Friday, February 4, 2011

The Heart of the Gila

Photos courtesy Garrett VeneKlassen
Huddled next to the fallen tree, Kirk Deeter and I looked at each other, our eyes wide with surprise and a touch of fear. The bullet had missed us by a wide margin, but the fact that we could hear it as is zinged overhead after the ricochet was ... unnerving.

"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.

On the whole, they're a pretty unremarkable fish, at least to look at. The look a like their cousins to the north, the Rio Grande cutthroats, but without the heavy spots and, of course, without the tell-tale gill slash. They also resemble another Gila cousin–the rainbow, but without the red stripe. But, for small water, they were strong, thick-bodied, bronze-hued trout that put a good bend in a light, glass rod. And chasing them where they belonged, in this remote and wild country about a hundred miles from the Mexican border added to the adventure of checking another fish off the life list.

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 the day I held that first Gila trout in my hands–a victim of a high-floating Adams–will always be special to me. Native trout, because they've been pushed into the recesses of their former ranges, are special creatures in a world where better is often measured by bigger. That's certainly true in much of the Gila, where smallmouth bass and opportunistic browns now dominate the main stem of the Gila River. The native fish, pushed nearly into memory, now thrive only in tiny waters where the only people interested in seeing them rise to a fly are those of us willing to navigate treacherous mountain roads and then hike deep into the wild.

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.


  1. Nice words in praise of specila wild fish.


  2. Well done Chris...I hope to ad the Gila to my life list as well someday.

  3. Very cool Chris. What an awesome story. Here in Arizona they have been hitting the restoration pretty hard and they are talking about having a couple fishable creeks in the next few years for Gila. It will be nice to see the natives making a comeback. Great write up as always.


  4. Nice! I caught my first gila last July, deep in the Gila Wilderness....a 15+ mile day trip to Mogollon Creek.

    They are truly a beautiful and special fish! New Mexico Game & Fish should be very proud of their restoration effort.


  5. Very nice story. I love it when a state recognizes the importance of restoring natives to their home waters. Thanks Chris.

  6. Chris I am a hunter and shooter and you let the person off easily. In MA we have to take a safety hunter course and here is Rule 3: Be sure of your target and what is in front of and beyond your target.
    Before you pull the trigger you must properly identify game animals. Until your target is fully visible and in good light, do not even raise your scope to see it. Use binoculars! Know what is in front of and behind your target. Determine that you have a safe backstop or background. Since you do not know what is on the other side, never take a shot at any animals on top of ridges or hillsides. Know how far bullets, arrows and pellets can travel. Never shoot at flat, hard surfaces, such as water, rocks or steel because of ricochets. Good to hear that you didn't get hit.

    Ed Mac

  7. Ed... you know what? You're right... And don't think we didn't want to give the shooter a piece of our mind, but by the time we walked back down the trail, they were gone (not to mention, we were very wary walking back down the trail). Your note is a good reminder of the need for safety when using firearms, even seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Thanks for that.