The Gila River (pronounced "HEE-la") has its headwaters in the mountains north of Silver City, New Mexico. It once flowed for 650 miles to empty into the Colorado River at Yuma, and thereby into the Sea of Cortez. Unfortunately, this river no longer flows to the sea; all of the Gila River's water is extracted and used before it even reaches the mouth of the San Pedro.
The Gila River, for most of its length in Arizona, is dead. Its dry, parched riverbed stands as a monument to the shocking destruction of our precious American waterways over the last century. The lower Gila is sucked dry by the combined demands of regional farms and the thirsty city of Phoenix. It was once home to the rare fish species that once called the Colorado River home. Those fish are all gone now. Without year-round water, they all died out. Above Phoenix, the Gila is just a trickle, and is a dead corpse of a river all the way to Coolidge Dam. But the farther you go upstream, the more flowing water you will find, and above the San Carlos Reservoir there is just barely enough water to support life. By this time, you're almost in New Mexico.
Where does all that water go? Well, it's a complicated issue, but if you're trying to track down water wastage, you might be interested in the fact that the water-starved metro Phoenix area boasts 250 golf courses. Since the average American golf course uses 312,000 gallons of water per day, those 250 urban Phoenix courses alone waste 78 million gallons of water per day. That's 14 billion gallons of precious water, stolen annually from the river and dumped onto the ground, mostly to evaporate, so that sad old men can hit a little white ball around without getting sand in their shoes. Meanwhile, the native plants and animals of the drainage are going extinct for lack of water. It's a sad and pathetic world we live in.
Upstream of the San Carlos Reservoir, a real flowing river still exists. Though much smaller than it once was, the Gila can be fished from this point all the way to its headwaters. Unfortunately, few of the native desert fish remain in the lower portions; the fishery is mostly composed of bass, carp, and catfish, all introduced from sources to the east. A few Sonoran or Desert Suckers may be found, along with a barely surviving population of Roundtail Chub, but the hulking Razorbacks, thrilling Pikeminnows, flashy Machetes, Flannelmouth Suckers, River Mullets, and alien-looking Humpback Chubs became extinct long ago.
New Mexico is where this river gets interesting; here it is a perennial stream with real character. Despite some large agricultural withdrawals, the river supports a more abundant fish community that can provide good angling. Portions of the river flow through true desert wilderness, and the river is known to produce flathead and channel catfish of impressive size. In low water it is a very clear river, and sight-fishing for large carp is a challenging and thrilling possibility in the pools and flats - if you can stand the summer heat.
Things start to change upstream of this section, as the Gila tumbles its way out of the high, mountainous reaches of the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses, through a desolate canyon, and onto the cactus-dotted desert plains near Silver City. This is some of the most rugged, inaccessible territory in the lower 48 states, with a harsh, dry climate and huge swaths of nearly impassable terrain. The first officially recognized wilderness in the United States, this awe-inspiring expanse of wildland was the territory of the young Aldo Leopold, who went on to become the father of the modern conservation movement. Leopold was instrumental in the creation of protected wilderness areas in this country and around the world. Here, then, the Gila river exists much as it always has, untouched by the hand of man. Plenty of poisonous reptiles keep hikers on their toes. Mountain lions and wolves keep the deer and elk honest and wary. The river itself is divided here, into three major "forks" and countless tributaries, each confined to its own unique canyon, carved over millions of years. The habitat changes abrubtly from coldwater to coolwater to warmwater in a surprisingly short span.
Travel in this region is mainly on foot or horseback, although a long section of the river near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is accessible by car. Camping is plentiful. The scenery is amazing. Rock spires jut hundreds of feet into the air, and the cliffs are pocked with cave dwellings built by the mysterious cliff-dwellers who lived here long ago. Boiling hot springs form steaming pools on the banks. Being a wilderness with few amenities, it's a great area for the rugged individualist to get off the road and on the trail in a really beautiful place.
The "forks" of the Gila, in the Gila/Aldo Leopold Wilderness, is of central interest to the dedicated roughfisher, since there are four cool native fish species you could encounter: Sonoran Sucker, Desert Sucker, Gila Trout, and Headwater Chub. Unfortunately, this area recently suffered a series of catastrophic natural disasters that seriously compromised the fishing potential of the upper river.
Fire and Flood, a Deadly Combination
The Whitewater-Baldy Fire of 2012 was the largest forest fire in the history of New Mexico. It burned around 300,000 acres, some of them with an intensity that left nothing but ash behind. The fire itself left most of the fish alive - water doesn't burn, after all. So biologists were able to swoop in after the fire burned itself out and rescue the rare Gila Trout and Headwater Chub, moving some of them to hatcheries for protection. They needed to be protected from the deadly ash flows that could sweep down the river after the fire.
Throughout the rest of 2012, the ash flows were mainly restricted to the headwater areas. But in September of 2013, a massive deluge swamped the region, and a wall of ash-choked water 30 feet deep swept down the valleys of the Gila, carrying everything downstream - everything from trees, silt, and ash to boulders the size of washing machines.
Many of the trails along the river were destroyed, some of which have been used by people for over a thousand years.
By the end of October, the river had carved its way down through six feet of fine, silty ash deposits to expose the rock and rubble that it once flowed over. But by then, the fish were gone - killed by the toxic ash or fled downstream to some hidden refuge in the canyons of the lower river.
