Best Wild Places: Exploring Gila Country (Day 2)

Editor-at-Large Kirk Deeter and photographer Kevin Cooley set out to explore the Gila Mountains of New Mexico, where Deeter hopes … Continued

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 two.

On day two we got up early, and decided to head into the high country of the Black Mountains, in order to find a feeder creek that would be above most of the monsoon runoff. We knew if we could find clear water, we would also find Gila trout that would eat flies.

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Trout Unlimited’s New Mexico Public Lands Coordinator, Greg McReynolds, led the way, and we were joined by TU volunteer and avid outdoorsman Garrett Veneklasen. Veneklasen runs fishing travel business that connects anglers with some of the most exotic fishing locales in the world (www.interangler.com). Yet he also reminded me that he lives in New Mexico for a reason: This is some of the most stunning hunting and fishing land in the world.

That said, Veneklasen also pointed out that the high desert and alpine areas of New Mexico are also extremely fragile, which is part of the reason TU and Field & Stream organized this expedition.

The particular concern in this area is that The Gila National Forest is devising a “Travel Management Plan” for the area, which would establish a designated system of motorized trails. The problem, according to Trout Unlimited, is that the proposal could include a huge loophole by allowing motorized big game retrieval for up to a mile from any road.

That sounds good for many hunters… but there’s a catch. “The problem is that would make the off-road limits utterly unenforceable in a practical sense,” said McReynolds.

According to Veneklasen, who considers himself an avid ATVer, there is a point where we need to draw clearer boundaries in order to protect the overall experience.

“I’m a 17-year ATV guy, but as an elk hunter, I have also come to learn that engine noise is definitely equated by elk with predation,” said Veneklasen. “The point is to have a regressive experience, and in fact, that is a huge reason why the elk hunting, bird hunting and fishing experience is so unique here.

“The problem is, the more you drive off road, the more the elk are pushed away, and the more need there is to hunt with an ATV. It’s a spiral effect. We need to avoid that from happening.”

Indeed, it isn’t an issue of irresponsible ATVers rip-snorting around the mountains and marking up the landscape as much as it is a matter of people who love the landscape–hunters, anglers, and ATVers included (often one in the same)–perhaps loving it so much, and wanting to experience it so easily, that we risk loving the region to death. By the same token, we limit hunting licenses in the Gila, which is one of the most prolific trophy elk areas in the world (the chances of drawing a rifle season mature bull elk tag for the Gila Wilderness is roughly 10% for nonresidents and 15% for residents). We also should look at the way we access the resource. In conservation icon Aldo Leopold’s spirit, keeping the true wilderness nature of an area requires maintaining roadless areas.

What that boiled down to for us anglers on this day was some serious hiking–a few miles along a creek, through a canyon, and over a small ridge to a spot where we could see the Gila Trout shimmering in the runs of the narrow creek.

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I prefer fishing fiberglass rods when I cast dry flies in these situations. On the first cast, I lobbed a size #10 Stimulator fly into the heart of a choppy run, and a Gila trout surged to inhale the bug. They’re sporty little fish; this one bulldogged upstream on a first run, and then turned back into an eddy, where I could cradle it in my hand, unhook it, hold it for a few images by photographer Kevin Cooley, and then let it go.

Mission accomplished. It’s funny when you look back and think about all the effort, time and money that can go into a fishing or hunting adventure–the quest for a big elk, or a marlin, etc. And in many ways, as I held that small fish in my hands, considering the fragility of the ecosystem and the rarity of this species, I ranked it right up there with the most rewarding outdoor adventures I have ever had.

I would certainly recommend the quest for a Gila trout as a “bucket list” addition to any angler’s itinerary. The uniquely beautiful allure of the New Mexico high country is apparent at first glance.

The trick now is finding ways to work together to ensure that same impression and experience for future generations.

Click here to see more photos from Day 2 of the Deeter’s Gila Country adventure.