Best Wild Places: Exploring Gila Country (Day 1)

Editor-at-Large Kirk Deeter and photographer Kevin Cooley set out to explore the Gila Mountains of New Mexico, where Deeter hopes to fool a rare Gila trout. The duo is joined by Chris Hunt, Greg McReynolds, and Dylan Looze of Trout Unlimited, who have made incredible efforts to save the precious habitat that supports these elusive beauties of the high-mountain brooks. What begins as a fish quest becomes an eye-opening adventure for Deeter, who was pleasantly surprised by what he finds in the outdoorsman's oasis. Here's the scoop on day one.

My first Field & Stream "Best Wild Places" adventure was a homecoming to the familiar San Juan Mountains of Colorado; the second was a completely opposite experience, into a completely unseen and unexpected realm--the Gila Mountains of southwestern New Mexico.

I joined photographers Kevin Cooley and Bridget Batch, as well as Trout Unlimited's Chris Hunt, Greg McReynolds, and Dylan Looze in Silver City, New Mexico. Silver City is a laid-back community in the high desert that would easy fit on one of those magazine hot-lists of "off the radar" outdoor towns. Long dependent on the hard rock mining industry (the giant open pit Santa Rita mine is nearby), Silver City now has a trendy restaurant row, art boutiques, and plenty of allure for outdoor aficionados, especially anglers, hunters, mountain bikers, and hikers.

My main objective wasn't about finding a new outdoorsy place to be, however. I wanted to catch a rare Gila trout (oncoryhchus gilae gilae), a fish that can only be found in this area. Genetically related to cutthroats and rainbow trout, it is believed that as ancient oceans and flood waters receded and the deserts enveloped this region, the Gila trout evolved and adapted in what is now a relatively tiny high country oasis, where coldwater streams still flow in alpine meadows. Once pressured to the brink, through the efforts of Trout Unlimited, New Mexico wildlife officials, and other conservation organizations, the Gila trout have made an impressive resurgence of late.

As this trip evolved, however, it would become much more than a quest to tick off a "bucket list" species on the fly. It was an eye-opening odyssey through a unique ecosystem that supports a wide array of animals. Frankly, having never been here, I came prepared for dusty mountains and tumbleweed. What I found instead were vast glades of vibrant wildflowers, and lush green thickets through which flowed crystalline brooks. And more animals--bigger, stronger, and more numerous--than I had planned to see.

For example, the area is home to some of the most prolific elk in the world (it's one of the most coveted, and difficult-to-draw licenses in New Mexico). Local guides will tell you that they expect a herd bull to be 380-class, and 350-scoring satellite bulls are commonplace.

I've never seen so many wild turkeys as I would encounter in my days hiking through the Gila. Big healthy birds, many, it seemed, were squarely over 20 pounds. This is also a quail hunter's paradise, one of the few places where you can chase Mearns', Gambel's, and Scaled Quail in close proximity, on the same day.

I am told it is the uniquely mild high desert-meets-alpine-climate that produces the habitat and forage needed to yield such species. But, almost ironically, the delicate balance that produces such natural wonder may also be the region's Achilles' heel. I was struck by the palpable fragility of this landscape.

Trout Unlimited's mission in this area simply revolves around keeping the road access in throughout the Gila are limited, and also limiting the amount of ATV traffic off established trails… avoiding the so-called "chicken foot effect." As much as hunters and anglers realize the benefits of open access, one cornerstone of conservation thinking--particularly in this region--is that some places are best left alone… or at least we should tread on them very lightly.

It was conservation icon Aldo Leopold who once said: "Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind."

Species like the Gila trout benefit when their fragile spawning runs are not disturbed. Migrating elk herds flourish away from the noises and pressures roads bring. And so on, and so on…

As such, this would be a trip that involved a lot of hiking. Our only drive on day one was the two-hour twisting trek from Silver City to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, where we walked to the ruins of the ancient Mogollon civilization that lived in the rocks above the Gila River more than 700 years ago.

From there, we decided to fish. We had noticed that the monsoon rains turned the main stem of the Gila river into a raging torrent of chocolate, but were able to find some clear water in the west fork of the Gila River. Chris Hunt caught a small brown trout on a grasshopper fly, but we didn't find the elusive Gila trout that day.

Instead, chased away by the billowing thunderheads over the canyon, we made our way back to The Wilderness Lodge (www.gilahot.com) to soak in the natural hot spring pools, and make plans for a long hike, well into the backcountry and high above the swollen rivers where we would find clear water.

And hopefully, the fabled Gila Trout…

Click here to see more photos from Day 1 of the Deeter's Gila Country adventure.