Gila Trout Recovery & Angling

NEW! We are accepting public comment on a proposal (click here for PDF) to conduct a Gila trout restoration project in Whitewater Creek on the Gila National Forest. Comments would be most helpful if received by March 25th, 2016.
Send comments to:

Ecosphere Environmental Services
Attn: Jonathan Olson
1660 Old Pecos Trail, Suite H
Fax: (505) 954-1882
Email: jolson@ecosphere-services.com

Click the tab headings below for more Gila Trout Recovery and Angling information and regulations.

Gila Trout

Gila trout (photo Graig Spinner) - New Mexico Game and Fish

Gila trout (photo by Craig Springer)

Gila trout have been described as “taking their colors from the New Mexican sunset”, an apt description. Their iridescent gold sides blend to a darker shade of copper on the gill covers. Small, profuse spots cover the upper half of the body and a faint, salmon-pink band is present on adults, particularly during spawning season. A yellow cutthroat mark is present on most larger fish and parr marks are commonly found on adults. Because Gila trout are often found in small streams, they rarely grow larger than 12 inches.

Gila trout typically spawn in early spring, when water temperatures are rising. They sexually mature by age 3 and live between 4 and 6 years. Gila trout are capable of hybridizing with rainbow trout which has greatly reduced the range of pure Gila trout.

Gila Trout Angling Regulations - New Mexico Game & Fish - Photo G. McReynolds

Photo by G. McReynolds

Gila Trout Angling Regulations - New Mexico Game & Fish - Photo G. McReynolds

Photo by G. McReynolds

Where are they found?

In New Mexico, the heart of Gila trout habitat is the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas. These areas of the Gila National Forest contain nearly the entire currently occupied habitat of the Gila trout. The Gila is a vast area of perennial rivers, steep walled canyons, rolling grasslands, dry uplands of juniper and pinyon pine, forests of ponderosa pine, aspen groves, and high mountains of spruce and fir. Gila trout inhabit coldwater mountain streams, hunting insects and hiding in fallen branches and undercut banks; finding refuge in pools fed by groundwater seeps during droughts.

Trout habitat in Mineral Creek, a tributary to the San Francisco River in Catron County, NM. (photo NMDGF)

Trout habitat in Mineral Creek, a tributary to the San Francisco River in Catron County, NM. (photo NMDGF)

The Gila Wilderness was created in June 1924 at the urging of the conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold and was the world’s first designated wilderness. As part of congressionally designated wilderness, there are no roads and the only travel permitted is by foot or horseback. Logging is not allowed nor any commercial use except livestock grazing. Hunting and fishing activities, however, are open to everyone under laws set by the New Mexico State Game Commission.

History

Gila trout are relatives of the Pacific salmon, originally making their way up into the mountains of the Southwest by migrating from the Gulf of California. As the climate and landscape changed, they could no longer move between the mountains and the ocean. Their range was reduced to the mountain streams of the Gila, San Francisco, and Verde River Basins in New Mexico, where they evolved to survive harsh conditions. By the late 1800’s overfishing, land use practices that led to habitat deterioration and stocking of nonnative trout, which compete with, predate upon, and sometimes interbreed with Gila trout, began to take its toll on Gila trout. In the 1950’s, when Gila trout was officially described as a species, they remained in only five streams.

Historical distribution of Gila trout

Historical distribution of Gila trout

Conservation

Gila trout was the first western North American fish to be actively managed to conserve it. Conservation efforts began as early as the 1920s when the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish established the Jenks Cabin Hatchery in the heart of the Gila and began raising Gila trout. Around the same time, the agency established a policy of not stocking nonnative salmonids into streams known to support Gila trout. In the 1950s, the first Gila trout streams were closed to angling. Despite these efforts, Gila trout was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the New Mexico Wildlife Conservation Act of 1974.

Throughout the following decades, Gila trout were returned to a number of streams in New Mexico after nonnative trout had been removed. These efforts lead to their down-listing to threatened in 2006.

Today, Gila trout conservation is guided by the Gila Trout Recovery Plan (2003) and the Gila Trout Recovery Team, which is composed of professionals from NM Department of Game and Fish, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of New Mexico, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The agencies continue a program of stream restoration – removing nonnative species, constructing barriers to prevent nonnatives from reinvading, and returning Gila trout – and pure Gila trout currently inhabit eleven streams in New Mexico.

