Dreamfish in the Upper Gila River

Smallmouth Bass - the author’s dreamfish Photo by M.H. Salmon.
Smallmouth Bass - the author's dreamfish

Within the limits of his size, the Smallmouth Bass is the perfect game fish, and just the fish to bring a sleepy-eyed boy to life.

The Smallmouth Bass may well be our finest freshwater gamefish; I think he is. Clearly, he is superior to his bass cousins. The White Bass is a small, staid, tasteless fish compared to the Smallmouth, a school fish given to running, en masse, in man-made lakes. The White Bass is a common fish. The Largemouth Bass has too large a following to be as easily dismissed as the White Bass. It is likely that the Largemouth is the single most sought after species in North America. I think this is because the Largemouth is ubiquitous, at least in the nation’s lakes and reservoirs, strikes viciously on artificials, and is a great leaper. The Largemouth is a better eating fish than the White Bass and, all said, is a very good fish; but not even the Largemouth tournament winners and aficionados will claim their fish has the speed, élan or strength per pound of the Smallmouth.

In terms of quality, the Smallmouth has more in common with trout than with bass. The Smallmouth is about the size of a brook trout. The number of each species that has been caught weighing over ten pounds you could probably count on your fingers. The vast majority come to the net at between one and three pounds. Like trout, the Smallmouth often inhabits the most attractive waters. Natural, cold water Canadian Lakes surrounded by conifers and hardwoods and miles from any habitation have Smallmouth Bass. Swift, clear water streams, whitened by intermittent rapids that run over rocks are home to the Smallmouth. Here they may be readily sought with flies. The Smallmouth is in all ways a fine fish, a dream fish with the attributes of trout plus more fight; and, like trout, the pursuit of the Smallmouth holds a certain mystique. The Smallmouth angler, like the trout angler, may be a bit of an elitist. His is an esoteric calling; as he seeks a tasty fish who inhabits pristine waters and fights like no other in this world, the Smallmouth angler may come to think of himself as among the select. Why not? - he pursues a select fish.

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If you ask game and fish personnel how Smallmouth Bass got in the upper Gila River of New Mexico you get a variety of answers. Some say Arizona biologists did it, some say it was New Mexico’s, some surmise it was a surreptitious "sport" who turned a few loose late one night. It is certain they were introduced and that they have found a home there as a naturally reproducing fish. Up high, above 6,000 feet, you don’t find them. They give way to colder waters and to trout. Downstream, approaching 4,000 feet, you don’t find them. They give way to warmer waters and to catfish. In between, over a fifty-mile stretch, they are the dominant game fish of the Gila, lurking in the green pools in an otherwise shallow river, the waters oxygenated by numerous rapids, nicely spaced.

I had been seeking catfish, with moderate success, all summer - a fitting quarry for a dreamy kid grown older. But a couple of all night vigils on the riverbank seated by a forked stick with no results will convince even the most phlegmatic that it’s time to pick up the pace. I bought some waterdogs in Silver City and, about noon, stopped in at one of the few restaurants in town open on a Sunday, the hush-quiet, carpeted dining room of the local chain motel. I ate an excellent chile/cheese omelet, drank a lot of coffee, read the Albuquerque Journal, and watched folks. They ate and talked cautiously, seemingly oblivious to the day. Mostly out of town travelers and church people, who would spend the day indoors; it’s likely not a one of them knew what was out there on the Gila River, or elsewhere in what remains of the wilderness Southwest. Poor folks, in my view.

At the confluence where the dry wash of Mogollon Creek meets the Gila I left my truck, shouldered a day pack and headed upstream. The Gila was blue/green, crystal clear, winding, and easily crossed on foot. I could have taken the truck on up, but I don’t approve and anyway I needed the walk. There was a gathering of swimmers and picnic people along the first half mile and a couple of catfish fishermen in the mile above that. I saw some nice pools and riffles but kept walking on up into the box, which starts at the first narrowing by the gauge station. Just above that, the river makes a sharp turn around a rock wall, almost an `S’ in the slim canyon. This is where the Bureau of Reclamation had plans (and may still have) to build a dam. The dam would have formed a lake on which the rah! rah! boys in their brilliant jumpsuits could have powered around seeking . . . bass mostly. Might be we could even have a tournament here!

Very much alone, I crept up to the edge of the green pool washed out deep by the current against the rock wall where the engineers planned all that cement. There were several Smallmouth visible as cruising shadows in the depths. I could seen no reason for altering the condition of fishing. Stepping back, I scooped a waterdog from out of the bait bucket and skewered him through the base of his tail. I lofted him out and when he hit the water he quit struggling and sank slowly, his limbs outstretched like a sky diver. He went down out of sight and promptly something picked him up. I struck, then gave line to one wicked run and then the hook pulled out. The waterdog had come loose, too. Having an idea what the problem was, I baited up the smallest waterdog in the bucket. I lofted him out and down he went and just as promptly something picked him up. The fish headed for the bottom, pulled strongly, briefly, and then I lost him. I tried once more and this time put the bait in the water where I could see the approach. A Smallmouth Bass came from out of the hole, shoveled up a good portion of the waterdog but didn’t get much of the hook. He ran off, I struck, and he left with my bait.

These waterdogs were about right for catfish, five pounds and up, which is what I’d been fishing for all summer. They were too large for bass twelve to fifteen inches long. More to the point, they were fine for the bass, too big for the fishing. I went upstream a short ways to the next pool, stayed back away from it while I tied on a spinner. Keeping well away, I lofted the spinner to the downstream end of the pool, let it sink, then drew it back up briskly. I hooked one, kept pressure on but didn’t horse him. My spinning rod was light, whippy, and I let the fish wear himself out. He covered the pool a half dozen times doing it. He came in slick and green with faint vertical brackets. I kept him.

The good fight had evidently put the rest of the bass on hold as I was unable to draw any more fish from that pool. I fished a can of sardines out of my pack, leaned up against a low bank underneath a sycamore, opened the can and had supper, stabbing the little fish and eating them off my knife. There was more shade than sun now in the canyon, and it was pleasant and cool in the shade where I ate. Six bighorn sheep, three ewes and three lambs, came down out of the rough hills to the river about one hundred yards upstream. They made a clatter coming over the rocks and I heard them before I saw them. They drank, crossed over, and slowly diminished in the cliffs on the north side, going up the rocks with confidence and a seeming nonchalance. I watched them go for a long time. Then I fell asleep . . .

Upstream in long shadows I found an oversize hellgrammite under a big rock well away from the stream. I favored him, not knowing why, over the spinner in what was left of the day, after my nap. He was a nasty looking little beggar, and mean and not happy with the intrusion on his space. His pincers had impressive strength but I got him hooked on the end of a long leader with a small sliding sinker above the swivel. I tossed him upstream and let him drift down into the new pool. There was a quick response in the deep water; I gave a little slack, then gently drew up firm and said, "Mister, you have had it!" A good bass - quick, tough, and a leaper.

Two, each a little over a foot long, were just right to go home with. And it was getting dark. Down out of the box nearing the truck in a long stretch of slack water, a Great Blue Heron lifted off, nearly invisible against the darkening hills, then a clear silhouette led by an arched neck up against the backlit sky which was a little pink, a little blue, and a few wispy clouds. A sleepy-eyed boy was drifting on down to the picnic grounds in an inner tube; he had his head tilted back in a reverie watching that bird and didn’t seem to notice me as I walked by.