Conservation | Fishing | Science | Travel | TROUT Magazine

Gila Trout Burning

The following is an excerpt from Fishing Through the Apocalypse, by Matthew L. Miller and published by Lyons Press. The book is available online and in retailers.

The last time I’d set foot in Gila National Forest, my quest had proved futile.  My dad and I had joined my cousin David and Uncle Bill to hunt for javelina, the small, pig-like hoofed mammals that aren’t really pigs. When we pulled into our cabin, the manager came out to greet us and show us around. 

“I don’t want anyone shooting around the ranch, because I still keep livestock,” she said. “But there are some good spots not too far away for quail or deer.” 

“We’re hunting javelinas,” I said. 

“Oh, in that case, you can hunt around the ranch as much as you want,” she said. 

I at first took that to mean she had a dislike of javelinas. I later realized it was because she recognized we wouldn’t be shooting. The next morning, hunting an area suggested by one of my cousin’s friends, I ran into a birder, who told me he had been coming to this spot for 18 years, and had never seen a javelina. By day two, it became apparent that the nearest javelina likely resided 50 miles away. By day three, all involved realized the probability of finding a javelina was more or less the same as finding Bigfoot. It’s often said that you don’t have to get anything to have a good time hunting or fishing. This is true, but of course an important disclaimer is that it sure helps to at least have a chance of getting something. Nonetheless, we played gin rummy, visited cliff dwellings and made the best of it.  

I hoped for better luck this time around, when I came to catch the native Gila trout. Initial signs weren’t necessarily promising. At one of those conservation fundraising banquets, I had bid on a trip to fish for Gila trout in Arizona, just across the border from my failed javelina hunt.. It wasn’t a guided trip; organizational members took you out for an experience in their backyards. 

When I won the trip, it took me several weeks of emails and phone messages just to reach the person who would take me fishing. It turned out that others had volunteered him, and he seemed confused by my request. The trip was scheduled for summer, but he said that was not a good time for native trout fishing. He would be available in March, if I didn’t mind camping in snow drifts. I didn’t, although that seemed an odd time for Gila trout. I inquired about this. 

“The one stream in Arizona with Gila trout is closed to fishing, due to fires,” he said.  

I let the organization keep the bid as a donation but canceled the trip. As I researched Gila trout, online sources seemed contradictory and discouraging. This native trout had been reintroduced to a number of streams and rivers in the Gila National Forest, but a series of forest fires had wiped out much of the recovery effort. Many written accounts ended with the angler not catching fish.  

Then Jason Amaro, the New Mexico representative for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, suggested I meet him at a creek that he assured me had good fishing for Gilas in the summer. I signed on. On a warm August evening, I drove into Reserve, New Mexico, with a billboard greeting me that read, “BEWARE–DANGER. Free Roaming Wolves. Protect Your Children & Your Pets.” It featured gory photos of a ripped-up and very dead calf, and a hound with shredded ears.  

Reserve is located in Catron County, the largest county in New Mexico with its third-lowest population. It is often noted for its county ordinance suggesting that every household contain a firearm, a minor ordinance that is often misrepresented in the press trying to portray this community as a last bastion of gunslingers. Nonetheless, the small main street had a distinctly Old West feel including a prominent statue of a gunfighter, pistol drawn.  

I pulled into a little diner and was promptly served two burritos in a searing red chile sauce. The waitress had a raspy smoker’s voice and assured me this was the best burrito in Catron County. When I asked for directions to my hotel, located a few miles outside town, she admitted she had only lived in Reserve a few months. 

“I came here to get away from a bad situation,” she said. “And you can never get too far away from a bad situation, but this is pretty darn close.” 

Even this far, even in the nearby wilderness that Aldo Leopold made famous, non-native trout had replaced the natives. A considerable effort to replace the exotics with Gila trout was underway, but it seemed that it kept hitting obstacles.   

The next morning, I drove out of Reserve, and wondered if I’d find the fish. I quickly entered the national forest, and despite the stunning scenery, felt an uncharacteristic gloom. This became even more pronounced when I followed my GPS up a mountain road that looked little more than 2 tracks cut in rocks. As I bottomed out and drove over jagged boulders, I wondered if my Gila trout trip might end right there. How many times had I ridiculed people who trusted their GPS over common sense? I got to the top of mountain and saw three elk guides, scouting with scopes. They had driven up in ATV’s. 

“You brought that up here?” one asked.  

“It’s a rental car,” I replied. The three guides glanced at each other.  

I asked for directions to my campground meeting spot, and one replied, “There’s a nice gravel road all the way in. You chose the worst road in this county. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is a big county, with a lot of bad roads.” 

I asked what my prognosis was for getting off the mountain with rental car more or less intact. “You made it this far,” one replied. “I don’t think much of anything from here on out is going to give you much trouble.” 

