Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Who'll Stop the Rain? A Tale From the Far Bank

The car windows were too steamed up to see out anymore, my sodden military poncho lay in a puddle on the floorboards between my legs, the dog was curled in a ball upon a mound of gear on the front seat, it’s nose tucked under her body.

I leaned back in the seat as far as it would go and let out a weary sigh.

For the last hour I’d been working in a wind-whipped downpour.

I'd rigged a plastic tarp over the light tent to ward off the heavy rain. Then I dug a trench around the base to drain away the sheets of water washing off the tarp. And finally I tied rocks to the ropes that lashed down the tarp in an effort to keep it all from blowing away.

I was doing all this in between desperate lunges back into the car in the seconds between knee-buckling, thunderclaps and the lightning strikes I knew were to come.

I was high on a hill in Northeast New Mexico at Sugarite Canyon State Park and if the weather didn't get me, the bears probably would.

I was bone tired as I watched the tarp flap and strain in the wind and figured I needed a backup plan just in case it all went to hell.

I began shifting the gear in the back of the little Geo Tracker SUV. I had taken the back seat out long ago to accommodate the equipment I lugged around on fishing trips. Now I pushed it all to one side of the car and piled it up high so I could lay the seat back down and sleep inside if necessary.

It wouldn’t be too comfortable but I’d already put in long day of hiking and fishing before I got around to fighting the rain and, with a couple of beers under my belt, I’d probably nod off in no time at all.

That would be of small consolation.

I lay back and listened, the rain had waned for a moment, it had been doing that, coming in violent, wind-driven waves, and then it’d take a break but come back again.

I’d given up hope it would ever stop and thought of what else I could do for the tent, a cheap, K-Mart special, I bought in Raton after discovering I'd left my good one at home.

I wiped at the condensation covering the window and looked out into the darkness.

The tent was still standing and my emergecny tarp remained staked to the ground.

I leaned back and turned on the radio, picking up the strained broadcast of a public radio station out of southern Colorado. The commentator droned on about some such thing and I slowly began to nod off.

I awoke shortly, shifting to relieve the dull ache in my backm when I noticed it was quiet.

Then I realizied the rain had stopped?

The dog stirred and we crawled out of the little truck, stretched our legs and looked up to the sky. It was lightening up and soon a couple of stars began to peek through the parting clouds.

The rain had finally stopped after all that work.


We slept well that night in our dry tent, saved by a seven dollar, plastic tarp and a bunch of nylon rope.

The next morning the bright sunshine cleared away any thoughts of the horrific night before and we moved on.

Vuja De

I was on the San Juan River in Northwest New Mexico in late May and the water level was back down after several weeks of heavy flows from the dam.

Every spring the river’s government handlers ratchet up the flow tenfold and send a torrent of water downstream to mimic spring runoff and scour out the riverbed for several weeks.

And when they turn off the spigot, the fish peel themselves off the banks and spread out across the water in search of fresh food and breathing room.

Someone in the know once told me I needed to be on the upper flats of this fabled, blue ribbon trout stream when they brought the water down.

“The fishing will be stellar,” he said quietly.

Several weeks of rest from the daily pounding from anxious anglers in this heavily fished tail-water did wonders for the trout’s attitude, my source had told me.

Fish who would normally swim lethargically over to the nearest angler begging to be unhooked now jumped and raced off into the depths, peeling off line and testing knots.

It’s what good fishing is all about.

So there I was working the far bank in the upper flats just below the dam when I felt the first raindrop poke me in the back. I turned to see a dark bank of clouds, roiling upstream towards me.

I worked my way back to the bank, yanked off my vest and dug out my nylon raincoat, just in time, because within minutes I was standing in a full bore, downpour with big, fat drops rocketing into the water around me.

My flimsy raincoat was already soaked through as I tiptoed my way back across a wide expanse of slippery water and then headed through the woods to the far off parking lot.

I arrived to find my fishing buddy huddled in his truck. He rolled the window down and explained sheepishly how he’d forgotten his raincoat that day.

We decided to drive down to the bar, have some lunch and ride out the storm there.

