Gila River and Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth Bass - the author's dreamfish Photo by M.H. Salmon.You sit around enough campfires or barrooms with enough fisherman and you realize that every one of us is pleased to argue for our favorite fish, favorite fishing spot, and favorite method of pursuing fish. Like the endless debates over guns, game animals, and calibers, these are arguments that won’t go away, and that outdoor writers will forever milk for copy.

I’m no different, except perhaps that I may be more willing than most to admit that my angling references may change, depending on the day, or time of year, or what species was hitting or what water was producing the last time I went out. Right now I’m high on smallmouth bass, the Gila River and fly fishing.

It may not last. If I make it over to Elephant Butte this fall and catch a big flathead off the bank at midnight I’ll come home thinking that all night baitfishing for catfish in a big reservoir is the supreme angling experience.

I’ve seen carp in the Rio Grande as long as your leg. A #6 hook with two kernels of corn presented just right with a medium weight glass rod could yield a battle that a trophy muskellunge would be hard pressed to match.

The unlofty reputation of the carp permeates the conversations of anglers nationwide. Anyone who’s tied into a big one on a fair rig knows better, and if he’s anything but a fish bigot, he’ll admit it.

A local fisherman reported to me that the white bass are running at Caballo. Spin casting into schools of white bass that are hitting anything that moves may be the fastest action available in fresh water. If I had been at Caballo this week, I’d probably be writing about white bass right now.

But at the moment I’m high on bass and stream fishing and wilderness and fly rods and therein lies a fish tale.

Our local Gila River, at its best, has a great capacity for fish production, especially when you consider that for most of the year it’s more of a stream than a river, running at less than 100 cfs. It’s been a long time, however, since the Gila has been at its best.

Little or no regulation of livestock grazing, blow-out floods, the cavorting of ORVs (often in defiance of regulation) and ash runoff from forest fires have all been battering our fish. The ash runoff has been the biggest hit.

At least twice in my recent memory the ash from white-hot forest fires has come rolling down long stretches of the Gila after big rains. Both times the water turned black and the fish belly-up.

A certain reach of the river that I’m fond of, for it has been prime for bass and good for trout, was hit both times by this black water. When I went there three years ago I could hardly find a fish.

Last year I did manage to catch a few bass but in several trips I could never find one over eight inches long. This summer angler Rex and I went up there hoping for a stream restored. We weren’t disappointed.

No cow tracks, no tire tracks, a narrowing channel, firmer banks, deeper pools, and a remarkable re-growth of vegetation showed that the Gila can heal itself given half a chance. The only thing in scarce supply was trees of size to shade the water. But the young cottonwoods, willows and sycamores lining the banks gave a promise of things to come.

The fish are back, too. Not all the way back, but the bass at least are making babies and growing to size.

A goodly number fell to our bead head nymphs, wooly buggers, pistol pete’s, and whatever else we threw at them. Most were small but about a half dozen were ten inches (double figures is my arbitrary mark for bass respectability) or better.

At one pretty green pool I drifted a wooly bugger deep and tightened the line on one of those smallmouth bass that has caused the fish to be graded as "ounce for ounce and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims." Well I agree, at least for fish in fresh water.

For me, the four components of "fight" in a hooked fish are: dash, propensity to jump, power, and endurance. The smallmouth has garnered the accolade of "gamest" because the species so often displays all four components in a single, hooked fish.

This fish hit the fly like he was mad at it. He raced the pool, end to end, in a heartbeat, then did it again, then cleared the water at the end of the second run. Then he settled down to pump the rod for several counted minutes, displaying power and endurance to go with the dash and jump already marked.

When the fish finally gave it up and came to the shallows he was about a foot long. Of course, stream smallmouth are a delicacy to boot, but the Gila is still recovering so we turned this one, like all the rest, loose.

This was great fishing. To catch the gamest fish that swims, born and raised in the stream, in the nation’s first wilderness, by fooling it with a fly, hooks a fisher to one of the elite experiences in North American angling.

Meanwhile, angler Rex was catching twice as many bass as me. But I’d caught all the big ones; for most of the day he couldn’t break that ten-inch barrier.

We were on the way back to the vehicle when angler Rex stopped to fish a deep run and he hooked and landed a bass over a foot long. This may have been the biggest fish of the day and he did everything a wild bass should do but jump. Maybe next time.

I had in mind to try one more pool before we quit. But when I got there, not far from the roadhead, I found several people using it for a swimming hole.

As I walked by, one fellow, standing way up on a big boulder, turned and asked how I’d done. I said I’d done all right.

"Where are they?" he asked.

"Turned `em back," I said.

His look was momentarily bewildered. Then he turned, shouted to his mates to get their attention, and jumped with a mighty splash into the Gila River.