The downhill descent proved relatively smooth. Coming off the mountain with only a small chip in the windshield seemed a minor victory. I drove on to the campsite where Amaro suggested meeting. He texted me a few nights before that he might be running late, and to just start fishing without him. “Just look for a short, round Mexican,” he wrote. I saw no one fitting that description, so decided to start hiking. I knew biologists had successfully removed all rainbow and brown trout from this stretch of stream, but I suspected the Gilas were only in the headwaters. Most Gila trout trip reports involve lengthy backcountry hikes, if not horseback rides.  

A guy saddling a horse in the parking lot changed my plans. “You fishing for those Gila trout?” he asked, looking at my fly rod.  

 I nodded and asked him how long a hike I needed to make.  

“Oh, just head down the hill here, and start fishing in the big hole. Right here in the campground. You’ll catch all you want,” he said. 

I thanked him and carried my little 3-weight to the stream. It’s rare that I’ve found good fishing adjacent to popular camp sites. I made a couple of casts as soon as I got to the stream, but the habitat didn’t look promising. I bush-whacked through thick streamside vegetation and came to a deep but narrow hole. I cast, mended and rolled out another loop of line.  

My dry fly floated on the surface, and suddenly a little trout darted out of the depths and smacked it. It darted back down, sans fly, but I smiled. Could it really be that easy? 

Yes. The next cast, I had my first Gila trout on, a lovely, golden little thing, reminiscent of a rainbow trout that spent too much time in a tanning parlor. Then I caught three more out of the same hole. There would be no suspense, no drama, no quixotic quest. The way, really, native trout fishing should be.  

# # #  

Like native cutthroat trout, Gila trout were hit hard by non-native fish introductions; rainbow trout hybridize readily with Gilas. By the 1950s, Gila trout existed in only five New Mexico streams, all in remote wilderness areas. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department had recognized the fish’s plight even before that, and had stopped stocking non-native trout in Gila trout waters, and had prohibited fishing for Gilas.  

The trout made the first listing of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973, launching further efforts to protect and restore the fish. But the fact that you couldn’t fish for Gila trout made angler support tough to come by. 

“We would remove non-native trout and reintroduce Gila trout, and we’d have to close the stream to all fishing,” says Jill Wick, Gila trout biologist for the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game. “The public simply saw this as losing a place to go fishing.” 

In 2006, enough progress had been made in Gila trout recovery to upgrade the species to Threatened status. This initiated the Gila Trout Recovery Plan, that laid out specific goals for restoration. A state-of-the-art hatchery bred fish to survive in wild conditions, and breeding was carefully conducted to promote genetic diversity. The lineages of the trout from each of the remaining streams with pure Gila trout have been preserved.  

An equally important part of the plan was that it allowed recreational angling. Most streams were Gila trout were reintroduced were off limits to angling, but select streams did allow fishing. Excess hatchery fish were also stocked in lakes and less-pristine streams, allowing for a put-and-take fishery. Now Gila trout were not an off-limits endangered species; they were something you could catch. 

“Recreational angling has become a really important part of the conservation and recovery program,” says Wick. “We can rally a lot of support for Gila trout.” 

Gila trout became established in 18 streams, but then calamity arrived in another form: fire. In 2012, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire became the largest fire in New Mexico history, burning 300,000 acres of forest. The fires occurred just before the annual monsoon rains, which put out the fire but also sent a thick layer of ash into streams, literally choking all fish in them.  

Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, of course, but decades of fire suppression and climate change has changed the pattern and intensity of fires. Gila trout, also were found in many more streams. “Historically, even if a fire had burned and wiped out trout in a stream, other trout would have just moved in from another stream,” says Wick. “Now, we don’t have that connectivity.” 

Six of the eighteen streams with Gila trout lost all their fish. In some streams, Gila trout were evacuated to preserve their genetics. Prior to the fire, the Gila trout recovery effort had rightly been hailed as a stunning success. But the quick loss of so many trout populations cast a damper. The uncertainty of climate change – with the potential for changes to fire cycles, precipitation levels and water temperatures – makes the future for Gila trout far from certain. 

But as bad as the Whitewater-Baldy Fire was, there were silver linings. I was benefiting from one of those, on Willow Creek. 

#  # #  

I continued fishing, catching fish out of each deep pool I encountered. I admit I was lost in the reverie of dry fly fishing at its finest when I heard a whoop. I looked up and saw an energetic man bounding towards me. Jason Amaro. 

“I see you didn’t have trouble catching fish,” says Amaro. “And I bet you want to catch a few more. Let’s meet at the parking lot in an hour or so.” 

I continued fishing, catching a few more trout, and then made my way to our meeting spot. Amaro suggested we walk downstream to see the reason for this stellar fishing. We walked a little footpath, until suddenly a large, cement dam appeared in the middle of the stream. It looked brand new, blocky, imposing. In the midst of all this wildness, it felt like an intrusion, but looks can be deceiving. 

