I caught my first Gila trout just a couple years back during the TU/Field and Stream Best
Wild Places tour. Physically, it wasn’t much to write home about … maybe 10 inches long and, honestly, a pretty “plain” looking trout.
But emotionally, it was one of my favorite fly fishing moments of my life. Only a few years earlier, the feds and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department allowed catch-and-release fishing for Gilas in parts of their native range–at one time, the fish had become so rare that there were legitimate worries that it would eventually go extinct.
Then, as efforts to protect the few remaining existing populations were coupled with aggressive reintroduction efforts, Gila trout rebounded. When it “came off the list,” catching a Gila trout moved to the top of my list.
So, when I finally brought my first Gila to hand a couple of years ago in the backcountry of southern New Mexico, I was thrilled. I took joy in the brief, but spirited, fight, and when I finally brought it in, I cradled it like a Fabergé egg. It was a very special moment for me.
This summer, the Gila’s native range is on fire. Some of the drainages where Gilas have been reintroduced have burned, and the fish in the streams slicing through the charred country are likely dead. What’s more, because the fires that burned through the West Fork of the Gila River drainage were so hot and so intense (the fire has torched about 300,000 acres in total), it may be decades before the land recovers enough to support another try at restoring Gila trout to those waters.
As the New Mexico Council of TU noted in a recent blog post, the blow to the Gila recovery efforts is “devastating.”
Thankfully, many on the Gila Trout Recovery Team saw the writing on the wall. Some Gilas from the drainages that are now burned over–and likely prone to flash flood events once the monsoons arrive any day now–were captured and temporarily relocated to other waters. This happened as the fires were closing in.
As someone who appreciates the work these folks have done over the last several decades, all I can say is, “thank you.”
And now, for the big picture. Much of the West is ablaze as you read these words. While the loss of these Gila trout in the arid southwest is certainly a tragedy, it’s likely these won’t be the only fisheries adversely affected by fire this summer.
There’s no telling what we might find once this very literal firestorm passes–I suspect other trout fisheries will be lost, others will be seriously hit and, miraculously, some will escape intact.
This summer’s record heat and record-setting fires, though, are proof that the habitat work Trout Unlimited does all over the country is important to the long-term survival of trout–and trout fishing–in America. As we work to protect intact trout and salmon habitat, reconnect rivers with their spawning and rearing tributaries, restore degraded habitat and sustain these efforts through the work of tireless volunteers, it’s more evident today than ever before that our work is paying off.
Ask yourself one question: If we hadn’t undertaken such extraordinary efforts to rebuild Gila trout populations in their native range, would we be describing a “devastating” blow to the fish’s populations today? Or would we be mourning the extinction of an iconic fish that once called southern New Mexico and Arizona home?
We may never know, but I suspect it would be the latter. It’s all the more reason to continue the work we’ve started. In the face of a changing climate, the more we can do to protect high-quality habitat and reconnect it to mainstem rivers, the better the chances for trout. The more we can work to restore damaged watersheds and find ways to keep water in streams and rivers, the more likely our coldwater fisheries will be able to handle the challenges being thrown at them by extreme weather events and fires.
Here’s the message. We’re not just preparing our fish for the future … we’re ensuring that, years from now, our kids will be able to fish for trout, just like we do today.
So, while I’m devastated at the loss these fires have inflicted on Gila trout, I’m heartened to know that, because of the work we’ve done, the policies we’ve changed and the lands we’ve protected, we still have Gila trout.
Thanks again to all the volunteers who helped restore Gilas in the first place. These fires, while heartbreaking, are proof that their work has value. More value than even … a Fabergé egg.