Dateline: October 27, 2012 – Silver City, New Mexico
Fishing and weirdness go hand in fin for me. I have driven 16 hours to fish for 50 minutes. I have set a world record while buck naked. But I had NEVER been fishing with someone who was wearing an Elvis costume. As it turns out, the person wearing the Elvis costume wasn’t even the person who I thought was at risk for this sort of thing, and the fact I thought someone on the trip might be at risk for wearing an Elvis costume should tell you things were already odd.
This all brought me back to August 16, 1977. It was a warm summer Tuesday, and my family was vacationing in a cottage up in Port Sanilac, Michigan. The cottage was a grubby but beloved place where we voluntarily lived in squalor a few weeks each year, “roughing it” in our own way, which meant no privacy, suspect plumbing, and a lot of insects. That afternoon, we heard on the radio that Elvis Presley had died. I will never forget how sad my mother was. Elvis was a part of her childhood, and now he was gone. I was 14 and didn’t really get it at the time – to me, Elvis was some guy in Saturday-morning movies, although I always thought it was cool when Nixon gave him the DEA badge. Little did I know that while Elvis was not part of my childhood, 35 years later, his music would become the soundtrack for my capture of a rare trout species.
I don’t think Nixon had any idea what to make of Elvis.
Elvis and the 1000Fish blog have crossed paths previously. In February of 2011, I went sturgeon fishing with, of all people, an Italian Elvis impersonator named Gabriele Elli. (See http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/blue-suede-sturgeon/) Gabi now lives in New Mexico with his American wife, and he is a passionate fisherman. When I mentioned to him that I would be in Phoenix in October, he encouraged me to stay for the weekend and come to western New Mexico to chase a Gila trout.
The Gila trout is the rarest of the North American trout species, and is limited to just a few bodies of water in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Gabriele had found an excellent local guide, Rex Johnson Jr., who is quite the expert on the odd trout endemic to the southwest and Mexico and is also a math professor at Western New Mexico University. Of course, with rare species involved, an invite went to Martini Arostegui, and he managed to escape to Phoenix for the weekend and join us.
Martini and I started the drive early on Friday, and the desert scenery took the sting out of a 5 hour drive to Silver City, New Mexico. Part of the route matched my 2010 trip to catch the Apache trout, a pun-filled adventure memorialized at http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/puns-in-the-high-desert/. (By the way, the “Puns” post is new and improved, so if you do not read it, you will likely burst into flame. Of course, if you do read it, you will burst into nausea. Your call.)
Gratuitous cactus photo. Gotta have one of these in every southwestern blog.
This was beautiful scenery. For the first few hours.
I didn’t know they made these any more.
They’re so cute when they’re sleeping. I spared him the screaming wakeup call a la Eminem (see http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/07/03/my-failed-weekend-of-parenthood/). We drive together too much, and his sense of revenge is strong.
We arrived in Silver City in mid-afternoon. Our first task was lunch at Taco Bell, to add a sense of danger to sharing a room. We then met Rex and headed to a local stream to chase the longfin dace. These minnow-sized creatures are common in the area and we soon both caught one on my nearly-microscopic #24 hooks.
We’ve covered this. A new species is a new species.
I had gotten something useful from a math teacher! As a teenager, I always challenged the life relevance of math or any other subject that was not tested via essay, but let’s face it, we use it every darn day. When we do not remember our math, bad things happen, like tax audits or speeding tickets in Serbia. (I am still waiting for my unfortunate adventure in high school trigonometry to pay off, with all due respect to Mrs. Haeberle, who never liked me, probably for good reasons.)
We also visited a couple of nearby streams hunting for other species, and though we did not get anything else new that evening, we got to enjoy some astounding scenery. (Oh, and we lost Martini in the woods for about an hour after dark, but he found us before the wolves found him.)
Martini shows off the rental car.
Gabriele got in after Martini and I had crashed out, so we saw him first thing in the morning at the hotel breakfast buffet, which made me long for Waffle House. It was great to catch up with Gabi – he and his wife are doing well and have just bought a new house outside Albuquerque.
I had half-expected Gabriele to show up in an Elvis jumpsuit. But he was smarter than that, as Elvis jumpsuits are not especially hiking-friendly, and we were going to trek some distance down into two canyons, first to hunt chubs and suckers, then to pursue the Gila trout. We took off in the rental car, and moments later, the CDs came out and we were singing Elvis at the top of our lungs, each in our own key.
(Needless to say, Gabi was the one on key – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-O2qvh7cxI&list=PL38A24D7EA0C1C255)
Arriving at the trailhead, we set off down a ravine, found a creek, and started looking for small pools. It was clear but frosty, and Rex had warned us we were late in the year and might have to wait for things to warm up. But it was beautiful – mountains on either side of us, towering pine trees, and a clear, small stream.
Frigid creek. Next time, I bring the water shoes, because my wet socks were cold all day.
The canyon scenery. I had quite a shock coming moments after this photo was taken.
Imagine my surprise when I turned around in that isolated meadow, a mile down the canyon, to see Martini standing there in a black, rhinestoned, show-off-the-chest-hair jumpsuit. And a cape. A red satin cape. “Oh, dear God.” I said.