Willow Creek did not have Gila trout when the Whitewater-Baldy Fire hit. It contained a population of brown trout, that outcompete and even eat Gila trout. After the fire, the toxic ash wiped the stream clear of brown trout. Repeated electrofishing efforts failed to turn up any fish. The fire, essentially, had cleared Willow Creek for a native fish recovery. 

The one problem was that Willow Creek, like any creek, is connected to other waters – waters that still had non-native fish. So conservationists installed a barrier making the upstream inaccessible to non-native fish. The same features that make dams so hated by fish conservationists, in this case, became the dam’s selling point. 

The barrier was installed and Gila trout were stocked upstream. They thrived. “If the fish have just a bit of structure, a bit of food, they thrive,” says Amaro. “The habitat is here. After we introduced the fish, they were spawning the next year.” 

The stream was soon open to fishing, making it one of the most accessible Gila trout streams. “Not everyone can’t go deep into the wilderness,” says Amaro. “You don’t need to take a horseback trip to catch this fish. It isn’t just a mythical fish off limits to all but the hardiest anglers. You can catch one, right here.” 

And that’s been a part of Amaro’s mission, one shared by others passionate about Gila trout conservation: to introduce anglers to the fish. The New Mexico Department of Fish and Game offers excellent resources pointing anglers to streams where they can fish. They recognize that keeping Gila trout locations carefully guarded secrets does not ultimately help the fish. 

“I don’t even fish for them anymore,” says Amaro. “I just bring people here to share the experience. I take a sense of ownership. And I don’t see any way to recovery without support from sportsmen.” 

I cast out a fly below the dam, but didn’t have any takes. Amaro, meanwhile, pulled out sandwiches with all the fixings, chips and sodas for a streamside lunch. I commented on the oddity of enjoying a lunch in such a wild space by a concrete structure. 

“The wilderness is why we still have Gila trout,” Amaro said. “It can also make some of the management difficult. You can’t use motors in the wilderness. It’s difficult to access. But if we’re going to save this fish, we’re going to have to accept some active management.” 

After lunch, I headed back up river. I made my way through some willows, and found a deep hole I hadn’t previously fished. The tight cover met I could basically just dap my fly down into the water, but an eager Gila trout immediately engulfed it. 

Was the experience altered for their being a cement dam a half mile downstream? Did it make this native trout fishing any less fulfilling? 

It struck me that I was in the wilderness that helped shape the philosophy of one of my heroes, Aldo Leopold. Like so many conservationists, I read his words young, I read them often, I quoted them and pondered them. He recognized the need for civilized people to have wild country. One of his most quoted lines is, “’What avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” 

Perhaps never are those blank spots so important, so valuable. Places where people can get lost, where wild things can survive without their every move monitored, are likely necessary for our collective sanity. But we can’t let purity standards for wilderness wipe out the wild. 

A lot of wilderness advocates I know bristle at the ideas of so-called eco-modernists, who believe that wilderness is nothing but a construct, and that all of the earth is impacted by humanity, and we better start behaving that way. Prominent eco-modernist Emma Marris has come under fire from environmentalists for suggesting that the earth be approached like a garden, (a rambunctious garden, as her book is titled), with humans tending the entirety of the planet. This prompted conservation biologist Edward O. Wilson to ask, “Where do you plant that white flag you’re carrying?” 

I don’t want every acre of every wild place to be monitored, managed, documented and measured. Nor do I want every wild creature to be radio-tagged, tracked and patrolled. It’s a depressing future. 

But what about these Gila trout? Is a cement barrier that big a price to pay to restore the native inhabitants to the stream? Isn’t Willow Creek more natural now, overall, than if it only contained European brown trout? 

The lines become blurry, but I’ll take the native fish. I want there to be as little human influence as possible in the Gila wildernesses, but we’re going to have to make decisions: based on fires, on climate change, on non-native species. A hands-off approach will not save the wilderness from humanity. And we certainly wouldn’t have Gila trout. 

I cast again, and immediately hook up with another feisty little fish. I take heart that they’re still here. The ill-conceived fish stocking of the past and a hellish fire ultimately proved no match for the ingenuity and dedication of people like Jason Amaro and Jill Wick. 

I sneaked along the stream, coming to a deep side pocket shaded by vegetation. I made a lousy cast, and gently pulled my fly back to prepare for a roll cast. As I did, I saw at least three Gila trout swirl around it on the surface. Such abundance…as if this place was untouched, as if these fish had never left. 

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization. He is editor and lead writer the popular Cool Green Science blog and is one of the most prolific writers in the organization’s 65-year history. He has traveled across North America and to five continents to cover stories on science, nature and outdoor recreation. He’s worked for the Conservancy for 17 years, previously serving as communications director for the Idaho program. Matt received a degree in English – Creative Writing from Penn State, where he also worked as a publicity writer early in his career. He is an avid angler, hunter and naturalist, and lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and young son.