My Mother-in-Law has a bucket list. She’s tickling 80 years young, and still works hard to check off items as she can. One of them is to go through the Panama Canal.
And that is how I found myself with over 2 weeks to fly solo. She invited my wife to join her (and she would pay for it), thus gifting me a great (if not the greatest) luxury of all- free time.
I’m loath to admit, but when these opportunities present themselves, I’m often prone to squandering the time. Perhaps it’s the enormity of knowing that for a moment, the world and all of its opportunities, can be mine. I succumb to sensory overload and tend to shut down with the gravity of possibility.
At least a little is owed to the fact that I really enjoy adventuring out with my wife at my side. So it was no surprise to me that even as I took her to the airport, I was already making excuses of chores and responsibilities that would keep me homebound during the her absence.
That same morning, while pouring my coffee, I watched our local news do a piece on America’s most endangered free flowing river, New Mexico’s own, the Gila. I knew of the river thanks to its heritage trout, the endangered Gila Trout. I quickly found myself googling the term for information. Surprisingly, there was very little, other than wild fires had not been kind to the watershed, and biologists were fervently working to reestablish populations. And one video of a cock gobbler holding a 17” Gila that he kept for the frying pan.
My next step in the pursuit of knowledge was to text Bruiser. Of all my buddies in the Land of Enchantment, he would know of locales and flies and wisdom. Imagine my shock to hear him say, “nope, I don’t really know much about it..”
Finally, I went to Harry, our local grand matriarch of guiding in New Mexico. A gentleman who’s reputation is known by more than a few, even here on Teh Suk, he above all would know the water.
“No, I’ve never bothered to fish down there,” he said, which left me wondering if the Gila wasn’t a unicorn of rivers. It looked “Trouty,” both in pictures and satellite imagery. How could two of the most learned in the State of New Mexico flyfishing world not know?
As sedentary musings pushed into my mind, and thoughts of half baked chores began to diminish my appetite for exploration, it was an ironic scene that nudged me off the couch and into the wild. Two heroin addicts had wandered into the park playground next to our place and began preparing their kits to shoot up. I flew across the street, screaming things that in my prior life would have seen me fired and prosecuted, things that were threatening and dark and that I was fully willing (and capable) of carrying out. They ran, as best as an addict can run, while I continued to yell until they blended into the current of urban flotsam on Route 66 in Albuquerque.
At that moment I knew I needed to leave, to find some peace, to put something back in the tank. 3 hours later, my trailer was packed up and rolling. I couldn’t even put food in the fridge as it hadn’t time to cool down.
By evening I was camped somewhere near Reserve, NM. I was at altitude and the sweet smell of pine blended perfectly with the subtle scents of juniper and sage. Other than an intermittent cry of a hawk , it was only my occasional sigh followed by the slow draw of a good IPA to break the silence. Sleep came early and in the peace of a deep forest canyon, I was surprised when almost 12 hours later I finally awoke.
I crossed the Gila that morning, though 50-60 miles down river from my intended area. It was lush, verdant, and flowing well. The cottonwoods were only just showing the pale green of new leaves, and the willows stood in stark relief with their rich, maroon branches. In the back of my mind, I was excited.
I took on supplies in Silver City. My fridge had cooled down enough and now required the appropriate accoutrements; beer, meat, cheese, and crackers. As a nod to my wife I added a couple of salads-in-a-bag, though they seemed uncomfortable in the company of my ‘monument to man’ provisions. With the food stores and gas tank topped off, I headed north into the wilderness.
Though only 43 miles north of civilization, NM 15 is barely a two lane road into the Gila Wilderness. A normal drive time would be 2 hours. Towing made it more than 3. And by the time I pulled into a deserted campground along the banks of the Gila, my brakes were smoked, my knuckles white, and my heart rate similar to when you hook into your first steelhead after years of trying... But the view from my campsite made it all worth the while..
I ventured out that afternoon, violating my hardfast rule of never fishing near a campground. But, the water looked so damn fishy and I needed to be standing in it. Or more accurately put, if Bob White were to paint what a perfect southwestern trout stream would be, it would be the Gila, vista after vista, after vista. Thoughts of willing browns & bows, and maybe, just maybe a Gila, filled my head. But nothing graced me that afternoon. Not a bump. Not a shadow.
That evening I made a fire and invited some van life folks from Oregon over for the camaraderie that can only come from that prehistoric need to gather around light and warmth. Beers were drank. Tales of the road were told. And I slowly found my rhythm amongst the waters and the vagabonds. Sleep came easy.
The next morning was overcast as I hiked my way downstream into canyons that, had I not known better, looked very similar to Central Oregon.