The Whitewater Baldy Fire burned through almost 300,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in spring 2012. (photo USFS-Gila National Forest)

The Whitewater Baldy Fire burned through almost 300,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in spring 2012. (photo USFS-Gila National Forest)

In addition to competition and hybridization with nonnative trout, wildfire is a major threat to the survival of Gila trout. Toxic ash flows following high-intensity wildfires often result in fish kills. Multiple wildfires have had the direct and immediate effect of eliminating fish from a stream and because of this, Gila trout are often evacuated from streams that are threatened by wildfires. The largest fire in New Mexico history, the nearly 300,000 acre Whitewater Baldy Fire, burned through nearly half of the existing Gila trout streams in 2012 and fish were eliminated from six of the eight streams that were within the burned area. Gila trout were evacuated from three streams following the fire.

Riding through the upper West Fork Gila River Drainage to rescue and evacuate Gila trout from Whiskey Creek after the 2012 Whitewater Baldy Fire. (photo USFWS)

Riding through the upper West Fork Gila River Drainage to rescue and evacuate Gila trout from Whiskey Creek after the 2012 Whitewater Baldy Fire. (photo USFWS)

Current conservation efforts (see Current Projects tab on this page) consist of returning Gila trout to the streams affected by the wildfire, continuing to establish them in new streams, and developing opportunities to fish for this rare trout (see Where to Fish tab on this page).

Gila Trout Angling Streams

Gila Trout Angling Streams Map showing stocked and wild fish populations - New Mexico Game and Fish

Wild Gila Trout Streams

Wild Gila trout populations can be found in three streams open to limited angling. Anglers in the se streams mush have a free Gila Trout permit. Check the NM Fishing Rules and Info Booklet for current regulations.

Black Canyon above fish barrier: Open July 1 – October 31, catch and release, single hook/artificial lure.

Trout populations were severely impacted by the 2013 Silver Fire and subsequent flooding, but habitat and the trout population are beginning to rebound. Over 3,500 Gila trout were stocked throughout Black Canyon (above Black Canyon Campground) in September 2015. In March 2016 an additional 1015 Gila trout were stocked in Black Canyon.

Icon of Black Canyon Map Black Canyon Map

Mogollon Creek from waterfall to Trail Canyon: Open July 1 – October 31, catch and release, single hook/artificial lure.

Surveys conducted upstream of the area open to fishing in spring 2013 indicate a good Gila trout population remains in Mogollon Creek. Mogollon Creek currently presents the only angling opportunity for wild Gila trout.

Icon of Mogollon Creek Map Mogollon Creek Map

Willow Springer hefts a Gila trout in Black Canyon (photo Graig Springer) - New Mexico Game and Fish

Willow Springer hefts a Gila trout in New Mexico’s Black Canyon (photo Graig Springer)

Stocked Gila Trout Waters

Hatchery Gila trout are currently being stocked regularly in four streams and are occasionally stocked in Lake Roberts. No additional permit is required for fishing these locations and statewide trout limit (5 trout any species) applies.

West Fork Gila River: Surveys indicate a healthy population of Gila, rainbow, and brown trout are found in this section of the West Fork Gila River. It was last stocked with 1,200 Gila trout (4”) in November 2014.

Gila River Forks Area: Stocked with 5,000 Gila trout (6”) in January 2016, 1500 8″ trout in March 2016, and 1,300 in April 2016.

Black Canyon below fish barrier: Stocked with 200 Gila trout in March 2016.

Sapillo Creek: Stocked with 1100 Gila trout (6”) in March 2016.

Lake Roberts: Stocked with 5,150 Gila trout (5”) in January 2016.

Willow and Gilita Creeks: Two Gila trout, any length. No limit on brown trout.

Trout populations were eliminated by the 2012 Whitewater Baldy Fire and subsequent flooding. Gila trout have been stocked regularly since the fire, most recent stocking was in October 2015 with 10,000 Gila trout.

Hatchery Gila Trout - Caught in West Fork Gila River 2008 (Photo by R. C. Helbock) - New Mexico Game & Fish

Hatchery Gila Trout – Caught in West Fork Gila River 2008 (Photo by R. C. Helbock)

Fishing the Gila Forks 2008 (Photo by G. McReynolds) - Gila Trout page, New Mexico Game & Fish

Fishing the Gila Forks 2008 (Photo by G. McReynolds)

Current Projects

The Department is currently working on multiple Gila trout recovery projects as well as projects to enhance Gila trout angling opportunities. These include:

  • establishing a new population of Gila trout in Mineral Creek,
  • restoration of Gila trout to Whitewater Creek,
  • construction of a fish barrier on Willow Creek,
  • beginning to grow out Gila trout at the Glenwood State Fish Hatchery,
  • and proposed changes to Gila trout angling regulations.

A public meeting was held in Glenwood, NM on February 16, 2016 to present and discuss the proposed changes with the public. A copy of the presentation can be found here:

Icon of Gila Trout Managment Update 02-16-2016 Gila Trout Managment Update 02-16-2016