Off to a rainy start
The hike started out relatively flat, traveling through a land of prickly pear cactus and scrub brush thickets, but before long we reached the ridge and started the long uphill climb. Given the terrain that we were hiking through, there was very little in the way of shade on the climb up the countless switchbacks to the top of he ridge. However around mid-day we made it to the "top" of the ridge, where pine trees seemed to have a little bit of a better hold and provided us with a little protection from the sun.
The Gila Wilderness Area
The "top" of the ridge was most definitely not the end of out uphill climb, as the trail wound along the backside of the ridge for several miles before beginning its decent into the canyon on the far side. The terrain up in the high country of the Mogollon Mountains made it easy to see why this region was designated as the first wilderness area in the nation. The combination of pine trees, cacti and rugged peaks made this some of the wildest country that I have ever encountered. The weather seemed to match the wild character of the land and where we were worrying about the unforgiving sun one minute, the boom of thunder in the distance gave us something else to worry about the next . As we rounded a bend a it became apparent that a thunderstorm was building in the distance and from what it looked like, we were heading straight into it. With a massive storm standing right in our path, we were a bit anxious to get to the creek, however the trail seemed to linger on the top of the ridge for much longer than what we had hoped.
Black clouds... A great sight when you are miles into the back country
Finally we reached the rim of the canyon and started our decent to the creek. It was quickly evident that this side of the peak received much more precipitation, as the cacti started fading away and pines and oaks dominated. A little over half way down to the bottom of the canyon the storm finally caught up with us, but only long enough for us to get all of our gear waterproofed before the sun took over again. However the clouds hanging overhead made it evident that this was just a short break from the rain and that we should get the move on. When we reached the creek, the sun was still out and we quickly scrambled to find a decent place to set up camp. The tent had probably only been up for about ten minutes when the main front of the storm hit us and the down pour started. While the storm raged we took refuge in the tent and I prepped the fishing gear for when things finally calmed down.
After a half an hour of rain, the sun finally won out again and this time it appeared that the worst had passed us by. As such we grabbed an early dinner, got the fishing gear ready and headed down to the creek. It became evident that we were in the right place, as after a quick scan of the creek, I had already spotted a couple dozen fish.
Can you spot the Gila trout??
With the high numbers of fish I wasn't too surprise to be rewarded with my first Gila trout on my first cast, or when my second cast was equally rewarding. All that I knew was that this was more then what I had been hoping for over the past six months of careful planning.
With good numbers of trout in the creek I had Derek cover the first stretch, while I headed a few hundred yards upstream to see if I could find any fish. Once again it didn't take long to find the fish as the creek seemed if anything to be slightly overpopulated with Gila trout ranging from 5" to 8". The water in the creek was fairly low and most of the pools seemed to be a bit shallower than expected making a stealthy approach difficult at times. While I wouldn't quite go as far as calling these fish overly spooky, they definitely were a bit on the cautious side and scarring the small fish that held in the shallow tailouts could put the larger fish at the head of a pool down or at least make them more difficult to catch. Before long Derek caught back up to me and we decided to just take turns fishing each pool as we headed upstream. Derek had no trouble getting into a few trout as we made our way up the creek, although all of the fish seemed to fall into the same size range.
Derek with a Gila Trout
I kept hoping that as we headed upstream we would run into a few deeper pools that might hold some larger trout, but the creek seemed to just maintain its character of pocket water and shallow pools. About 3/4 mile above our campsite we came across a log laying across the creek with a sizeable trout holding under it. I got a decent cast in just above the log and a nice 10" Gila trout cruised out from under the cover and grabbed my fly. I got a good hook up on the fish, but as I went to net him, he tossed my fly. While I wasn't happy about losing this fish I made a mental note that I would have to return to try for him again in the morning. We continued working our way upstream, catching Gilas in just about every likely looking spot before the sun finally started to sink behind the ridge line and it was time to head back.
Evening on the creek
We made it back to camp just before dark and grabbed a quick bite to eat before turning in for the night on what had been a long day of fishing and hiking.
Day 7: Monday September 7th 2009: We awoke in the morning to clear blue skies and a full day of exploring the canyon. After a quick breakfast, I had already made up my mind to head back upstream to get another shot at the 10" Gila that had managed to shake free. Derek decided that he wanted to check out the creek downstream of camp, so I started to make my way towards the spot where I lost the trout. Along the way I caught a few more Gilas in the 6-8" range, but nothing larger. Finally I arrived at the log and while I couldn't see any trout holding near it I knew that there had to be something there so I placed a cast right along the side of it and the "big" Gila came out and grabbed my fly again. I had him on for a couple of seconds before he got a good head shake or two and once again threw my fly. I was a bit frustrated at this point, but figured that he might have some neighbors and as it turned out I was right. While they weren't as big as the fish that I seemed to be unable to catch, I did manage to catch two trout at around 8" each, with one on my dry and the other taking my nymph dropper.