Over enchiladas, ham and beans, tortillas and cold Coors, we watched as the bar filled with oil field workers, truck drivers and other fishermen seeking refuge from the rain.

They talked of how heavy and persistent this rain was - and would it last?

I suggested if it got too bad we could always take a ride into town to burn some time.

My partner was a family man and small business owner who had only the one day off to fish the river.

“I didn’t come up here to cruise around,” he said.” I’m here to fish and this rain isn’t going to stop me. I’m going to get me a rain coat.”

I offered him one of my backup ponchos, a cheap plastic one I kept under the car seat for emergencies, but he waved me off and we proceeded down to the fly shop.

“What can we do for you boys today?” the burly shopkeeper asked.

“Well, this guy needs a raincoat,” I said.

The clerk tossed a small packet containing a yellow poncho on the counter.

“That’ll be three dollars,” he said.

But it was too late, my partner was already eyeing a rack of expensive, guide rated, high-tech, rainwear.

“Well, if you want a real rain coat, that’ll be the last one you’ll ever own,” the clerk said with a smile.

I urged my partner to put up the $400 raincoat and grab the poncho.

“C’mon, it’ll be through raining by the time we get back down to the river,” I whined.

“I don’t know,” the clerk replied with a wink. “Last time I seen it rain like this, it lasted for three days.”

My partner put the $400 raincoat on the counter and pulled out his credit card.

The clerk grinned while I winced.

We were back on the water later that afternoon, enjoying the sunshine and having the upper flats to ourselves, when I noticed my partner still wearing his new raincoat.

It was a fine piece of work, triple layered Gore-Tex with rubberized, watertight zippers, all sorts of pockets and special tabs and other goodies.

I thought it might be a little warm for such a jacket since the sky had cleared and the afternoon warmed, so I thought I’d razz him a little.

“Hey,” I yelled over the water to him. “I told you it would stop raining as soon as we walked out of that fly shop with that fancy raincoat.”

“Nah, it's the other way around,” he yelled back. “If I hadn’t bought this raincoat, then it would have never quit raining.

You know he was probably right. That's how it is with the rain.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Road Trip NM - Mills Canyon

New Mexico’s prairie is wide-eyed country where the clouds loom as big as mountains and the grassland never seems to end.

And it’s out here hidden in a broad, deep canyon through which the Canadian River flows that one can find some of the peace and the solitude summer can bring.

It’s not one of the Forest Service’s bigger draws but it’s a jewel nonetheless — a little-known place called Mills Canyon and it’s on the Kiowa National Grasslands, a division of the U.S. Forest Service’s Cibola National Forest.

“There’s nothing prettier than the plains when they green up,” says Nancy Walls, District Ranger for the Forest Service’s Kiowa and Rita Blanca national grasslands.

Walls proved to be right during a recent trip to the campground tucked deep in the heart of this red-rock-lined canyon with a pea-green ribbon of river running through it.

Recent showers have added an undertone of green to the sea of golden grass sweeping across the plains and afternoon thunderclouds can be seen draping wispy sheets of rain across the countryside.

The Mills Canyon Road turnoff can be found on N.M. 39 between Roy and Abbott, east of Wagon Mound. The well-maintained gravel road heads out across the plains for about seven miles until it reaches the rim of the well-hidden canyon.

Turning a corner, one begins to a 900-foot descent down a series of easy switchbacks, a few tight curves and a couple of slight dips in a three-mile-long road. A few ponderosa pines tower over the road while scrub oak, juniper and some piƱon line the hillside.

The river glints far below in the evening light and one can make out great stands of cottonwood and juniper trees, wide pastures and the still standing rock walls of an abandoned building.
What nature has reclaimed and hidden is the once thriving, turn of the century agricultural empire operated by Melvin Mills, a shrewd businessman, district attorney and legislator whose mansion in Springer still stands.

Mills had consolidated family homestead holdings within the Canadian River canyon now named after him and created a progressive farming and ranching operation complete with a complex irrigation system, numerous fruit and nut orchards and solid stone buildings, according to published historical accounts.

Much of the bounty from Mills’ cattle and agricultural operations was hauled to nearby railroad depots in Springer and Wagon Mound to help supply the railroads’ Harvey House hotels.

