In Aldo’s Footsteps

The Gila Wilderness area is the oldest (and first) designated wilderness area in the world. On June 3, 1924 congress designated the Gila headwaters as a wilderness area, meaning that all mechanized travel and tools are excluded from the area. This allows for natural processes to run their course and does the job of restricting any easy access points for recreation. Effectively this creates some of the finest, undisturbed country in the U.S. for fishing, hunting, hiking and generally getting away from any crowds.

“Wilderness is the one kind of playground which mankind cannot build to order…. I contrived to get the Gila headwaters withdrawn as a wilderness area, to be kept as pack country, free from additional roads, ‘forever.’” -Aldo Leopold

A maze of downed trees and pools

My reason for coming was not as just a usual fishing trip. I was lucky enough to be able to do an assessment of a watershed for an area heavily burned in fires about a decade ago. A positive to come from the flame damaged forest was a golden opportunity for Gila Trout to make a return to their native waters. The fire wiped out all fish life in the creek, clearing out rainbows and browns. With a barrier to fish downstream of these head water creeks the Gilas had a chance to make a come back. With a creek to themselves they have done just that!

We walked the creek and just about every side channel that flowed into the main stem (and a fair few with no flow). The one constant other than some variety of thorny plant digging into your legs and logs to climb over were the small dark shapes darting for cover on our approach. There were fish everywhere!

Match stick forest

I was only able to get time for a few casts each day at lunch, after all I was on a ‘work trip’. These few cast were all I needed to get a measure of the place though. It is a special place. A very special place. Almost every cast was greeted by a splash as the fly hit the water and sometimes it seemed, before it had a chance to land!

The creek was full of insect life, with rocks covered in a variety of mayfly and caddis and the occasional big stonefly nymph!

A smorgasbord of trout treats
Big stone fly cruising the bottom

These two inch stones were something I had come to expect in more northern waters, not in a tiny southwestern creek! And by mid morning they were hatching. Big stone flies crash landing into a creek full of trout was quite a feeding frenzy!

A fly fisherman’s dream
Size six or bigger, accept no substitutes

I tied on a large stimulator with rubber legs and the poor fly never stood a chance… The dry was inhaled by a fish on pretty much any cast I hit water with (a fair amount of casts ended in a thornbush or stuck in a down tree). After a couple fish it was back to work and watching fish rise in each little pool as we continued along the creek edge.

Gila Trout
Wall of stone flies

The ability of a creek and the Gila Trout to endure and thrive after such a severe fire will never cease to amaze me. Despite having been almost entirely burned, the creek was full of native trout and huge bugs. We are very lucky to live in a country where those that came before us had the foresight to set aside places like this. Where as Leopold would have said, ‘a hunt could still be stolen’.

“Hunts differ in flavor, but the reasons are subtle. The sweetest hunts are stolen. To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose.” Aldo Leopold

3 thoughts on “In Aldo’s Footsteps

  1. Great news from the Gila country, a place I’ve worried about since my visit years ago and the big fires that followed. I presume those are pure Gilas and not the hybrid trout I caught so many of. Thanks for sharing this.


    1. You are correct, they have added pure Gila’s above the barrier on the creek and other than some other native suckers and dace that is all that is up there I think. The fires have changed things quite a bit, but also opened the door for some cool opportunities for the native fish in that part of the world!


  2. Those stoneflys are monsters! Surprised that the creek is doing so well with such limited overhead cover. I’m excited to see what the trout grow into.


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