Not the big fish that I had hoped for but a none the less beautiful Gila
The creek near our campsite
After once again failing to catch the "big" Gila trout I decided to head back downstream to see what Derek was up to. I found Derek not to far from our campsite and he was pretty excited about a couple of deep pools that he had found not far downstream. About a quarter mile below our campsite the canyon walls closed in and sure enough formed a couple great looking about 10 foot deep pools that appeared to be loaded with trout.
The head of the upper pool - note the waterfall was about 8 feet tall.
Not only did these pools look like good fishing water, but they also looked perfectly suited for some swimming. Of course fishing would have to come first though. I started out fishing my dry and dropper system and caught a handful of fish, before I decided to try one of my favorite large pool/ beaver pond techniques of stripping a zug bug. This method proved to be just as effective as ever and on each cast about ten Gila trout would appear behind my fly and follow it for a ways before one got brave enough to race forward and grab it. The fishing in the pools was great, but the only problem was the both pools had nearly shear cliffs dropping into them making getting down to the edge of the water to land fish very difficult. In the upper pool the best option was to lift the fish into a small pool above the waterfall to land them, but there were a couple of spots that I could get down to the water if necessary. In the lower pool it was lift the fish over the falls or nothing. I fished the pools for about a half an hour and did manage to catch a couple of fish in the 10" range, but both of these fish proved to be a bit photo shy and got released a little quicker than planned.
After fishing it was time for a bit of swimming and just relaxing to recover from the long trek into the creek. We didn't get to spend nearly as much time at the pool as I would have liked though, as after about a half hour of swimming the not so distant rumbling sound of thunder caught our attention and we had to head back to camp to make sure everything was rain proofed.
A rain ready camp
We hung around camp for a couple of hours to make sure that the storm was going to pass us over before I decided that I could safely head back down to the pools. I started out using the zug bug again, but only the smaller fish seemed to take notice of this. As such I decided to switch tactics a bit and put on a size 8 Jumbo John, which should look like a bit more of a substantial meal to the bigger fish. Apparently it did, because on one of my first casts with it, two nice 12" Gilas raced out from under the rock ledge to grab my fly. One of the fish just barely out paced the other and absolutely crushed my fly. This fish fought rather hard for its size and put quite a bend in my 2wt. The only problem was landing him as this was the bottom pool and there was no option but lifting him over the falls. This fish didn't want any of this and with one good headshake when he was about half way up, he tossed the hook and disappeared back into the depths. I worked both pools with the Jumbo John for some time, but not matter what I did I couldn't get any of the bigger fish to take again.
As the sun started to fall a little lower in the sky I decided to head back up to the top pool and give a dry fly a try again. Upon arriving at the pool I spotted a decent 10" Gila holding on the bottom and sporadically rising to take something off the surface. The question was what fly should I go with. I first tried one of my old standbys, the Royal PMX but I had already harassed these fish with that fly plenty and they really didn't seem too interested. Next I tried a stimulator, BC Hopper, elk hair caddis and a few may fly patterns but only the smaller fish seemed to be willing to look at them. I looked through my fly box a few times and finally landed on a small beetle pattern that I had come up with about four years ago and never gotten around to testing out. I figured it was better late than never and tossed it in front of the 10"er and sure enough he slowly rose to sip it off the surface. I held off of a second before setting the hook and got a solid connection. The fish jumped a few times, but there were only so many places that he could try to run in the pool and soon he was ready to bring to the net. Unlike the lower pool there was a nice ledge along the water where I was able to land and photograph this Gila trout. I figured that at this point I had caught more than my fair share of these rare trout and as it was dinnertime anyways I headed back to camp.
An underwater Gila Trout
Day 8: Tuesday September 8th 2009: We awoke to clear skies in the morning and what looked like perfect weather for the hike out of the creek and after quickly breaking down camp, we were back on the trail. The hike out of the canyon was rather steep, but was much shorter than what the climb to the top of the ridge on the other side had been so we made pretty good timing. Once at the top of the ridge we noticed that like each of the previous days another thunderstorm was brewing over the mountains and with the way that the wind was blowing it was heading in our direction fairly fast.
With this thunderstorm on our heels, were in a bit of a hurry to get off of the ridge as we really didn't want to be caught in the middle of a storm with no shelter. Given our pace and the storm on our heels, it probably isn't to surprising that I wasn't paying as much attention to the trail as I should have been and almost made a fatal mistake. I was in front of Derek when all of a sudden I heard a rattling noise somewhere very close by. I could see that the route in front of me was clear, so I ran forward as fast as I could while Derek froze where he was. When I looked back I could see a huge rattlesnake of at least four feet long sitting within a foot or two of where I had just been. Derek gave the snake a wide breadth and after this close call we were a bit more cautious for the rest of the hike, although this would be our only encounter on the way out.
By the time that we reached the other side other side other ridge, it was evident that it was raining where we had been camping and was still headed our way. As such we were quite happy to beat the storm to the car a get on the road again.
After hitting the road made the six-hour drive to Sante Fe, NM where we grabbed some decent Mexican food and hotel for the night to recoup from the long hike and get ready to target the last fish of the trip the next day.