Gabrielle smiled broadly, and Rex simply stated “Well, that’s a first.”
I think the look on my face says it all.
Further down the canyon, I unhappily discovered that the trail repeatedly crossed the stream. It was so cold I hadn’t thought to bring my water shoes, so crossings were a slow and dangerous process of finding the right rocks to hop across. This delayed things quite a bit, and after about an hour, Martini and I both gave in to expediency and splashed through the water in our regular footwear.
An hour and some two miles later, we hadn’t seen many fish apart from a few stray rainbows and a big Gila that simply would not bite. Rex swore the fish were there, but that the cold weather simply had them holed up. We decided to head back.
Martini’s cape flapped in the breeze as we trod up the path.
Where do you even buy something like this?
We were getting close to the car, and only had one more crossing to make. Sharp-eyed Gabriele spotted some small fish in the shallows and alerted us - “There are some small fish in the shallows!” Rex gave that thoughtful look math professors often do, and said “The water has warmed up.” He walked upstream a few yards, and called out “Chubs! There are chubs here!” We sprinted back and quickly set up gear. Martini went up to the first pool, and I stayed by a slight crease below it. I dropped a piece of worm behind some rocks, and a small fish pounced on it. A rainbow. Grumble. I dropped another bait in, got a bite, and hauled up a wriggling fish – it took a moment to see what it was, but when it finally stopped thrashing, it was no trout. It was a Rio Grande sucker, small but definitely a new species, and one that wasn’t supposed to be in this watershed. I was beside myself with joy.
Rex points out the fish in this photo. Rex is a fantastic guide – look him up at RexJohnsonJr@Gmail.com if you’re in the area.
This is a male Rio Grande sucker. For about 24 hours, I thought it was another species. Of course, there are some who would maintain that males are another species.
We tried for a little while longer, and the bites stopped. Rex was getting used to us by this time, and took it in stride as I celebrated a six-inch fish.
The canyon adventure had eaten up a lot more time than we had hoped, so we bundled into the car and raced for the Gila spot. Back out came the Elvis CDs, and Gabriele led us in song until we arrived at the top of another canyon. We began hiking down a steep trail, keenly aware that we would need to walk back up afterward.
Rex is a great guy, and he has many talents. Not among these talents, however, is the ability to estimate hiking distances. Everything is “about a mile.” After about 2 miles, we reached the bottom of the canyon, and as we approached the creekbed where my Gila was supposed to be, we noticed that it was missing one subtle but key ingredient needed for Gila trout: water. The creek was bone dry.
Rex explained that there would be small pools higher up – “about a mile.” We exchanged suspicious glances and hit the trail. The sun disappeared behind the ridge, reminding us that sundown was coming, and when that happened, the trout wouldn’t bite, so as we crashed through the woods with burning legs, we prayed we would have enough light when we got there.
The creek began showing signs of water – first some mildew, then small puddles, and finally some shallow, hot-tub sized pools, but nothing that would hold fish. We marched on, oblivious to the pain than ran from our toes, up through our eyebrows, and back down again to our toes, regretting that we had not brought water or provisions.
At last, we reached a larger pool that Rex swore would hold trout. It was definitely twilight, and I was praying that there was enough sun left to give me a shot at the fish. I clambered down an inadvisably steep grade and balanced on a small ledge overlooking the water. I whipped on a small hook, split shot, and a plastic maggot – I have no idea why, it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
The line slowly sank, and in a few seconds, it twitched. I set the hook and had a fish on. I held my breath as I swung him up into my hand, and there he was – a Gila trout.
No, I am not about to bite it. It was safely released, and I only hope my yelling didn’t damage its hearing.
You can Gila broken heart, but can you Gila trout?
Martini and Gabriele had worked their way onto the ledge via a much safer route, and Martini took the next cast. Whap, fish on, fish up, fish photographed.
Martini and Steve with their Gilas.
Gabriele then took a crack, and after a few misses, he too got one. It was almost completely dark, and we had a long hike ahead of us, but we had done it.
Gabi with his Gila. It was his only fish of the day, but he made it count. And does he have perfect teeth or what?
Of course, I didn’t catch my Gila trout wearing an Elvis jumpsuit, so although I do get the species, Martini gets all the style points. And Gabi gets all the points for inspiration.
The hike back up wasn’t nearly as painful as I had anticipated, because our mission had been accomplished and I was basking in the glow of accomplishment and a heavy dose of adrenaline. We reached the crest and walked down the dark road, singing “Don’t be Cruel” at the top of our lungs, the full band – Elvis Elli, Sexy Rexy, Stevie Wonder, and Martini, the little-known fifth Backstreet Boy.
Moonrise as we hike out of the canyon and head for the fried food.
That night found us eating the sort of celebratory dinner that makes cardiologists wince. It was apparently fried food night at the local steakhouse, and the closest thing to roughage was the onion rings. We toasted Rex, we toasted the trout and the suckers, and we toasted the onion rings. Martini swore we would return to capture the bonytail chub, so we toasted the roundtail chub as well. After all that toasting, I decided it was best to walk back to the hotel. “How far is it?” I asked Rex. “About a mile.” he said. I took a taxi.
Just another Saturday night, in a rural hotel room in my underwear with two Elvis impersonators.