Photographer Kevin Cooley captures the light as it passes through a tree-rimmed alpine meadow. The sheer variety of flora–from wildflowers, to scrub oak, to generations-old ponderosa pine trees–gives the Gila country its unique aesthetic character within the New Mexico landscape. Kevin and his wife, Bridget Batch, covered the entire “Best Wild Places” tour; and they’ve created a stunning photo essay that captures the essence of these spots, to be featured in an upcoming print issue of Field & Stream.
As is often the case when covering stories in new places, the takeaway impressions often revolve as much around the people you meet along the way as they do the fish you catch and the sights you see. We had the honor of being led into the backcountry on day three by Dutch Salmon, a resident of the area since 1979, newspaper columnist, author of nine books, and an outdoorsman extraordinaire. Dutch marched us far upstream to show us an area few anglers experience. It’s hard to imagine anyone having equal passion for this wilderness as Dutch.
Greg McReynolds is Trout Unlimited’s New Mexico Program coordinator, and keeping road access limited throughout the Gila wilderness is one of that organization’s key initiatives. Fishing for trout is but one of McReynolds’ many outdoor passions; you might also check out his uniquely insightful and inspiring blog on dogs and upland bird hunting (with a Western slant), Mouthful of Feathers.
Garrett VeneKlasen drove several hours from northern New Mexico to take part in this tour. His day job involves sending anglers to wild and exotic places throughout the world (), but he is equally committed to protecting the pristine wild areas in his home state. Garrett is also an avid ATVer and big game hunter who insists the best opportunities (fishing and hunting) are found in areas where road traffic has been limited in recent years.
As such, we left our vehicles behind, and set out by foot a couple miles upstream on the West Fork of the Gila River. Unlike the first two days when the monsoon rains came early in the afternoons, we found a break in the stormy weather…long enough to march upstream for a few hours, and then methodically poke our way back downstream from run to run.
The bright skies, however, made for tricky conditions. On the first two days, cloud cover triggered caddis and mayfly hatches, and the fish seemed to be dispersed throughout the river. Wherever the water looked “fishy,” (deep with current breaks), a good cast usually brought a rise. On the third day, the fish clung tight to the banks and in the shadows, and we used small terrestrial flies with dropper nymphs to earn the bite. My go-to rig all day was a size #12 rubber-legged tan Stimulator, with a size #16 red Copper John trailed on 18 inches of 5X tippet from the hook shank of the dry fly.
There are two things that spook trout most on sunny days like this…shadows, and the sounds of boots splashing through the river. As such, we spent a lot of time scouting the runs and planning our casting approaches. Often times, we would spot a run we thought looked “juicy” 50 yards or so away, and then crept within casting range. When we charged right into a run, the fish wouldn’t eat…even if we made perfect casts.
Here, Garrett voices his frustration after having been refused by a decent brown trout. Browns, brook trout and rainbows have certainly become staple species that many fly fishers enjoy catching throughout the country. But the Gila Trout is the only true “native” species in this area. As such, organizations like Trout Unlimited, as well as New Mexico wildlife officials, are continuously tasked with balancing recreational angling opportunities with preserving native species in their habitat, wherever habitat makes those efforts feasible.
McReynolds casts toward the shady cover that held most of the trout. The only problem was, once you hooked a fish, keeping them from running into the branches without breaking you off on fine (5X or 6X) tippet was a challenge. Although we didn’t catch anything much more than a foot long on this day, these trout were sporty fighters in the relatively cool waters of the Gila River.
As is so often the cast, late afternoon and evening brought the best fishing opportunities, as the insect and trout activity accelerated as the sunset cast shadows from canyon walls.
But after a full day of wading under the hot New Mexico sun, we were good for only a few more fish before heading back to the comforts of the Wilderness Lodge and its natural hot pools.
Dutch and Greg (and their canine buddy) kick back on the porch of the lodge after a full day, and an amazing Gila Country adventure. As you can see, Greg was already hard at work, entering notes from the trip into his computer. I’m not entirely certain, but there’s a good chance I was already kicking back in the hot springs at this point.
We capped off the day with a mandatory screening of the classic “A River Runs Through It” for our fly fishing newbies–photographer Kevin Cooley and TU intern Dylan Looze. The way I see it, if you don’t get how fly fishing is a tradition and culture worth preserving after reading that novella (or watching the film), you might not get it at all. The same can be said for the amazing Gila Wilderness. It is a uniquely beautiful resource, certainly worth maintaining for future generations.
Editor-at-Large Kirk Deeter and photographer Kevin Cooley set out to explore the Gila Mountains of New Mexico, where Deeter hopes to fool a rare Gila trout. The duo is joined by Chris Hunt, Greg McReynolds, and Dylan Looze of Trout Unlimited, who have made incredible efforts to save the precious habitat that supports these elusive beauties of the high-mountain brooks. What begins as a fish quest becomes an eye-opening adventure for Deeter, who was pleasantly surprised by what he found in the outdoorsman’s oasis.