Gila Trout: More fishing than catching

Gary Giudice

Lifelong angling buddies, Ed Weber of Rochester, N.Y., and Gary Giudice from Norman, Okla., are fly fishing their way up the spine of the Rocky Mountains following mayfly hatches. They started in the White Mountains of Arizona and will end on the Bow River of Alberta, Canada. This blog follows their trip.

Photo gallery | Apache trout

PINOS ALTOS, N.M. — The great outdoor writer Ted Williams once said, "The Gila River is the only warm water trout fishery in America."

Ted may have been right. The smallish Gila trout have evolved to tolerate 80-degree water temperatures. Most trout start dying at 65 degrees. These almost did but not because of the water temperatures.

Ed and I walked three miles of the Gila, wet wading, and the water felt too warm for smallmouth bass much less trout. But the Gila trout were there. You just had to know what to do and where in the tiny little river to do it.

I didn't so I caught nada for my all hiking. To make matters worse, I dropped my Nikon in the skinny water so I couldn't even take pictures of what happens to be one of the most beautiful streams in the land.

Please, take my word for it though, it is a stream worthy of effort just to set beside and ponder things that need pondering. There is something very special about the Gila River. The only way to know is to be there.

Towering cliffs with ancient ruins of the Mimbres Indians were hanging overhead. Elk, deer and mountain lions roamed throughout the area. Just three weeks earlier a lion, maybe 200 yards from our camp, killed a guy and ate him.

Bad karma, so we kept a vigil eye to all the likely mountain lion haunts. We really didn't know what a lion haunt looked like so every tree, rock and bluff was suspect.

We saw no lions, but deer and elk were plentiful. Lots of birds and other wildlife were around every turn in the most crooked road I've ever traveled. North out of Silver City, N.M., Route 15 took us to the heart of the National Forest.

The Gila Mountains are very pretty, maybe National Park pretty. It is the land of Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife conservation.

But the Gilas have little water. More dry streams than wet and few of those are fishable. We were told that decent fishing was to be had but with a catch. It would be a two-day walk. Life is too short for that. We had many streams up the Rockies to fish, so no walking for miles and miles for two old, overweight fly fishermen just to catch some small fish.

We met a guy at our campground that might be one of the most genuinely nice guys left in the world. Woody Schmidt, and his dog Zia (named after the Zia Pueblo in Northern New Mexico and the Sun symbol in the state flag), told us about the mountains, the fish and a little history of the area. He's a local. An un-employed mining engineer, Woody is a happy man who would never go anywhere without his trusty lab.

We met him later for the best cup of coffee I've had in a while at the Internet Café in Silver City. There he introduced us to Rex Johnson, book author, math teacher and naturalist. Matt Wilson, another great guy and one who truly cares about things wild and free, joined us for a long conversation on the Gila trout.

It wasn't that long ago that the trout was on the Endangered Species List, and the poor little fish really isn't out of the woods yet.

While we were in the Gilas, a lightning fire threatened one of the streams, and some state and federal biologists were catching the trout out of the stream to hold them in tanks until the fire was put out.

The Gila trout are a jewel. Plenty of folks are looking out for them. Not to worry, too much. Many local people just don't understand the reason for saving something like this.

Once I heard that you can't tell a redneck the rules, so I guess we can't explain the whole native trout concept to these folks either. Woody, Rex and Matt share our sentiment. What great guys, the world needs more like them.

After several cups of great coffee and better conversation, the three took Ed and I fishing for Gila trout. Rex could not be a better guy to fish with in this country. He has written several books on fly-fishing, including one on fishing this area.

Between Matt and Rex, they knew the answer to all the questions we had about the Indians, the flora and fauna. Woody told us about the local character of the region. Wild country to be sure.

Matt knew a bunch about the Native Americans who once lived all over these mountains, the Mimbres. The all packed up and left about 800 years ago. Nobody knows why. I suspect they didn't have any better luck with Gila trout than we did.

We could not have fallen into a better crowd. Rex fishes well. He knows the Gila trout and how to catch them perhaps better than anyone around. The guy is a wealth of information. Good guy and good books. Google his name and find his books. Buy them all. You'll be glad you did.

As far as fishing for Gila trout in the Gila Mountains, small fish in small streams that are extremely tough to catch. Rex caught one. Ed caught a rainbow out of a spring hole and that was it for a day of fishing.

Short rods in three or four weights (too windy for a two and maybe even a three), small dark Wooly Buggers and 5x tippets are the order of the day. Casts are short; the river is only 10- to 20-feet wide. Look for deep holes at the tails of short runs.

The trout will lie up waiting for some easy chow, mostly minnows and chubs. There are no hatches! Bummer! What kind of trout won't eat dry flies?

If you are ever near Silver City down in the southern part of New Mexico, go by the Internet Café seven or eight o'clock any morning and look toward the back. Most likely Rex, Woody and Matt will be setting there swapping yarns and laughing like they are the happiest people on the planet. Perhaps they are. And please, tell them Ed and I said hey. We'd like to fish with them again one day.

Wonderful country, great people, plentiful wildlife and rich traditions going back thousands of years. But the fishing is mostly just that, with very little catching. Again, if the Gila trout is a fish you must catch before you are too old to try, this is the only place they have ever lived. Good luck. You'll need it.

Ed and I have had enough of this. Small fish, few and far between. Spit across streams. We are headed to big water with big trout, the fabled San Juan River up near the Four Corners.

A guy at the WalMart said the river has come down and the midges are hatching like crazy. Maybe he's right. If he's not, no big deal. We still have a month left in our trip.

Oh, so many rivers, so many fish!