Matt Dickerson: Fishing high and dry for Gila
The temperature was hovering just below freezing when I walked out at dawn, squeezed into my waders, and prepared to head two miles up the road and then down to the river to spend a full day of walk-and-wade fishing. I had been expecting high and murky water from the spring runoff of melting snow at higher elevations, but when I arrived the river was running clear and relatively low. There was no hint of remaining snow to be seen in any direction, not even on the highest visible peaks to the north. And that was fine with me. Early season runoff fishing has never been my specialty. Not in Vermont or any other state.
I pondered my attire for a moment as I breathed the morning chill in the air. Though the sun had not yet peeked over the nearby ridgeline, it would be up soon. And it promised to be a beautiful day. There was no hint of clouds. The forecast was for clear skies and temperatures rising through the morning possibly up into the 60s. But that was 30-some degrees away. Now there was still frost on the ground, in the air, on my wading shoes, seeping into my fingers. I put on a few warm layers, ending with a fleece wading jacket, expecting all but my bottom layer to be off by lunchtime but happy for them at the time.
So far, everything felt rather similar to an early spring day of trout fishing in Vermont. Except that I was at 7,000 feet in elevation, surrounded by peaks ranging all the way up to 10,000 feet. I was in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, near the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument, getting ready to fish the headwaters of the Gila River — working a couple miles up the Middle Fork. I checked my bag for sunscreen and water. Even in March, the sun could be potent at this elevation and I would want to slather on protection before the morning had progressed too far.
Though I’ve only previously fished New Mexico three days in my life, the state nonetheless holds a special place in my fishing imagination. New Mexico was the fourth of the 26 states where I have been fortunate enough to catch trout, and the first where — as a teenager some 35 years ago — I was able to do some hike-in fishing to wilderness alpine streams. It was in the mountains of New Mexico I first fell in love with that sort of remote wilderness fishing, and the “work” it takes to find places like that. It had been many years since my most recent trip back to the state, but I had some research and writing to do for a new book project called “Trout in the Desert” (due out this fall).
What drew me to the region for the final chapter of my book was in part its history. The Gila River is one of the most important rivers in the Southwest. And the Gila National Forest was also an area that profoundly shaped the thinking and life of Aldo Leopold, whose writings I have both taught and appreciated for many years.
Furthermore, the upper portions of the Gila River are home to their own unique species of trout, named after the river where they make their home. Wild populations of Gila trout still survive in a few locations where they (and their habitat) are protected by tight regulations. But the state of New Mexico now raises and stocks the fish in other places both to promote the survival of the species and to provide more angling opportunities. Gila trout are a small cousin of the rainbow trout, rarely exceeding two feet in length, and more often closer in size to the diminutive but beautiful brook trout of our upper New Haven or Middlebury rivers — which isn’t surprising since the streams where they live in the mountains of New Mexico are of a similar size to Vermont’s small mountain streams. Water flows on the Gila River during spring runoff are usually around 300 cubic feet per second (cfs). Flows are much lower during the hot dry summers of the Southwest.
I was hoping to catch one of these fish in one of those waters. However I had also been warned that my chances were slim. Two years earlier New Mexico had suffered its worst wildfire in state history: the Whitewater-Baldy Fire that consumed near 300,000 acres of forest around the West and Middle Forks of the Gila. The massive fire dumped large volumes of black ash on the river, choking it and killing most of the fish. Then in late 2013 came the devastating flood when the river carried 30,000 cfs — a hundred times what it usually has during the peak of spring runoff. Following the fire, the effect of the flood was far more devastating.
Still, despite the obvious ravages of both fire and flood, the land was beautiful. The Middle Fork followed a long, winding box canyon into the mountains. Gray wolves, recently reintroduced, wander there. Cougar do, too. Ducks and at least one family of beavers made their homes along the river. Though the cottonwoods that once lined the river were now burned husks, tall and elegant ponderosa pines lined the slopes above us. Raptors appeared on the cliff faces. And the water itself was clear, cold and beautiful. A mix of riffles and pools, gravel and ledge, shallows and holes below fallen cottonwoods. And abundant with insect life.
But there was no Gila trout. The biologist who had warned me had not been wrong. I spent three days fishing at least seven miles of river between the East Fork, Middle Fork and West Fork. Every afternoon there was a lovely hatch of winter stoneflies. Beneath the surface I saw nymphs of mayflies, stoneflies, midges, and the most beautiful caddis fly nymphs I have ever seen in the wild — encased in their beautiful handmade homes spun of the very colorful river bottom sand and gravel.
Just no trout. But no regrets, either. I could see why the land had so inspired Leopold. It is rare that I go three days without catching a fish. In fact, it might have been the first time in my life. They were also three of the most enjoyable days I have spent with a fly rod. If I can go back there one day, I will. Meanwhile, though, I’m hoping that Vermont’s brook trout treat me a little better.
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