New Mexico Outdoor
Roughing It In Luxury-Abiquiu, New Mexico 505.901.7321
First let me say that southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range is not a fishing destination. Even though it is close to 100 miles long, and the ridge line runs between 8500 and 10,000 feet for about 40 of those miles, there are only six small streams that contain populations of trout. Of these, only three are open to fishing and one of these, Upper Black Canyon, has only this year opened to angling, and then only three months a year (July 1st-October 31st). Still, its unique position straddling the Continental Divide makes it the only range in the state where one can fish for two of New Mexico’s native trout species, Gila trout and the Rio Grande cutthroat, if not in the same day, at least in the same backpacking trip. I say backpacking, because one of the streams, the Holden Prong of Las Animas Creek (where the cutthroats are found), is so remote it can’t be considered a day angling destination. Black Canyon, home to pure-strain, wild Gila trout, is more accessible. Depending on flows and water temperatures, there is the possibility of being able to cast within minutes of leaving the truck.
The first time I visited Las Animas/ Holden Prong, I was in a panic over what I thought was the imminent removal of the cutthroats for a more genetically pure strain from the hatchery. It didn’t happen, for which I’m grateful. But I still worry the issue could come up again.
That first time the water was very low. I caught a couple of fish under very unfavorable conditions. I probably shouldn’t have been fishing at all, but I wanted to say I’d been there: to have at least fished it once before they shut it down for who knows how many years.
Returning in mid-June 2007, there was an ample supply of cold water. I didn’t see trout scurrying around at the first crossing, but I knew they had to be there: in the deepest pools and near stream side springs and seeps. These trout know not wander too far, too long from reliable wet spots lest they be stranded in an isolated, evaporating puddle: a situation I’ve seen trout in more than a few times here in the southwest. Sometimes the rains come and save them, sometimes they don’t.
At first I used an Elk Hair Caddis and caught a couple of fish in dark, chest-high pools. I then noticed the large black ants that were everywhere stream side and I switched to- well you can guess. That pattern caught all the rest of the fish over the remainder of the afternoon and the next morning. About 5 miles above the Water Canyon junction, there is a series of very scenic waterfalls that mark the end of the fishing water. Above the falls, there are a couple more miles of good water, but no fish. On this trip all the trout were in Holden Prong above the Water Canyon, the other main tributary of Las Animas Creek Water Canyon had good water but didn’t seem to have any fish. I did try Las Animas itself for a couple of miles below Water Canyon without success, even though there was plenty of cold water there as well. The cutthroats here are great fish even if less than pure. They are occasional leapers and fierce fighters, and after catching the first one, the difficulty reaching this canyon seemed a small price to pay.
On the other side of the mountain, it was with pure joy that I set out on a sunny September morning to fish for Gila Trout. None of the controversy surrounding this fish or this piece of real estate mattered as I held that first 9 inch Gila in my hand. Upper Black Canyon is a recovering environment, but the trout are there. I fished the 3 ½ miles or so above the road crossing, catching a nice fish (8-12") in every deep water spot.
Like most native fish, they weren’t shy. I was able to hook all of my catch either with a Hopper or a Humpy. Perhaps I’m just high on the experience of fishing for them right now, but the Gila Trout is the most beautiful trout I’ve caught. There’s something about the color of mature fish that has to be seen in the flesh to be appreciated. As I released the third or fourth one of the day, it seemed to me utter insanity that this trout was not in every river and creek in this forest and the only trout species in the Gila drainage. I knew from now on it would always be something less to fish for browns or rainbows where I should be catching Gilas.
The only other stream where you can legally fish is the Mimbres River, a west side stream that flows neither toward the Rio Grande nor to the Gila River. It has rainbows upstream and in the forks and lots of nice browns lower down. The further upstream I’ve gone , I’ve noticed that some of the rainbows don’t look like much like rainbows. In fact, the first trout I ever caught in the Gila National Forest was here, and it was so brightly colored with iridescent purple parr marks on an almost golden background that I was confused as to what I had. The Mimbres does have some nice fish, but most are small. It is the most accessible Black Range stream with a comparatively easy to reach trail head and mere 2 mile hike to the water in the wilderness. There is a section with drive-up access as well, although it’s only about a half mile or so of water, blocked both downstream and upstream by private property. The Mimbres is popular by Gila standards. Even so, the Mimbres main stem and its two fish-able headwaters forks in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness are probably the most pristine of all the west side streams It’s a very beautiful place to spend the day fishing by yourself. I’ve seen several bears in the Black Range over the years, but never another fisherman. Maybe a few will come now to add the Gila Trout to their “life list,” but these mountains are so far from anywhere I doubt they’ll ever really be “discovered.” Well, I can only hope. Maybe the Black Range is a destination, of a different kind, after all.