The Gila Mountains epitomize the fragile balance of nature--where cactus mix with pines, and alpine meadows meet striking red rock canyons. It's a place where the character of the landscape changes dramatically with the seasons. We visited during the summer monsoon rainy season, when quenching (though often violent) thunderstorms rolled over the high desert and into the high country.
It’s a stunningly beautiful place. From the higher elevations (sometimes over 10,000 feet), like the canyon rims, it seemed as if we could see forever. Yet when we hiked through the canyons, the storms would creep up on us, often without warning. As such, we had to be on our toes to avoid potentially dangerous flash floods. Kevin Cooley
From one mountain ridge, we took in our first glimpse of the fabled Gila River. Problem was, that view also suggested to us that the monsoon rains that had been keeping the air cool and the landscape green, had also been washing torrents into the river, perhaps making it high, dirty, and practically unfishable. Kevin Cooley
As we got closer to the river, our suspicions were confirmed. The Gila River was brown with runoff, and any native trout we hoped to find there, would certainly not fall for any of the standard dry fly tricks we had planned. The scenery was nonetheless splendid. Kevin Cooley
So we decided to make a side trip to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, a remarkable archaeological site adjacent to the West Fork of the Gila River. Like a miniature version of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where the ancient Peubloan people lived in the canyon walls, these dwellings were occupied by Mogollon (pronounced (MUGGY-own) people, several hundred years ago. They were only thought to live here fre about 30-40 years, perhaps to avoid a drought in the lowlands. Kevin Cooley
As we walked through the cliff dwellings, we could still see the darkened spots on the cave roofs under which fires had once burned. The Mogollon were also known to be skilled hunters of rabbits and mule deer. Kevin Cooley
Here, Dylan Looze, a Trout Unlimited intern from Round Rock Texas casts up into a pool on the West Fork of the Gila River with a small dry fly. Dylan hadn’t been trout fishing (with flies) before this trip… and he would up catching one of the rarest trout on the planet. Kevin Cooley
Looking upstream on the West Fork of the Gila River… the monsoon rains hadn’t affected this stretch of water much (yet). The water temperatures hovered just under 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so the trout (mostly brown trout) stuck close to the tree-shaded banks, and in the swifter, deeper runs. Kevin Cooley
We had our best luck casting dry flies into riffles like this one. Kevin Cooley
Just after Kevin Cooley took this photo of Dylan casting in the West Fork, some hikers walked up the trail to warn us about a rattlesnake they had just seen coiled up next to the trail. Apparently, I’d walked right by it five minutes earlier. Either I was so focused on fishing, I missed it, or the snake wasn’t bothered enough to coil up and rattle as we first passed by. Greg Mc Reynolds, Chris Hunt, and I went back to look for it, but we never found it. (I let those guys walk ahead of me on the trail). Kevin Cooley
While hiking into the canyons can be a beautiful experience, it can also be dangerous, especially for anglers wading the rivers, and especially during the monsoon season (usually in July and August). As you can see here from Kevin’s vantage point, a fisherman on the left side of the photo might be enjoying bluebird skies, while it’s coming down in buckets a half a mile away. The lesson is to always have an escape plan in mind so you can find high ground if that river surges. Kevin Cooley
Rather than press our luck, we made our way back to the comforts of The Wilderness Lodge. This is the road to the lodge after a heavy downpour. Kevin Cooley
The Wilderness Lodge is a great little converted school house in Hurley, New Mexico, four miles from the Cliff Dwellings, and a stone’s throw from the Gila River. The best part of this little oasis are the natural hot springs pools. After hiking in the dusty high country, or dodging monsoon storm lightning bolts, it was relaxing to soak away the pains of the day in naturally hot water. Kevin Cooley
In all, the first day of this adventure proved to be entirely different than what I had imagined. Sure we found cactus, and red rock canyons. But we also found pines and oak trees, and junipers… and hordes of wild turkeys. The only thing missing was that elusive Gila Trout… but that would be the next day’s mission. Kevin Cooley
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.