|Photos courtesy Garrett VeneKlassen|
"Wait for him to reload," Deeter said. "Then we'll get over that little rise and out of range."
A few more shots rang through the trees along the creekbottom, and we could hear the lead crashing through the cottonwoods just a few dozen yards away. With each shot, we sank lower to the ground, making ourselves as small as we possibly could.
Finally, the shots ceased, and we popped up from the shelter and sprinted about forty yards over a small rise and out of the spray of handgun shots coming from the unknowing shooter. We hollered and yelled as we ran, but we suspected the target shooter was wearing earplugs as he or she clipped the trees from a nearby stretch of private land along the remote little creek, deep in the hear of southern New Mexico's Gila country.
We'd spent a couple of hours driving a deeply rutted gravel road into the backcountry during the July monsoon season, and then hiked a few miles up this tiny creek that holds one of the last stronghold populations of native Gila trout–one of only two trout subspecies native to the far southwest. The other native–the Apache trout–swims a bit farther to the west in Arizona. Both are rare, but efforts to recover them are moving along nicely.
The bottom country in this remote stream north and east of Silver City was lush and green, not what you'd expect in the desert Southwest. Widlflowers soaked up the sunlight after a week of solid rain, and the grass along the trail draped over the bare dirt, disguising our path as we pushed deeper into the wilderness in search of these special trout.
Seven of us pierced the Gila wildlands that day, and, despite the best efforts of a clueless pot-shotter, all seven of us made it out without holes in our hides.
And we caught Gilas. Lots of them.
Deeter, a guide, editor and freelance fly fishing writer from Colorado's Front Range, remarked more than once about the countryside and the sheer bounty of the mountains that sprang from the arid desert and pushed their way into the clouds. The summer monsoons–at times so torrential that every low spot on the map brimmed with standing water after a storm–greened up the landscape and pushed the Gila's fauna into full view. We chased wild turkeys out of the piñons, spooked fat and happy mule deer and watched golden eagles ride the steamy thermals overhead.
After days spent hiking deep into the backcountry along the West Fork of the Gila River in search of brown trout, and touring Anasazi cliff dwellings abandoned for some unknown reason a thousand years ago, we rested our bones at the funky Gila Hot Springs lodge, where good whiskey and warm water lulled us to sleep.
But what most folks don't realize is that the trophy fish in today's chopped up version of our country's once-pristine heart aren't the interlopers that'll hit a popper in froggy water or chase a streamer in a deep hole under the highway bridge. The real trophies are the fish you can only get to with effort and tire rubber and locked-in hubs. And even then you have to park and walk, sometimes for miles, because that's what it takes to experience the land as it was a century ago, or longer. And that's the kind of land that nurtures the rarest of the rare.
Long live the Gila trout, and God bless the angler willing to chase them. As long as we walk the creekside trails and marvel at a creature so rare that it nearly winked out of existence, we know someone cares enough to check in on them now and then.
And as long as we tell our children the tales only these adventures spawn, we can rest knowing these fish have a future.