June 15, 2020
The trout were exactly where you would expect them to be—under cut banks, in plunge pools and behind rocks—but each one was special. Storm clouds came and went as I made my way upstream, catching Gila trout until I had used up the better part of an afternoon.
Then I headed back to the truck to look for a place to camp. It was a good day, one that comes back from time to time in dreamy bits of striking scenery and in memories of flashing yellow trout.
Gila trout have had a rough go of things as drought, wildfires and nonnative fish have all taken their toll, but in recent years the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) has restocked Whitewater Creek, Mineral Creek and other western New Mexico streams. Biologists are using a variety of tools to bring back the Gila—micro-chipped trout, helicopters, new hatchery techniques, DNA technology, packhorses and shoe leather—and their work is starting to pay dividends. It's possible to catch Gila trout and their eastern Arizona cousins, the Apache trout, in two or three days of fishing.
The best part about fishing for Gila trout is that they aren't too difficult to catch. Fly-fishers can catch Gila trout without consulting hatch charts and without technical rigs or special flies. The streams they are in tend to be small and at high elevation. Trout in these streams cannot afford to pass up opportunities to feed.
"The cool thing about those fish is even though the holes are deep, they come up for your dry and ignore the dropper," says guide Cinda Howard.
Gila trout are active spring, summer and fall. Fishing is good just before or after runoff, reports Ryder Paggen of the NMDGF.
Tactics for Gila trout are pretty straightforward: Look for fish in the deep water and plunge pools and under cut banks—anything that provides shade and protection, Paggen says.
This is small-stream fishing, where tight casts may be necessary, and a dead drift is a must. Small, light rigs are best—think ultra-light, three- or four-weight fly rods. During the summer you can leave the waders behind and wet wade. By late fall you can sleep in a little because the fish are not very active early. And you'll want to bring your waders.
The streams have mayflies, caddisflies and midges. Targeting the right water is usually more important than fly selection, Paggen notes, although small-to medium-size flies work best. Try an Adams, caddis or attractor pattern in the spring, progressing to ants and hoppers in late summer and into fall. Fish Woolly Buggers or streamers in plunge pools and deep holes.
GILA TROUT COUNTRY
Western New Mexico is remote, mountainous country, where history oozes from the hills—a land of stories of Apache raids, old graveyards and abandoned mining equipment. Although a lot has changed since the late 1800s, don't count on getting phone reception or buying a fishing license at the corner store. Your best bet is to purchase a license online at wildlife.state.nm.us Failing that, you can buy one in Silver City at Walmart. You'll need a Gila trout stamp as well, which is free.
Two roads lead north out of Silver City. One of those roads, State Route 15, takes you into Gila Wilderness, a major part of the Gila trout's historic range. The road doesn't look like much on the map, but it's twisty and windy and takes about two hours to drive. The road ends at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, and although there is a store, a few campgrounds as well as some dispersed camping, there is not much else—not even a gas station. This area is where three forks of the Gila River meet. State biologists stock the Three Forks area with Gila trout in the winter. The fish disperse when the water gets warmer, and "nobody is sure yet where they go," Paggen says.
About halfway up State Route 15 is Lake Roberts, where bait fishers can try their luck. The lake is occasionally stocked with a few Gila trout, rainbows, bass and catfish. The state has a fishing derby on Lake Roberts in the spring, and it usually drops a few retired brood-stock Gila trout into the lake, so big fish are possible. There is a 14-inch minimum, two-fish limit on bass, and a five-fish limit on trout. Boat restrictions apply: oars and electric motors only.
Gila trout are also stocked in Sapillo Creek, below the Route 15 bridge, during the cooler months. Public access and parking is tricky here.
"The only place to park is by the bridge," Paggen says.
The other road that heads north out of Silver City, U.S. Highway 180, takes you through western New Mexico. Most of this is private property, leaving you few opportunities for camping, but after about 90 minutes you'll come to the towns of Glenwood and Alma, as well as turnoffs for various trout streams. From there, the highway takes you into the eastern Arizona high country.
