SANTA FE - Everyone seems to agree - the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico is a premiere trout fishery that draws anglers from around the world and tens of millions of dollars to the Four Corners region each year.
What's up for debate is what's happening to the fishery.
"We continue to hear from anglers and other groups that they have significant concerns with the San Juan River trout fishery," said Mike Sloane, chief of fisheries management for the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.
"We, as an agency, are obviously concerned about that and a little confused by it, because the data that we have hasn't changed substantially."
Sloane recently helped prepare a white paper on the fishery. According to the study, the department found that fish health has remained high over the last decade, catch rates have averaged almost a fish every hour, and nearly all anglers surveyed by the department said they were "satisfied" with their experience on the San Juan.
But some anglers say the river is filling with silt and fewer big fish are biting.
"There is a major problem that we are seeing in increased siltation in the river, and it is seriously affecting the fishery," Kevin Reilly of the sportsmen's group Trout Unlimited told state game commissioners during a meeting last week.
The Game and Fish Department announced it will start meeting with groups interested in the river, including Trout Unlimited and Concerned Citizens for the San Juan River, to determine what's going on.
"We've heard that sediment is killing the river. We've heard that the top end of the larger size fish are missing. We also know there has been a change in the fishery from 5 percent brown trout to about 50 percent brown trout," Sloane said.
He plans to return to the commission with his findings next month.
The department also reiterated plans to stock 3,600 fish in the San Juan's quality water this week with the help of guides that operate on the river. This will be the second stocking since the beginning of the year.
Commissioners said they support the department's plan and vowed to do what they could to maintain the tailwater as a premier fishing spot.
"It seems at one point there were a group of people who said everything was just fine, and we had another group of people that said the fishery had gone to pot. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle," commissioner Dutch Salmon said.
"The fact the department is engaged in this issue in this way is very positive."
Commission Chairman Jim McClintic added that the department and the commission take the San Juan "extremely seriously" given its notoriety among anglers and its economic impact on the region.
Andreas Novak, who has been fishing the San Juan for 25 years, said he welcomes the planned meetings and is hopeful Game and Fish and the other agencies that have a stake in the river get to the bottom of the problems and find solutions. He said a lot of businesses depend on the river, especially the guides.
"The guides are working hard, and we try to encourage business for them, but we can't let the agencies off the hook," he said.
The Game and Fish Department said the San Juan averages 269,000 angler hours a year and nearly two-thirds of the fishermen who visit the river are from out of state.