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Sightfishing

As a native trout nerd, it would be hard to live with myself if while I was on a trip to the White Mountains in Arizona I didn’t sneak off one day to chase Gila trout in New Mexico. We were planning on switching campgrounds anyway, might as well trek into New Mexico in the morning and see if we can chase down some Gilas first. New Mexico is the state I most associate with Gila trout, for Arizona it’s Apache trout.

Looking East off Hwy 180 south Luna, NM

It was about a two hour drive to get to a trailhead where we could hike along a stream that held Gila trout in it at some point upstream. Much like the Gila trout stream in Arizona, this creek was ephemeral, bone dry at the trailhead, so we’d be hiking until we made it to water that was suitable for trout to live in. The valley we drove into was very unassuming, even as we parked, but it didn’t take long during our hike for it to transform into one with spectacular scenery.

In about a quarter mile we entered into a narrow slot canyon with steep vertical walls composed of volcanic rock of many different colors, colors that I don’t typically associate with the rocks where I find trout, but not at all out of place in the desert southwest. It was an amazing landscape of sandstone and rock spires with a trickle of a creek running through it.

Our day was made just experiencing this canyon on our feet. Having a fly rod in hand was lagniappe. We made it to a point on the creek where small waterfalls cascaded into pools that were several feet deep; it started to look like good trout habitat. The water was crystal clear, some of the clearest water I’ve seen in a stream. Lots of small fish could be seen in each pool, not trout at first, but other smaller species, longfin dace being one of them as I’d come to later find out. It wasn’t long before the trout showed up as well.

We fished the pools we could with pretty good results, no shortage of fish brought to hand. The places that looked like they should hold trout did. We had a good time bouncing from one hole to the next. Eventually though the holes dried up and we had run into a couple of other anglers walking out that said as much. I didn’t realize we’d hit a dry run on the creek and I didn’t know how long it would last so we had to make a decision of whether it was time to hike out or keep going. We hiked up a little ways trying to find water again and all we found was a little pocket, but that pocket had about a dozen trout in it with some being noticeably bigger than what we had caught thus far. It was exciting watching Blake work a small streamer in the hole, dancing it around, especially when a bigger fish darted out from under the rock on the right and smashed it.

I pulled one out too and then we made our way back to the vehicle stopping to fish a few holes we passed on the way up.

You always hear “pictures don’t do it justice” and that line fit the bill here. It truly was an amazing experience hiking and fishing in this canyon and it’s still hard to wrap my head around the fact that these trout continue to persist in this fragile, arid ecosystem. Drought and wildfire will always be a threat to wipe out their existence and that’s just crazy to think about. It was time for Blake and I to head back to Arizona and find a new place to camp, hopefully on the water or at least close to where we’d access the next place I wanted to fish in the morning, which from everything I read promised to be the best wild trout river in the state of Arizona – how could we not fish there?!

The view southwest at the top of the Mogollon Rim

We made the trek east to the White Mountains and set up camp at a very clean campground with a very welcoming host. This site would be our home for the next two nights. Campgrounds out west are always inevitably better cared for than those we have back east. I’m inclined to believe it’s because the people who utilize the resource here actually respect it as opposed to just taking advantage of it, like they tend to do back home. We may be polite to each other in the South, but we’ve historically been terrible stewards of our environment and it’s a real bummer at times.

Joseph R. Tomelleri

After setting up camp we set out on a local creek to search for Apache trout before dark. The scene was a high alpine meadow with a little meandering creek full of cut banks, what I would consider to be the perfect habitat for high country trout.

As it tends to always work out Blake struck first, with an Apache who looked like he’d been hooked before. Fishing would prove to be slow though as we continued to work upstream.

Finally I had beaten the water enough to finally land the World’s smallest Apache. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I was happy to get the skunk off my back. We pressed on and eventually made it into the tree line with Blake catching a couple more fish, including a brook trout.

I generally plan trout trips out west with goals in mind and this one was no different. First and foremost I wanted to catch the native Gila and Apache trout. I didn’t know it would be when I planned the trip, but that one was kind of low hanging fruit as it was accomplished on our first day of fishing. The next goal I had in mind was to complete the Arizona Wild Trout Challenge. To do that we had to catch a wild Gila, Apache, brook, brown, and rainbow trout, so Blake was off to a great start.

We fished into the trees a bit, but as the light began to fade and it grew darker the further we got into that valley we decided it was time to head back to the vehicle. We stopped to fish a couple holes along the way and in one spot I was able to upgrade my Apache trout to something a little more respectable.

We didn’t catch many fish here, but the picturesque setting more than made up for it. We headed back to camp to ready to cook up some dinner and have a celebratory beer. The Apache trout here left me wanting more so we planned to target them again tomorrow and hopefully the fishing would pick up.

Thanks to Covid-19 I’ve been sitting on a planned trip to Arizona and New Mexico to fish for Apache and Gila trout for two years. That trip was finally realized by Blake and I over an extended Memorial Day weekend earlier this year.

Joseph R. Tomelleri

The benefit of having to wait so long to make the trip was the opening up of wild Gila trout fishing in Arizona on May 1st of this year. It had been a few years since one could legally fish on a wild Gila trout stream in the state, but there was one stream that was recovered enough that AZGFD decided they could open it up for angling. That’s where we started our trip.

We flew in late on a Friday and drove straight to where we’d fish in the morning, with a brief Wal-Mart run for supplies. We threw up a quick camp near where we’d start our hike in. The campsite location was not ideal, but it worked for us as we wanted to hit the trail early in hopes of being the first folks on the water. I knew this would be a tiny stream that wasn’t too far from a metropolitan area (Phoenix) and the only wild Gila trout water open in the state, so I wasn’t sure how crowded it would be over the first holiday weekend after opening. I was trying to make absolutely sure we weren’t fishing water that had already been flogged.

I was also a little nervous because I really didn’t know much about the stream. It was added to our itinerary kind of last minute as we just got word it was opening in May. I sought out some help and the info I got was pretty odd, it was basically to find the dry creek bed and walk up until you hit water, soon after you’ll find the trout. An ephemeral trout stream just doesn’t compute to me, but I trusted the local knowledge.

It’s an strange feeling walking up a dry creek bed to fish for trout, but my guess is it’s not that strange to the anglers who frequent Mogollon Rim streams in Arizona. Eventually we found water and soon enough there were pools deep enough to hold fish.

It didn’t take Blake long to connect with the biggest Gila of the morning. Mine wasn’t quite as long, but I caught my first Gila shortly after. It hit a beetle pattern that I fished the majority of the morning.

The fishing would continue to be pretty solid as we worked our way upstream, most of the good looking pools held fish, so lots of hungry little Gila trout were brought to hand, with all of mine coming on surface flies.

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I wasn’t sure what to expect fishing for Gila trout in Arizona, but our morning definitely exceeded what expectations I did have. As lunch time neared we hiked back to our campsite. We needed to pack up and drive three hours east to fish for what I wanted to target next. Our destination was the White Mountains and the native Apache trout that call the streams there home.