Conservation Trout & Char Video

Gila Trout: A Native Trout Conservation Story

Article by Craig Springer, USFWS

Plip!

That’s the sound of a barbless beadhead nymph falling into a glassy glide of Mineral Creek, a headwater stream of the Gila River in southwest New Mexico.  There’s a short drift over a stony run, barely time to mend your line. Then follows that transmutation of fish flesh to your forearm — the taut tug of a trout on your rod. 

Craig Springer - Gila Trout
Gila trout; USFWS photo

But it’s not just any trout.  This one is yellow like a school bus. Petite black shards fleck its flanks over a hint of a pink stripe and fading oval parr marks. It’s not a rainbow trout—no, this fish is far less common. Rare, even.  It’s a Gila trout, a threatened species.  

An Threatened Native

The Gila trout was for a time the only trout considered endangered in the United States.  But decades of conservation work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, U.S. Forest Service and other partners pushed the fish toward recovery.

Craig Springer - Gila Trout - Trout Egg Placing
Jill Wick NMDGF and Andrew Dean USFWS ready a batch of Gila trout eggs to be placed in gravel in a remote Gila National Forest stream. The eggs were fertilized at Mora National Fish Hatchery; USFWS photo

The pretty trout stared into the dark abyss of extinction. Gila trout were off limits to anglers for 50 years until it was down-listed. In 2007, select waters in the Gila National Forest were open to anglers and remain so.

The Trail to Recovery

The crystalline water of Mineral Creek above the storied ghost town of Mogollon, New Mexico, is but only one place to catch Gila trout. Conservation work—much heavy lifting—employing pack mules with panniers filled with young trout, to helicopters dropping a tank along remote streams, or carrying in on foot freshly fertilized trout eggs in backpacks have improved the lot of Gila trout, and grown the number of places where you can catch them. 

Craig Springer - Gila Trout - Nate Wiese MNFH
Nate Wiese manager of Mora National Fish Hatchery carries a batch of fertilized eggs in a cooler. The eggs are wrapped in cool wet paper towels. You can see the trouts eyes through the eggs and watch them wiggle; USFWS photo

Success begets success. Excise taxes on rods and tackle and fishing license sales fund much of this on-the-ground conservation work via the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program. 

Interested in Learning More?

For additional information on the status of this species, visit the Gila trout page on the New Mexico Game & Fish website.


Craig Springer is a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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