(As you’ll discover from reading this blog, I had a serious fall while fishing last week, breaking several ribs and hurting my back. Sitting to write at my computer is somewhat painful, so I may not be writing as much in the next few weeks. Some of you may actually enjoy the break from my blathering”:^)
I began writing about Gila trout when I was Bureau Chief for United Press International in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The once plentiful native fish in the headwaters of the Gila River in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona had been overfished and was unable to compete with more aggressive varieties of trout that had been introduced in the region during the last century. Because it was genetically similar, many strains of the trout in some rivers and creeks had become hybridized with rainbow trout.
In 1967, the fish was officially listed as an endangered species and efforts were put in place to restore the gold-hued trout to its native waters. That meant eliminating populations of rainbow, brown and brook trout in certain rivers in the Gila wilderness and areas of western Arizona, then restocking with pure strains of Gila and protecting them with stream barriers.
Because the fish had acclimated over thousands of years to the slightly warmer climate in Southwest waters, it was uniquely positioned to survive the harsh conditions of the region.
My stories at UPI traced the efforts to restore Gila trout populations in a limited number of creeks in the region, then reported on major setbacks when wildfires destroyed some of those watersheds. I also reported on dramatic efforts to rescue some of those populations and the beginning of state programs to begin raising the fish in hatcheries for planting in the future.
By 2006, the Gila trout’s recovery had been so successful it was downlisted to “threatened” status and genetically pure populations have been established on 21 streams in New Mexico and Arizona. You can now fish for them and even keep two a day. I’ve even volunteered to help stock them and participate in Trout Unlimited stream recovery projects for the species.
Sadly for me, after all those words about a great success story, I still haven’t caught one.
Last Wednesday was going to be the day I did. I had learned the previous week that more of Whitewater Creek — my favorite fishing place in the world and now home to a pure Gila trout population — had been opened further up the spectacular rock-walled canyon.
My wife Margo and I woke up early Wednesday and drove a little over three hours to get to Whitewater Creek. We hiked up from the Whitewater picnic area above Glenwood only to discover that the newly opened section of trail was not as “open” as we had been led to believe. It was extremely primitive, with lots of logs, loose rocks and other debris scattered along the way. You had to “bushwhack” your way up the trail to get near the stream.
I’d had no success catching a fish on lower sections of the creek that were somewhat accessible, but I decided to go further up the river into areas that I had fished successfully in the past for small rainbow trout. I spotted a hole that looked promising and started to climb down the two and one-half foot embankment when I lost my balance.
I twisted around and fell hard on my back and knocked the wind out of my lungs. I couldn’t yell for help because I couldn’t catch my breath and my wife was probably too far down the stream to hear my call. After about five minutes, I was able to gather my wits about me, and finally was able to sit up, then stand up. I realized that as I fell, I had released my Sage fly rod and it had washed down the stream into a deep hole. I never recovered it.
I was able to stumble back downstream about 100 years and was thrilled to find Margo waiting beside the stream while she was trying to remove a small insect that had flown into her eye. She was able to remove it and we began the painful (for me) one and one-half mile walk down the trail to our truck.
We made it home, although I spent a sleepless night trying find a comfortable position to accommodate my sore back and chest.
The next day we went to the doctor. After spending hours waiting in doctors’ offices and the emergency room, I was finally diagnosed with two fractured ribs, with the possibility that four others may also be broken. There was concern that some of my internal organs may have been injured, and I am awaiting results of a CT scan to make sure that didn’t happen. I’m pretty sure the worst of it is the broken ribs, sore chest and back and hideous bruise on my lower right torso with the size and shape of a small European nation. I considered including a photo of my bruise, which also looks like a Rorschach ink-blot test gone horribly wrong, but Margo said (and I agreed) that doing that would be very distasteful. Recovery may take 4-6 weeks.
So here I am, limping around for the next several weeks, knowing how much worse this could have turned out and still having no Gila trout to show for my sacrifice. Some day, maybe I’ll just post a generic picture of one on my blog and claim that I caught it.