Obviously, as of this writing the fishing has been severely impacted. This description of the native fishes of the Gila River was compiled from pre-flood reports and surveys. It is hoped that within a few years, the forks area of the Gila can be restored to it's once-productive state, especially with regard to the native suckers, chubs, and Gila trout.
There were plenty of brown trout, rainbow trout, and smallmouth bass in the Gila forks, with more trout and fewer bass as you head upstream. You could also find some catfish, including channel cats and yellow bullhead. But these exotic species can be found elsewhere, so we'll concentrate on the exciting native desert fishes that are found right here and nowhere else.
Sonoran Sucker - Catostomus insignis
The biggest native fish in the Gila is the legendary Sonoran Sucker. It's a real brawler. This sleek, torpedo-shaped fish can reach a very respectable 26-inches in length and 8 pounds in weight. Local angler and author M. H. "Dutch" Salmon once wrote of the Sonoran Suckers of the Gila River:
The Sonora Sucker, regardless of his less than attractive mouth (shaped like the end of a garden hose) is for me a more interesting fish. A 20-incher is not unusual; my son, Bud, caught a 26-inch Sonoran Sucker in the summer of 2009. And despite the scavenging mouth this powerful native will chase down a deep, slow-drifting nymph, curl your rod, run your line, and fight you all the way to the bank. He's not protected but he's bony so, like the chub, you let him go.
M. H. "Dutch" Salmon, Flyfisher's Guide to New Mexico
We'll drink to that, Dutch. The Sonoran Suckers of the Gila Forks are the stars of the show as far as us roughfishers are concerned. An incredible, wild canyon filled with big, fast, challenging native fish. It doesn't get any better than that.
Desert Sucker - Catostomus clarkii
The second fish of interest is the Desert Sucker or Gila Mountain Sucker. This is a smaller species of sucker that prefers faster water. Unlike the free-roaming, pool-dwelling Sonoran Sucker, this fellow is more adapted to live in flowing riffles. They usually show a somewhat blotchy camoflauge pattern, with faint rows of lines on the upper portion of their body. This unusual fish has adapted to a niche similar to the one that hogsuckers occupy elsewhere in the United States. They have a wide, rock-scraping mouth and are specialized in feeding on small organisms and algae. They once occured in good numbers throughout the Gila Forks and it is hoped that they will repopulate the river in time.
Headwater Chub - Gila nigra
Closely related to the Roundtail Chub, the Headwater Chub has been a common incidental catch for the many fly anglers who ply this river for its exotic trout. Mainly an insectivore, the Headwater Chub is completely protected in New Mexico, so any caught must be promptly released unharmed. Chubs inhabit deep pool environments where cover, in the form of woody debris, rocks, and undercut banks, are prevalent. Males of this species sport bright red bellies in the spring spawning period. This is one of the species targeted during the "Blue-Ribbon Roundtail Chub" fishing season of Fossil Creek, AZ. Often called "Verde Trout", Headwater Chubs and their close relatives are rapidly gaining a robust following as a prime gamefish in many angling circles, mainly because of their gameness, accessibility, and uniqueness. The truth is, you can catch a trout almost anywhere on earth, but Roundtail and Headwater Chubs can only be caught here, in the great American Southwest. It's heartening to see healthy chub populations in the southwest; we only hope that similar progress can be made with the endangered Bonytails and Humpbacks. In the meantime, the more plentiful Headwater and Roundtail Chubs are more than enough to keep us occupied.
Gila Trout - Onchorhynchus gilae
The last fish of interest in the upper Gila is, inevitably, the Gila Trout. So much has been written about this fish (and trout in general) that it's hardly necessary for me to discuss it here, except to mention that it evolved alongside the previously mentioned three fish and they are all part of the same well-functioning native ecosystem. The native Gila Trout has survived in, or been restored to, several headwater streams in the region, where limited fishing is allowed during the summer. Ironically, the Gila Trout is better-adapted to warm water conditions than either the brown or the rainbow, so were it not for the exotic species, they might dominate the warmer parts of this river today. At any rate, several of the remote headwater streams were untouched by the fire and flood, so during the open season (which runs through Halloween) you can still strap on your boots and hike up into the mountains to fish for them. Main-stem Gila trout once reached lengths over 22 inches, although the headwater populations are composed of mostly small fish. Someday, perhaps, the invasive rainbow trout can be eradicated so that the Gila trout - and their sucker and chub friends - can return to their ancestral lies in the lower river.
Interestingly, an undescribed species of catfish called the "Chihuahua Catfish (Ictalurus sp.)" was frequently collected in the Gila's East Fork up until 2008 (according to the New Mexico Fish and Game Department). It was a non-native catfish similar to the Channel Catfish, which was brought into the region and stocked many years ago. It originated from rivers farther east (chiefly the Rio Grande). More recent surveys fail to report finding this fish, but since it looks so similar to the Channel Catfish, the Chihuahua Catfish could still be swimming in the deep pools of the lower Gila without being detected. Almost nothing is known about the biology of the Chihuahua Catfish. This chart might help you identify them if you happen to be in their area:
from Inland Fishes of the Greater Southwest: Chronicle of a Vanishing Biota By W. L. Minckley, Paul C. Marsh (University of Arizona Press 2009)
Good luck! If you fish the Gila in 2014 or later, please let us know what kind of fish you catch so we can update this account. It will be very interesting to watch this river recover in the years ahead.