One of the easiest places to catch Gila trout is the Catwalk, a popular recreation area on Whitewater Creek, near Glenwood. The Catwalk is managed as "Christmas Chile Water," which means there is a two-trout limit. Conventional tackle is also permitted. The Catwalk has any number of places where scrambling over boulders and working around cliffs is required. It takes some physical ability to navigate.
You'll likely share the stream with hikers, who will make their way along the metal walkways above the stream. The Catwalk is located near Glenwood State Fish Hatchery, where the NMDGF plans to ramp up Gila trout production.
As you drive up U.S. 180, you'll find more fishing options. Anglers up for some sightseeing will want to turn onto State Route 159, which leads through the ghost town of Mogollon. The road out of Mogollon twists and turns, eventually leading to Willow Creek access points at Ben Lily and Willow Creek Campground areas. Getting there is a commitment. Note: Mogollon's shops and hotel are only open from mid May through mid October.
"Willow Creek's kind of your high-elevation, small-stream fishing," Paggan says. Most of the fish are small, but there are a lot of them, he says.
Another option is Mineral Creek, on the road to Cooney's Tomb. James Cooney, a soldier who rode with the 8th U.S. Cavalry, started a mine along Mineral Creek after he was discharged. One day he and another settler rode out to warn residents in Keller's Valley, known today as Alma, that the Apache leader Victorio and his warriors were approaching. They headed back to their cabins but never made it. You'll pass his grave on the way to the trailhead.
There are a number of opportunities for dispersed camping off U.S. 180, as well as a few campgrounds. By far the biggest town in the area is Silver City, about 65 miles away from the fishing. Alpine, Ariz., has a number of hotels and is also about 65 miles from the fishing.
One advantage to making your headquarters in Arizona is that there is plenty of fishing and a lot more public land for camping, both campgrounds and dispersed camping. Alpine is located near Luna Lake, known for its bragging-size rainbows in the spring. Springerville, another small Arizona community, is located near Becker Lake, a catch-and-release lake known for its big rainbows and tiger trout, which is a brook trout-brown trout hybrid.
Base-camping in or near Arizona will also give you a shot at a native-trout double. You can find Apache trout at Sheep's Crossing on the Little Colorado River and, in spring, Lee Valley Reservoir. The area has a number of places to target rainbows, browns and other species. Big Lake and Crescent are popular with bait fishers and fly-fishers. Boat rentals are available at Big Lake, and fat trout are possible. There are several campgrounds at Big Lake and showers are available.
Like their cousins, the Gila trout, Apache trout are not too picky. The primary food source for both species of fish are mayflies, caddisflies, midges and stoneflies in the bigger streams. The trick to catching Apaches is to avoid colder months.
The wide-open spaces of Arizona and New Mexico can make for long days on the road, but also for carefree afternoons of catching native yellow trout. The fish are there—all you have to do is get to them in the desert mountains.
PLAN A ROAD TRIP FOR GILA TROUT
Silver City, N.M., has a number of options for lodging and dining. Glenwood also has lodging options, including Los Olmos Lodge (losolmoslodge.com) and the Lariat Motel (lariatmotel.com).
The towns of Glenwood, Alma and Reserve have a few shops, hotels and restaurants, but not many. Alpine, in eastern Arizona, has a number or hotels and a restaurant, the Bear Wallow Café. In Alpine, try Escudilla Mountain Cabins (escudillamtncabins.com). In Springerville, try Reeds Lodge (k5reeds.com).
Dispersed camping is available throughout the Gila National Forest. Cosmic Campground, a Dark Sky campground with four telescope pads, is located about 8 miles north of Alma.
If you'd like to hire a guide, contact Cinda Howard of Fly Fish Arizona and Beyond or Ed's Fly Shop in Silver City (575-313-3137).
Before you go, consider picking up a copy of the Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas for New Mexico, Arizona and the Gila National Forest. Don't rely on cell phone service to navigate.