Mills also built a hotel to service vacationers brought into the canyon by stagecoach and his operation thrived.

But in 1904 a massive flood brought on by unseasonably heavy rains roared through the canyon, wiping out his empire and burying much of it under several feet of silt and debris.

Mills never recovered and abandoned the canyon to help build the town of Mills back up on the plains. But despite his many successful business efforts, the man is said to have died penniless and dependent upon the generosity of others.

Meanwhile the town of Mills and the surrounding plains prospered as homesteaders flocked to the area and took up farming.

But once again nature and fate stepped in to put a halt to man’s best laid plans.

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl conspired to drive many off the plains and all that remains of the town of Mills is a couple of old houses.

In the end, federal government was forced to step in to save this area of the prairies from any further losses.

The national grasslands are the remains of those efforts, four tracts of federally managed grasslands with two in New Mexico. About 78,000 acres around the Mills Canyon area and another 57,000 acres tract near Clayton.

Both are administered by the Forest Service’s Kiowa and Rita Blanca grasslands office in Clayton. For more information, visit Web site at the Cibola National Forest — Welcome! (www.fs.fed.us/r3/cibola/) or call 505-374-9652.

Down in Mills Canyon, visitors can explore the remains of a stone-built, two-story hotel, relax in the cool shade of the carved sandstone cliff walls or wander among remaining stands of orchard trees.

And the river is said to harbor a good population of catfish.

During the summer months visitors will find the temperature rises quickly, but with plenty of shade to be had one can ride out the afternoon comfortably with perhaps a quick dip in the river for added relief.

Free campsites are available and visitors should pack in plenty of water and ice, a spray bottle for swamp-cooler like relief, insect repellent and other essentials because of its remote location.

Be aware of the potential for encounters with snakes and other wildlife and take preventative measures to limit risks.

Visitors to Mills Canyon can find some services in the nearby town of Roy, a tidy, little town of about 300 that boasts a bank, bar, gas station, diners, antique store and a mercantile that’s up for sale.

The diner was open for lunch on Sunday and politely greeting the locals is encouraged.

New campground in the works for Mills Canyon

The Mills Canyon campground is scheduled to undergo some changes in the near future.

Construction is scheduled to begin any day now on a six-site campground on the rim of Mills Canyon near the access road, said Nancy Walls, district ranger for the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands.

The rim campground will feature a new outhouse and pull through sites to accommodate recreational vehicles and horse trailers.

Each site will feature a picnic table, fire ring and grate and a tent pad. There will be three holding pens for horses and a nearby rainwater runoff stock pond for watering animals.

No drinking water, electricity or dump services will be available.

Camping is free and the new campground is expected to be completed by the end of August.

Work will proceed sometime in September on the road leading down into the canyon to include replacement of a wooden bridge.

Despite improvements, the road will still be classified as unsuitable for travel by RVs and trailers, which is one reason why the new rim campground is being built, Walls said.

The road will be closed for an estimated 30 days and those planning a trip to the canyon should call ahead to the Forest Service’s Kiowa and Rita Blanca grasslands office in Clayton at 505-374-9652 for specific dates, Walls said. Also visit the Cibola National Forest — Welcome! Web site (www.fs.fed.us/r3/cibola/) for more information.

Once the roadwork is completed crews in October and November are slated to begin work on the Mills Canyon campground at the base of the canyon, Walls said.

Campsites will be moved farther back from the river’s edge and four more sites will be added to expand the entire campground from eight to 12 with plenty of room between sites, Walls said.

New fire rings, picnic tables and other amenities including an outhouse and handicap access will be installed, Walls said.

Once again no water, electricity or dump services will be available. Camping is free.

An interpretive display will also be constructed at the site of the Mills ranch headquarters and hotel site, Walls said.

Despite the improvements, the area will retain its rustic and primitive nature, Walls said.


From Santa Fe head northeast on I-25 to Wagon Mound. Turn east on N.M. 120 to Roy and then turn north on N.M. 39 toward Abbott. About 10 miles out of Roy turn west on Mills Canyon Road, follow to the canyon rim and head on down. About a 300-mile roundtrip from Santa Fe.
Primitive camping sites available at Mills Canyon and at large within the grasslands. Last chance for gas and supplies at Roy.

