Riding the Rio Grande, Day Four: Fishing the Canyon

Last fall, Field & Stream Online Editor Nate Matthews and his father, Bruce, spent 15 days fishing the Rio Grande … Continued

Last fall, Field & Stream Online Editor Nate Matthews and his father, Bruce, spent 15 days fishing the Rio Grande River from its headwaters in Colorado to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. These excerpts from their journals tell the story of their 2500-mile motorcycle ride along the historic river. Photographer Tim Romano documented the excursion. You can see more photos from Day Four of this expedition (and find new journal updates as they are posted) by clicking here.

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NM: 9/27, 7:00 AM
Yesterday was a riding day; we spent roughly 10 hours on the bikes leaving the headwaters and then passing through the desert of the San Luis Valley. When we finally arrived at our campsite on the east side of the Upper Rio Grande Canyon it was nearing full dark. I pitched my tent on the edge of a cliff, then crawled into my sleeping bag and passed out, exhausted. Woke up this morning to an incredible view, but it’s a good thing I don’t walk in my sleep … I hadn’t quite realized how far down it was to the bottom.

Today is a fishing day. Right now we’re brewing coffee and waiting for Greg McReynolds, a buddy of Tim’s who also happens to be Trout Unlimited’s Public Lands Coordinator for New Mexico. The plan for the day is to hike down to the bottom of the gorge and fish for trout until dark. Greg’s coming along to put us on fish – the river here is one of his home waters.

7:45 AM
Greg shows up. We do the introductions and he passes out some bean-and-egg burritos he brought up from Albuquerque, where he lives with his wife and young son. We head out after eating.

8:45 AM
The trail from the top of the canyon down to the bottom of the gorge is steep, narrow, lined with cactus, and full of switchbacks that leave you teetering on the edge of dropoffs and rock slides. We’re not carrying much gear — just waders and boots in our daypacks, but it’s still a bit of a leg burner to get to the bottom, and I notice dad start limping about halfway there. When we get to the river Greg looks back up at the top and shakes his head. “I usually wind up crawling back out of here,” he says.

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The trail reaches the Rio Grande at the junction between it and a smaller tributary called the Red River. Both look like excellent water, so we split up. Greg goes with Dad up the Rio; Tim and I hit the Red. We’re throwing big hoppers on heavy tippet, dapping the pockets between every boulder. It’s tough fishing, again. Hot, bright, and cloudless. The good weather we’ve seen so far has been great for riding our motorcycles but it’s death on catching trout. Greg says the average fish in both rivers is around 17, 18 inches, but all we’re able to raise are a couple of small browns. Still, a fish is a fish, and at least we’re on the board.

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1:30 PM
We circle back around lunchtime only to discover that something has ripped into Greg’s pack and eaten most of the leftover burritos we brought to munch on. There’s only half of one left, and it’s half chewed as well. We split it anyway, too hungry to care, and supplement with a couple of the granola bars that whatever it was didn’t find.

Dad heads back up the trail to the campsite on his own after lunch. His knee is bothering him and he’s having a hard time scrambling over the slick volcanic boulders that line the river down here. I’m a little concerned about him doing the climb alone, and also by the fact that he’s bagging it early. Not really like him. But he promises to take it easy.

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2:30 PM
After he leaves, Tim, Greg and I fish our way up another four miles of the Rio Grande. It’s really hot, and the water is just dead quiet. We cast and cast for hours, trying to raise a strike, and finally see a good fish start rising on the other side of a wide pool in the river just as the sun drops behind the western rim of the canyon. By stripping off my waders I can just get within range of the fish, but it’s camped in a slow eddy along the far bank and I can’t lay enough slack on the water when casting that far to keep the main current from dragging my fly. I’m about to pull a Brad Pitt and swim across the river when Greg makes the call to head out. It’s getting dark, and we’ve got a five-mile hike ahead of us.

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6:00 PM
The trek back up the canyon is a killer, and by the time we reach the top it’s pitch dark, with nothing but stars and one headlamp between us to light the way. All of us are hungry, out of breath, out of water, and desperately thirsty. We reach the trailhead trading fantasies about cold beer, and are kicking ourselves for failing to pick some up the day before when Dad walks up out of the darkness and hands us each a chilled Newcastle. He’d been to town while we were fishing and had picked up a sixpack. It felt like we’d just won the lottery.

BM: 9/27, 9:00 PM
Greg took us down into the box today. My left knee started acting up. It worried me, and I tell Nate. We split up. Nate and Tim headed up the Red River. Greg and I go up the Rio Grande. I catch a beautiful little brown trout. Nate catches a couple. They play with a tarantula. But it’s slow, and hot. My knee hurts. I leave early and take my time returning up the trail. Supposed to only be one mile. Maybe as the crow flies. It feels like five.

Guys arrived from long hike up the canyon in the dark. Cold beer awaited. I redeemed myself. And again by having dinner just about ready. Barbeque chicken grilled over the fire and fresh corn on the cob.

NM: 9/27, 9:45 PM
Tomorrow we’re leaving the upper river (and trout habitat) behind. We’ve got a half-day float in our canoe (and a half-day ride to get there) planned for a stretch of the Rio called White Rock Canyon, which flows into the Cochiti Reservoir northwest of Albuquerque. Time for bed. We’re going to need the rest.

You can see more photos from Day Four of this expedition (and find new journal updates as they are posted) by clicking here.