An aside, the Gila Trout is thought to be an isolated strain of Steelhead that became landlocked due to environmental and geological changes thousands of years ago. Looking at the waters, I could see how the river would have been perfect water for the ancient migratory beasts- long riffles spelled with azure holding pools cut impossibly deep into volcanic cliffs.
I decided to dredge the bottom of the pools, believing the trout would seek the coolest waters. It wasn’t long before my rod tip bent. Quickly, though, I realized it wouldn’t be a fish. More likely a small branch which, mercifully was coming up with my flies attached. Imagine my surprise when I found this rusted fella
I carried the horseshoe with me, being a believer of signs and all. The weather, the water, the isolation; it all added up to an epic day. Even the fresh tracks of a large mountain lion didn’t dampen my enthusiasm, though I did move my gun from my pack to my hip, just in case.
I fished the waters hard. I worked the zones, different depths, focusing on good drifts, and all for nothing. Not a bump, not a shadow.
I saw negligible midges coming off, and damn little life under the stones I turned over. Maybe, like their ancient chrome cousins, they’re the fish of a 1000 casts, and I only threw 999 times. My return to the campsite wasn’t the triumph I envisioned, but I felt good, content, maybe even peaceful, as the sun warmed the cliffs with its dying rays.
The next days, I made out for the West Fork and subsequently the Middle Fork of the Gila, spelled with early morning hikes amongst the Mogollon cliff dwellings and pictoglyphs.
One morning, at the end of the trail, I met a girl named Margaret who was asking the Ranger about flyfishing. I casually butted in with my lack of success to which she curtly replied “maybe your using the wrong flies....” Her comment didn’t bother me. It’s what I would expect any buddy to hit me with. She went up into the ruins, I went down into the river.
The waters up higher were still Bob White worthy as they gradually turned into freestone creeks, running with the slightly milky blue color that volcanic waters tend to produce. Everywhere you looked was the perfect trout lie. Bends, pools, pockets, riffles... I threw the kitchen sink at those waters. Not a bump. Not a shadow.
As afternoon monsoons threatened, I hastily made my way back to the trailer. I was a little surprised that not even a lowly Bow had found my fly, but at the same time, I was good. I heard the howls of a Mexican Gray Wolf. I saw Javelina as big as bears meandering in the river brush, and elk along a ridge line. A bald eagle flew above me, harassed by an osprey vying for the territory.
By the time I got back at the trailer, I saw a familiar person packing her lunch up from a picnic table. Margaret was back. She smiled at me and simply said “Sooooo?”
We chatted for a while. She’s getting a nursing degree up in Denver and wants to be a traveling nurse. She told me at 39 she’s realizing she needs to have a career after years of hiking, biking, and adventuring all over the planet. She apologized if she “put me off” with her original introductory comments, to which I explained I would not have expected less from those I’m good with. By the end of a conversation that lasted well beyond an hour, I resounded that if something (god forbid) were to ever happen to my wife and I, she would be the one I would go find. Fortunately for me, I found my “Margaret” over 30 years ago. She talked about wishing she had someone to share the journey with. I hope she finds him. I hope he appreciates her.
Night came early. The monsoons materialized with winds and rain, and skies that redefined the colors of gray and black. The temperature dropped and I knew a fire would be out of the realm for the evening. Safely ensconced in the trailer, I watched a black bear amble through the campground before disappearing into the river bed. I watched a couple of Continental Divide hikers pass through, heading north like migratory birds. I nursed a nice barrel aged stout, all the while contemplating my next stop.
There were no other visitors, human or otherwise, as darkness fell. And for a moment I felt like I had enough room to breath. I drifted off to the sound of rain on the trailer and dreams of trout unseen.
The next morning, under bluebird skies, I made my way out of the ancient caldera that is the Gila Wilderness. I had not touched a fish, much less seen one, in four days. But, my only catch, that rusted and worn horseshoe, reminded that being lucky depends on your outlook.
Back down in Silver City, I struck up a conversation at the gas pumps with a Fish & Wildlife Officer. He confirmed that the burns had hit the Gila pretty hard and I would have needed to have gone about 12-15 miles from the West Fork trailhead to see them.
Then, he looked around as if to see if anyone was eavesdropping. “If you’re willing to drive, I’ll give you a creek that’s loaded up with them. The water’s high right now, but if you can find a nice tail out, I can almost guarantee you find em. Maybe even first cast....”
I couldn’t leave quick enough. 2 hours later I started climbing into this...
And found this...
Many fine Gila’s came to hand in a short time. My hike out was hardly wearing as I bounced from boulder to boulder, anticipating a victory beer at the end. Another heritage trout C&R’d, to go alongside Golden’s, Lahontan, Rio Grandes, Westslopes, and others.
With any luck, by the time I’m 80, I’ll cross through the Panama Canal...
180 Degrees South