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Gila Trout Inspires Anglers

by Dutch Salmon

It would seem a stretch of logic that there are trout here at all. The Gila River mountains of southwest New Mexico are isolated and surrounded by desert – how did they come to raise their own unique salmonid, the Gila trout (Oncorhynchus gilae)? Well, many millennia ago the climate was cooler and the waters of the Gila ran unabated some 700 miles, all the way to the Colorado River, a true instream flow. At the terminus, it is also within the historical range of the rainbow trout, including the West Coast mountains and their rivers that drained to the Pacific. Our Gila trout must have shared some ancestry with these rainbows as even today they will readily interbreed and produce fertile offspring. But the climate changed.

Waters receded, became warmer, and the fish that would become known as Gila trout was left isolated in the remaining cool water of the Gila range where, over many more millennia, they would take on their own “look” and behavioral traits sufficient that later biologists would declare them a separate species. But before the biologists there were the anecdotal jottings of settlers who variously called these fish “speckled” or “mountain” trout. One of these was an erstwhile British officer turned frontier rancher named Captain William French.

French was that rare gem among frontiersman in that he was literate and left two very readable memoirs of the times: Recollections of a Western Ranchman, and, Further Recollections of a Western Ranchman. It was in the latter volume (now scarce and pricey on the used book market) that French in the 1880s recorded an extended jaunt into the upper West Fork of the Gila River. There he documented the presence of two species that were already in trouble, though in the case of the trout the Captain could hardly be expected to know it. But his first encounter was with the rare Merriam’s elk.

“The next day,” he wrote, “we went on to Elk Mountain and actually ran into the herd of elk. There were eleven head of them. From what I could see of them, they appeared to be all does or cow elk which I believe is more correct. This was the only bunch of wild elk I ever saw in New Mexico. A few years later they were all killed by prospectors and others. I never heard of any heads or antlers being preserved.

“From there we drifted over to the West Fork of the Gila where we camped for several days. It was there that we found use for our fishing tackle for it was swarming with mountain trout.”

French reports that they caught their dinner with “tackle” and using grasshoppers for bait (as Hemingway would do, famously, in another story) but he and his partner, Ed Erway, soon came up with a better plan.

“The water was very low and we herded them into a pool which was several feet deep. We then blocked the entrance, so they could not get out. They were so numerous we succeeded in scooping them out with our hats. It would have been more successful if we could only have kept them in our hats till we secured them. Most of them jumped out and finally most of the rocks were so slippery we both slipped into about five feet of water and got thoroughly soaked.”

Great sport, that! French could not know that within 15 years these isolate native gems would face the beginnings of a steady stocking by individuals and agencies of rainbow trout that would crossbreed and “genetically swamp” the native species to virtual extinction, and brown trout that would compete and dominate them at all levels. By the 1950s identifiable Gila trout were reduced to at best a half-dozen seminal streams and no more than 20 miles of water. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Gila National Forest, began a restoration program that wasn’t always popular but continues to this day.

Streams were closed to fishing as piscicides were used to eliminate non-native species and people complained about the loss of fish and angling opportunity. In the early 1990s advancing DNA analysis revealed that Gila trout thought to be 100 percent pure were tainted with a few degrees of rainbow gene introgression and had to go. Some anglers complained, including me; trout that for all the world looked and behaved like pure-strain Gilas were poisoned by the bucketful. Ash flows from forest fires wiped out entire streams to the dismay of all. But the agencies were persistent and by 2006 some sixty miles of stream had been “renovated” and the species was downlisted from Federally endangered to threatened, allowing the New Mexico State Game Commission to open a few streams to legal Gila trout fishing for the first time in decades. Subsequently, my friend Greg McReynolds and I journeyed to Black Canyon Creek to see if this “new” fish was worth all the fuss.

The day drizzled, the creek was low and clear, and at the first good pool we could see these yellow-flanked trout hiding beneath an undercut bank. Greg’s dry fly was ignored. Thinking them spooked, I nonetheless tossed in a beadhead nymph. As it drifted and sank a trout came casually out from cover and just as casually inhaled the fly. Once I tightened up he went nuts. Lacking the discrimination of the cagey brown, or the leap of the rainbow, he was nonetheless the hardest fighting trout for his size (about 11 inches) I can recall. As we battled, it was flashing those yellow-bronze flanks, decorated with tiny black speckles, in his lengthy, desperate, athletic attempt to shed the hook. In the end, I shed the hook for him; as he swam off I felt he had vindicated his race and fifty years of species renovation conducted by fits and starts. In the end we only caught about seven between us, up to 13 inches long, but each giving meaning and substance to the fly fisher’s ultimate quest for “wild trout.”

Problems remain. Over 20 miles of the upper West Fork of the Gila have been treated multiple times; this would bring Gila trout range in New Mexico close to 100 stream miles but getting all the non-native browns removed is still incomplete. Even after a successful renovation of a stream, a few rainbows often slip back in by hook or by crook and this can compromise the 100 percent purity standard of the Gila stock demanded by the agencies. We need about 150 miles of Gila trout stream habitat, including several Arizona streams, to achieve a delisting from “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act to full state management. It won’t be easy and there is no consensus among the public regarding either the methods or the goals.

Still, the Gila trout has earned some defenders now that a measure of legal fishing has been achieved. Overstocks of hatchery Gila trout are being released in The Forks area of the Gila, among other streams.  If you can “swamp” a species close to oblivion perhaps you can also “swamp” it back to prominence. These are “recreation” waters and you can keep the fish. “Recovery” streams, like Black Canyon above the barrier,  are strictly catch and release, artificials only, single barbless hooks, and you need to get the free Gila trout fishing permit. Check the current Fishing Proclamation for all the details as the rules can change year by year.

I was certainly impressed with the Gila trout as a game fish; they were born and raised for pursuit with a #12 Prince nymph and about a 4-weight rod. As for herding them into a pool and scooping them out with your hat, I’d suggest you confine that pursuit of these speckled beauties to a reading of Captain French and his Recollections!