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Pursuing the Gila Trout

Fly-fishing for trout in Gila National Forest

This is another contribution provided by my friend and fellow NVATU member, Daniel Lazenby, highlighting his continued adventures in pursuing the Western Native Trout Challenge. All photo credits belong to Daniel.

Last year my Idaho and Utah Western Native Trout Challenge (WNTC) attempt was called off on account of early winter in the mountains. For my 2023 WNTC attempt I would take the southern states route and follow spring into Utah and Idaho. On the southern route I would pass through New Mexico and Arizona. Both states participate in the WNTC, so I would stop to fish for their entries in the WNTC.

Several creeks and rivers in the Gila (pronounced Hee-la) National Forest are reported to hold Gila Trout. Our camp was between the two Gila National Forest creeks I had selected to fish.

Arriving at my preferred creek’s trail head, I began gearing up to fish. As I was heading out, a Forest Service trail maintenance crew pulled-in. I told them what I was doing and asked them about the characteristics of the two creeks I planned to fish. They said, one creek was mostly riffles and runs. The other had plunge pools, riffles, and runs. Hiking trails closely parallel each creek and in places the trail was the creek. According to the trail crew both creeks were running fast and a little high from unseasonably early thunderstorms. I chose to fish the creek I was on with its plunge pools, riffles, and runs. I had three days to catch a Gila Trout.

Each day I hiked upstream to where I could no longer find the trail, or any trail marker, and fished downstream. Nothing I offered interested a fish, not a dry, wet, dry-dropper, or nymph fly the first two days. The thunderstorms held off and the water continued to drop slowly.

On the third day I sat at my daily starting point pondering the water I had fished and what I had tried to no avail. It dawned on me I had not tried tightline nymphing. I improvised an indicator and re-rigged my rod for tight line nymphing with a euro style jig nymph. Working the depths of the plunge pool before me from top to bottom resulted in a strike and a missed-set.

Went to the next plunge pool. Repeated the same process and landed a Gila Trout. At the third plunge pool I landed one more trout. The fourth plunge pool produced another Gila Trout. I was feeling rather proud (almost cocky) for having figured out the secret recipe of success for this creek.

It was time to head back to the trail head. About a quarter mile from the trail head, the trail passed along a nearby boulder. The boulder’s downstream side overlooked a 13–14-foot drop to a plunge pool I had been admiring. The upstream side dropped six-feet to a shallow water gravel bar.

With my new found confidence I began fishing the slower water side of the plunge pool 13-feet below. With clear water all the way to the bottom of the pool, I expected my shadow crossing the pool would spook any fishing holding in the pool for a while. After about 8 or 9 casts into the pool two fish darted out from the shadows of a rock ledge. The faster one hit the jig so hard it set the hook on itself. Now I had a real dilemma. How was I going to get a fish so solidly hooked off the hook? Having dry hands, how was I going to release this fish with no harm? While I am thinking all of this, the fish is doing aerial cartwheels. Only one thing to do!

I reeled the fish 13-feet up to the net. Darted to the upstream side of the boulder. With the net in one hand and the rod in the other we slid down the boulder onto the upstream gravel bar and placed the net with fish in the water. The two of us took a short pause to recover from our boulder sliding adventure. We took a moment more for a photo op and then a quick sprint back into the creek’s main stem for the fish. Me, I am standing on the shallow water gravel bar watching it swim off and savoring our moment together. Of all the Gila Trout I caught this day; this one was the most beautiful of them all. I now had one more species for my Western Native Trout Challenge.

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