By James Garrettson, Owner/Operator of About Trout
There I was. Alone, deep in the Gila wilderness. The cry of a wolf cut through the silence. My blood ran cold as the hair stood up on the back of my neck. In an instant, I was surrounded.
Okay, that never happened, but I did get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, which is basically the same thing.
Why was I in the middle of nowhere getting flat tires and daydreaming about a bizzaro Southwestern sequel to “The Grey”? Good question. After securing a 3-day hall pass from the alpha female of my pack, I embarked on a mission to catch two of the Southwest's most iconic trout; the gila and the apache.
When I was 12, my parents dragged me along to a dinner party at my neighbor’s house, the same neighbor that taught me how to fly cast. Obviously, a 12 year old isn’t going to be sitting around discussing HOA violations and Crazy Steve’s poor taste in lawn statues. I quickly found James Prosek’s “Trout: An Illustrated History” on a bookshelf and learned about two trout species I had never heard of, the Gila and the Apache trout. Growing up on the East Coast, catching these prized species seemed like a world away. When I moved to New Mexico, this childhood dream became a real possibility.
Every year I would try to plan a trip, but with my guide season usually picking up steam in May, the trout of the Southwest would have to wait. Then 2020 happened, and all of a sudden I had lots of free time, shout-out Covid-19. With an open calendar and a hall pass secured, I drove seven hours south from my home in Chama, NM to the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico.
What is a Gila trout? Gila trout are some of the rarest trout in the world, found only in New Mexico and Arizona in the Gila, San Francisco and Verde river basins. Descended from rainbow trout that managed to get stuck up in the Gila and White mountains, Gila trout were almost extinct by 1950. By the time conservation efforts had started, they lived in only 4 streams in New Mexico. In fact, you couldn’t even fish for Gila trout in 2002, when 12 year old me learned about their existence. By 2006 fishing for them was allowed in NM. Game on.
Over the border in Arizona lives another rare species, the Apache trout. Thought to be a descendant of Gila trout, Apache are only found within the borders of Arizona in the White, Black, and Little Colorado rivers. Apache trout once called 600 miles of streams home, but by the 1960s their range was reduced to just 30 miles, due to competition, hybridization with non-native trout species, and poor environmental practices.
If I was going to drive seven hours to southwest New Mexico, I figured I might as well drive another hour and a half to knock them both off the list. My friend, code name: Morpheus, got me plugged in to the Arizona trout fishing matrix and shared the location of the creek along with topo maps. After uploading the information to my brain, a la Keanu Reeves, I quickly realized the Gila trout was going to be the tougher of the two hikes.
Day One: Gila Trout
After a charming night stay in Chateau de Subaru (it’s super exclusive, don’t think you guys could afford it) I drove to the trailhead that at this point I had only seen on a GPS screen. Upon stepping out of the car and seeing the trail for the first time, I decided to get back in my car and move to a creek with drive-in access.
Zero Gila trout and a flat tire later things were looking the opposite of good. Luckily the flat tire was remedied by a good samaritan with an air compressor and a tire plug, thanks Sam! Pro-tip: carry a compressor and a tire plug. Time for Plan B: the other hike I had pinned. What looked like an easy 1.67 mile jaunt turned into a grueling 1100 foot vertical descent down a steep canyon. It was all worth it! Within minutes of reaching the creek at the bottom, I had successfully landed a wild Gila trout, completing a childhood dream. Pound it. With the hike out looming over my head, I fished for an hour and a half enjoying the small stream fishing before an arduous ascent. Fast forward: hike out, get in car, call wife, drive to Arizona.
Day Two: Apache Trout
Following the guidance of Morpheus, I arrived streamside and chuckled to myself. The six foot vertical descent to the creek was a much welcome break for my aching (dad-bod) body. In no time I had landed my first Apache trout. Mission accomplished. The journey had come to an end and it was everything I had hoped it would be. 12 year old me would be very proud knowing that the watercolor images he saw in James Prosek’s book would become a Tableau Vivant 18 years later.
I want to thank the alpha female of my wolf pack to help make my childhood dream come true. The trout are not pretentious and I literally fished three dry flies over the course of the two days. The fishing for Gila and Apache trout can be described as... 1. Identify likely holding spot, 2. Cast dry fly, 3. Trout eats it. A perfect situation.
Fishing small streams for native trout is an experience I hope all anglers get to enjoy. It seems that in a social media saturated world, few things are what they are. This is fly fishing in its most simple and pure form. The journey is the destination, and I hope this has inspired those reading to see what Gila and Apache trout are all about.
About the Author: James Garrettson is a Husband, Father and full-time fly fishing guide in Chama, New Mexico. His company, About Trout, operates in and around the Chama Valley and on the world famous San Juan River. James loves sharing his passion for fly fishing with new and experienced anglers alike.