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Gila Wilderness Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing the Gila National Forest

Located in the southwest corner of New Mexico, the Gila National Forest is the largest protected forest in New Mexico. At 872 square miles or 3.3 million acres, just north of Silver City, NM, the forest encompasses the Mogollan Mountains and the Gila River Watershed. The easiest access into the national forest is through the town of Reserve, NM. Route 59 heads south toward the Willow Creek Campground, and is the best maintained road through the forest, winding through the high alpine meadows and forests of the picturesque mountains. The real treasure of the forest is the native Gila Trout which inhabits the high elevation tributaries of the watershed.

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Gila Trout Fly Fishing

The Gila Trout (Oncorhyncus gilae) has the smallest range of all the trout species in the U.S. Limited to the small streams of the neighboring White Mountains of Arizona and headwaters of the Gila River, the Gila Trout was listed as an endangered species until 2006. The population found in Arizona’s White Mountains is actually a sub-species of the Gila known as the Apache Trout. Due to the stocking of Rainbow trout in the streams of the White Mountains it has become increasingly difficult to find pure strain Apache trout due to hybridization (picture to the right). This is not the case in the streams of the Gila National Forest. New Mexico Game and Fish has done a spectacular job with stream rehabilitation and supplemental stocking of the native Gila Trout (picture on left). If you are looking to catch your first Gila Trout the Gila National Forest is the best place to start.

Fly Fishing Willow Creek

Willow Creek Campground is the right place to begin your search. Willow creek flows the campground and downstream along the access road. The trout will position in the deepest parts of the creek, which is typically no more than 4’ to 8’ wide, near the campground. Trout will congregate beneath each of the manmade riffles and logjams that provide depth and cover. Most fish will measure in the 6’’to 8’’ range with potential opportunities for a 14” plus trophy. Further downstream on Willow Creek is a dam which congregates fish on the downstream side. Undercut banks along bends in the creek all hold trout, though they may be hidden from you at first glance. Gila trout can be found below the dam in considerable numbers along with smaller rainbow trout. Many of the trout in this section of river have hybridized making pure strain Gila Trout more difficult to find. The dam acts as a barrier separating the rainbows and hybrids from the genetically pure strain.

Fly Fishing Iron Creek

Iron Creek is a one to two hour hike from the Willow Creek Campground through scenic elk country that leads fly anglers to a more secluded fishery. Once you reach Iron Creek the next mile upstream holds Gila Trout. Nearly every pool holds hungry trout who are always opportunistic feeders. Look for the deepest pools to target the larger, more wary trout.

Best Flies for Fly Fishing the Gila Wilderness

With the dense undergrowth alongside the creeks and the limited room for casting, a 7.5 ft 3 weight is perfect for targeting the Gila Trout. A 9 footer shouldn’t give you too much difficulty but isn’t quite optimal in some of the areas. During the late spring and summer dry flies are a great way to raise these hungry trout. Caddis, hopper and ant patterns all work great in the size 12-16 range. Matching these dries with droppers is a sure way to get the most finicky trout in the pool, with size 14-18 zebra midges, hares ear, and pheasant tail nymphs being a good bet.

Best Dry Flies

Chubby Chernobyl - size 8-12

Stimulator - size 10-14

Elk hair Caddis or X-caddis - size 14-18

Best Nymph Patterns

Pheasant Tail Nymph - size 14-16

Hares Ear Nymph - size 12-16

Zebra Midge - size 18-20

The Gila Trout population is still on the rebound and proper caution should be used while handling these fish, though from my experience the fish were quite resilient. Many of these trout found their way back into the stream, eluding any photoshoot I had in mind. This is an excellent destination on a long weekend for those looking to try their hand with a new challenge and a unique species. For more information about America's best trout streams and others in the area, check out our articles on Fly Fishing New Mexico and Fly Fishing Arizona.

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