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 is pleasantly surprised by what he finds in the outdoorsman’s oasis.
By day three of our odyssey in the Gila Wilderness of southwestern New Mexico, my mind was swimming. I had caught a “life fish”…my first rare Gila trout, which are only found here. Where I expected tumbleweed and cactus, I found lush Alpine meadows, brimming with wildflowers and tall grasses. We’d seen lightning arc from black anvil clouds into the red canyon walls around us, and hiked (far) to find scarce waters that hadn’t been muddied by monsoon floods. On top of that, I had seen more wild game… elk, deer, turkeys, quail, and more… than I had seen anywhere south of the Canadian border.
But the trip also forced a reckoning with a difficult issue that faces all of us hunters and anglers who hope to experience as much as we can… share that opportunity with as many others as possible… and at the same time, preserve the natural landscape (and the fish/animals therein) for future generations as best we can.
Trout Unlimited volunteer Garrett VeneKlasen summed it up with a question he asked as we hiked up the Gila River on day three: “Is wilderness really wilderness if you build roads through it?”
Garrett’s query wasn’t unique by any stretch. It reflects a concern sportsmen and women have wrestled with for generations.
Aldo Leopold wrote in his classic A Sand County Almanac decades ago: “The trophy-recreationalist has peculiarities that contribute in subtle ways to his undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. Hence the wilderness that he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”
And therein lies the rub.
The Gila National Forest is devising a travel management plan with the hope of designating certain routes for all-terrain vehicles and other motorized use. Done right, it could open opportunity in this amazing place. Done wrong, however, TU New Mexico public lands coordinator Greg McReynolds, thinks it could lead to a “chicken-foot” effect, where trails encroach virtually unchecked into critical habitat.
“The chicken foot effect is when a trail ends, and someone creates a new fork, then the next person comes along, and forks off that trail… eventually there’s a chicken foot network of trails that might not have been intended, but form because of regulations that can’t be effectively enforced,” explained McReynolds.
“I think all sportsmen, from hunters, to anglers, to ATVers, and hikers share a common goal. The trick now will be working together to achieve the best scenario for the Gila.”
As I thought on what VeneKlasen and McReynolds had to say, it occurred to me that, while there are few universal “truths” in the finicky fly fishing world, one constant I have always experienced is that the further one ventures from the road or the parking lot… the more foot miles you put on… the better the experience is.
And so that would be the mantra for the final day of our Gila country adventure. Led by long-time local, author, and outdoorsman Dutch Salmon, we walked up the West Fork of the Gila River. And walked… and walked some more.
We started on the trail along the river, then cut through a piney meadow on another hiking trail, and eventually bushwhacked our way to the stream.
Here, we found clear, cool headwaters that hadn’t been muddied by the monsoon torrents (at least not yet). The river churned a lazy course through red canyon rocks, a path no doubt scoured by the river for eons.
In the shadows of the rocks and willow brushes, there were lazy pools, accentuated by gentle riffles. And where the riffles met the pools–usually right on the current seam where a bubble line formed–brown trout were sipping dry flies from the surface.
Chris Hunt fished with Dutch. I teamed up with Trout Unlimited intern Dylan Looze from Texas. By this point, Dylan and I were old pals… we’d run through the high country of the Alpine Triangle in Colorado… and now were wrapping up the Gila trip in New Mexico. Dylan had caught species like Apache Trout, Gila Trout, and wild Cutthroats in his first mountain fishing adventure… species it had taken me years to tick off my list.
So it was only appropriate that Dylan show the old dog a few more new tricks… which he did, as soon as I broke the tip off my fiberlass rod (caught it in the brush). Casting small terrestrial flies, he’d hook up every twenty minutes or so. The fishing was tough under brighter skies. But the browns were cooperative, if you knew how to get at them without making shadows or loud splashes as you waded. By this point Dylan had become a natural.
As for me, I already had my rewards. Watching Dylan (who had not caught trout on flies before) work the water like a pro was probably first and foremost in my mind.
Second was catching a number of rare Gila Trout, which I had never done before.
And third, of course, was having been introduced to an entirely unexpected, and indeed enchanting (New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, after all) landscape that is the Gila Country.
It is, without question, one of the most beautiful wild places I have seen. And it is worth experiencing yourselves… and protecting for many generations that will follow us.
Click here to see more photos from Day 3 of the Deeter’s Gila Country adventure.