“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” -Aldo Leopold
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on a trout habitat project in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest. New Mexico has some truly rugged country as well as some of the most remote places in the southwest. These little forgotten corners of the state are a true gem.
The reason for the trip was to survey 6 miles of stream channel impaired for high temperatures. In late May to early June before monsoons hit the water becomes almost 85 degrees. It also so happens that this little creek is home exclusively to Gila trout. As is the case with many southwestern trout streams this one had its upper reaches burned by fire which led to a couple of years of complications for the creek and the trout in it. However, fire hasn’t been entirely the bad guy in this creeks story. The lower elevation pine, cottonwood and juniper canyon bottom is home to frequent fires (around 3-4 in the last 10-15 years). This frequent fire leads to well spaced, older trees with a few young ones poking up and an incredible amount of grass growing almost waist high in spots. It was in part because of all the little fires that the big one didn’t run down the canyon and damage it even further. The current state of the creek is on the mend, however funding was secured to improve the habitat for the fish and try to cool water temperatures.
The trail, if you can call it one, winds up the valley and is often just a low spot in the grass or a blaze mark on a tree. The canyon is a beautiful mix of old growth pines and massive cottonwoods with clumps of willows following the streams meandering path through the gently sloped valley bottom. We meandered up until we got to the top of the project reach, lugging all of the survey gear and data recording equipment along with us. The gist of the work we were doing was to survey and document reaches of channel with good function so that we could emulate those same characteristics in sections that were impaired or damaged. The challenge is to design the practices to improve the creek so that they can be carried out by hand crews but also not wash away in the first big storm. The wilderness aspect of this project is both the challenge and the draw to this kind of work.
Working at a creek gives such a detailed view compared to when I fish it. My first look at each pool and pocket is for fish and how I’d get a fly to them. However, working gives me a chance to look deeper at everything on the creek and some hiding spots for fish I would have completely missed. Also it gives a chance to see more than just the fish, such as all of the bugs in the creek and little creatures that call the banks home.
The hike in this remote canyon also yielded some other gems, a bobcat, coues deer sheds and bear sign all over. The most surprising, literally, were the Mearn’s Quail. The hike up was often interrupted by a loud burst of feathers, seemingly from under your feet. These beautifully colored birds would sit pretty much until the point of being stepped on and WUMP! Burst away in a flurry of feathers and noise.
I did manage to sneak off for a few casts to justify my purchase of a 1 week license. Luckily with these fish a few casts is all that was needed. I found a few fish feeding in a little current seem under a log. I tried a few dries, but they were not looking up, they seemed to be intently feeding on some subsurface bugs. I tied on a small midge nymph, crimped the barb, and dropped it at the head of the pool. BANG! BANG! BANG! Three fish all bum rushed the fly! But they all bumped each other off and missed. Second cast, and quickly attacked! On and off, darn barbless hooks and tiny flies.. Next cast fish on! A few quick pictures in the water and the fish darted back under the log, glaring at me for interrupting its mid morning brunch.
After the release it was back to work and the rod got put away. My first Gila trout fishing experience lasted about 5 minutes but it was quite the experience. A wild fish a few miles into one of my favorite wilderness areas in the country, whats not to love?!
The five day survey trip in these wild mountains was a treat, these are some spots I’m not soon to forget. My camera went on the fritz around day 3 so everything after that is in the memory bank. I did fish a little more, using a long stick with a few feet of line on it. Lucky for me these fish get almost no pressure (less than 5 anglers a year by one report) and would take flies at the end of a stick (is that tenkara??).
I did manage to sneak off after work one evening and throw some grasshoppers to hungry Gilas near the campground. Not a bad trip for a work trip eh?