The amazing story of a threatened New Mexico native
trout come back from the ashes.
On December 1st, 2018 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish, Mora National Fish Hatchery and Gila/Rio Grande Trout Unlimited hosted a historic gala to celebrate the restoration of Gila trout to Whitewater Creek in Glenwood, New Mexico. 800 mature, catchable-size trout were released with the help of dozens of volunteers who arrived that day to assist with stocking.
I participated in the re-introduction hauling bucket-loads of Gila's, and afterward, successfully fly-fished for them. But before you accuse me of "chasing stocking trucks" I can tell you it was all legal-beagle and highly encouraged.
Within the Gila National Forest in the foothills of the gorgeous Mogollon Mountains, Whitewater Creek once held pure native Gila trout. Some say the Gila's had been extirpated from the creek about 70 years ago. With the Gila's nearly gone, introductions of rainbow and brown trout occurred. It was the worst thing that could have happened. The rainbows hybridized with Gila's and both rainbow and brown trout are known to feed on Gila trout fry.
"Gila trout were going the way of the dodo."
Luckily a relict, pure Gila trout population was discovered in Whiskey Creek - a tiny headwater tributary to the upper West Fork Gila River - in 1991. Rescued Whiskey Creek Gila's were taken to the Mora hatchery before post-wildfire rains could flood the creek with ash and debris and annihilate the population. At Mora they were reared with hopes of establishing brood stock who's offspring would be propagated in more suitable streams.
NOTE: The fish that were stocked in Whitewater Creek were Whiskey lineage Gila trout offspring.
Historically, conservation efforts in Gila National Forest began as early as the 1920's when the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish established the Jenks Cabin Hatchery on the White River and began raising Gila trout. Despite all efforts populations continued to decline. They were going the way of the dodo.
The Gila trout was originally recognized as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 and the designation continued under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973.
Ultimately it fell to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to save the Gila's. In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, New Mexico Game & Fish and several other agencies and partners, a Gila Trout Recovery Plan was issued in 1976 - an aggressive program to restore the trout. In a nut-shell the plan had three main objectives all used at Whitewater Creek:
- Remove the introduced trout. This involved applications of rotenone over a 2 year period. It was deemed the only way to guarantee the rainbow and brown trout were eliminated for good.
- Restore and repair riparian vegetation and trail access. This task fell to the U.S. Forest Service.
- Restock restored streams with young, pure Gila trout. Multiple stockings would be conducted as needed to ensure self-sustaining populations and they would come from the Mora National Fish Hatchery in northern New Mexico.
The ultimate goal: get Gila trout delisted, that is, off the ESA endangered species list and create more angling opportunities.
After years of work and progress that happened when Gila trout were down-listed to threatened status in 2006. Now with much less likelihood of extinction, a special ESA provision called a "4d rule" allowed limited sport-fishing on Whitewater Creek for the first time in nearly 65 years.
That's where I come in – GETTING THE WORD OUT, and the celebration gathering on December 1st provided the perfect opportunity. It was designed to do exactly that. I nearly ran to the gala.
Of course I had a personal agenda - to catch a Gila trout on fly. For me it was a once in a lifetime shot and it was a bullseye. I landed two Gila's legally on fly, both fish were in excess of 12-inches and in excellent condition.
Today on Whitewater Creek, fly fishing for native Gila trout is as doable as catching native brook trout in West Virginia. And in so doing fishermen can now experience the joy and journey of netting Southwestern gold. - WES
Whitewater Creek Notes
Fishing Season: Open year round
Accessibility: Excellent. The drive from Silver City to Glenwood is only 65 miles through some of the most beautiful territory southwest New Mexico has to offer.
Nearest Towns: Glenwood, Alma, Pleasanton
Nearest Campgrounds: Glenwood RV Park, Bighorn Campground
Nearest Lodging: Los Olmos Lodge
Nearest Fly Shop: None. Take your own gear
Other Attractions: The Catwalk National Recreation Trail, Gila Cliff Dwellings