully create a safe haven for the river’s bio-mass of fish.

      We have been working on the flow regimes on the river for the last 6 to 8 years (see the article on our website at the bottom of this page: ) with a group called The Rio Chama Flow Optimization Project. While we have had some very small victories, an environmentally sound solution has yet to be implemented. This is one major reason why we feel that C &R areas are extremely important and would be a way that we could protect some of the trout right now.

      I hope this answers your questions. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or need more information about our catch and release initiative.

      Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


      Noah Parker
      Land of Enchantment Guides

  4. Hi Noah,

    I agree with you %100 on the 3 catch and release sections of the river that you have mentioned. I would like to see two more additional catch and release areas 1st Rancho Del Oso Pardo south to Highway 17 Bridge north end of Chama. 2nd would be Brazos River from Corkins Lodge to Chavez Creek confluence.
    I own a house and property in the Chama Valley and I fly fish about 10 days a month and I frequently see the locals take more than 5 fish per person. Great example; last summer I confronted a guy with 50 fish and I asked him if he knew what the limit is and he said “yes 5 fish for every person in his family.”
    I think getting the locals involved will be critical and Game and Fish will have to have a continual presence on the river. Actually, I have been fishing this area regularly since 1984 and I have never been approached by a Game and Fish officer…

    Thank you for working on this proposal! I could rattle on about this for weeks….
    Feel free to contact me if you need any assistance.

  5. Late to the game here but I love the idea of improving the Chama fisheries. I recently relocated to the Southwest and I’d like to give perspective from my experience as a Park Ranger in Northern Colorado. My patrol area included a very popular reservoir and tail water. Fishing wise, this CO tail water is most utilized by fly fisherman and the ratio of fly fisherman to bait fisherman is probably 3/1. The river has no special regulations so statewide bag limits apply (4 trout per person/day).

    The average sized trout (mostly rainbows with some browns) in this public stretch is 6-10 inches with top end fish being 14 inches. This is a river with a very strong patrol presence and the chances of getting your fishing license checked and/or ticketed is far greater than most places in the west. Enforcement presence is not the reason the Chama is not a great fishery, though it would help. The fact is that catch and keep fisheries are very detrimental to fish populations on small streams and rivers. Lakes and reservoirs managed for catch and keep will fare much better than a river. Most people respect regulations and when obvious signage is present, catch and keep fisherman will generally fish elsewhere. Minimum and flushing flows (see North Platte) will also improve and protect much more than enforcement. After fishing and floating the Chama under El Vado several times last year, I see no reason why it couldn’t be a top 3 fishery in the Southwest given some reg changes. Humans are the defacto reason behind poor fisheries 99% of the time. At the Colorado tail water I mentioned above, there is a boundary. The 1st mile of stream below the dam is off limits to public entry. How can it be that on just the other side of the boundary, the fish are thriving and average a robust 18-22 inches with many in the 10 lb range? It would blow your mind if you saw the difference! The public section immediately downstream is poor at best. Human presence is the ONLY difference. Ever wonder why those big browns were being caught in the Chama back in the 40’s and 50’s? I bet not many people were fishing it then. The Chama needs those regs to become what it should be.

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