Also see this article as it appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

NM News - Gila Trout Available to Limited Angling

Gila Trout. Photo courtesy of New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

Nearly driven to extinction, New Mexico’s Gila trout has rebounded enough due to recovery efforts to allow anglers to pursue the rare trophy fish beginning July 1st, 2007.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Dennis Johnson, 52, a New Mexico State University chemistry professor in Las Cruces and an avid fisherman of southern New Mexico’s Gila wilderness and forest areas. “I intend to be there on opening day. It’s a unique and historic opportunity. ”

As of July 1, 2007, state Game and Fish officials will allow fishing for the Gila trout in Black Canyon Creek on a catch and release basis until Sept. 30th, 2007. Black Canyon Creek contains pure Gila trout and can be reached by motor vehicle.

The move comes on the heels of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to downgrade the Gila trout from “endangered” to “threatened” which opens the door to limited angling. The Gila trout, Rio Grande and Colorado River cutthroats are New Mexico’s three native trout.

Jerry Monzingo, a Forest Fisheries biologist for the Gila National Forest, said he expects the Black Canyon area to see the most anglers on opening day as it is the most accessible of the fours streams to be opened for Gila trout fishing.

“You can step out of your vehicle and fish for trout there,” he said.

Nonetheless those venturing into the Gila should be prepared to deal with day-time highs in the 90s, routine afternoon thunderstorms and hiking into a remote, wilderness location, Monzingo said.

“The mornings should be best,” he said.

Iron Creek will also be open to fishing for Gila trout but all year round and with a two fish bag limit. This creek requires a moderate hike in from the Willow Creek camping area and some streamside bushwhacking, Monzingo said.

The Gila trout here may look pure but are suspected of having some rainbow trout blood in them hence the lack of a catch and release requirement, he said.

Both waters require the use of artificial flies or lures armed with a single barb less hook. Anglers intending to fish Iron Creek and Black Canyon are required to possess a special Gila trout permit along with their fishing license. Visit the Department of Game and Fish website at www.wildlife.state.nm.us and follow the “Buy Licenses Online” link at the bottom of the homepage.

Monzingo recommends those hiking into the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas obtain area maps available at any Forest Service center or through the Public Lands website at www.publiclands.org/

Two other creeks will also be opened to fishing for Gila trout -- McKenna and Sacaton Creeks -- where regular trout rules and bag limits will be in effect. These Gila trout populations are thought to contain rainbow blood also and require lengthy hikes to reach them.

The state Game Commission approved the angling choices at its March 2007 meeting in Las Cruces, according to a state Department of Game and Fish news release announcing the Gila trout’s open season.

Anglers seeking more information about these creeks, roads and other conditions within the Gila wilderness and forest areas can visit the Gila National Forest’s website at www2.srs.fs.fed.us/r3/gila/ or call their office in Silver City at (505) 388-8201.

The opening of previously closed waters to fishing represents a great achievement for many who worked for decades to see the Gila trout recovered enough that anglers could fish for them again, said Dave Propst, Fish Biologist for the state Department of Game and Fish in Santa Fe.

Propst credits the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service along with assistance from New Mexico State University, the University of New Mexico and conservation groups for working together to restore Gila trout from a low of just four streams and about 20 miles of habitat to 12 streams over 70 miles of suitable water.

“We’re pretty pleased with what we’ve accomplished but there is still a lot more work to do,” Propst said.

State Game and Fish officials will monitor angling impact on the Gila trout populations and make adjustments as needed. Efforts will also continue to reclaim streams and protect and restock them in an effort to restore the Gila trout to its native range throughout the region, Propst said. Angling opportunities will be restored as conditions permit, he said.

Fly fishing enthusiasts are excited about the prospect of the trout’s recovery and the opening of previously off-limits areas to fishing within the Gila wilderness and forest areas, said Paul Turner, president of the Mesilla Valley Flyfishers and a retired Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences Professor for New Mexico State University’s College of Agriculture.

Turner said he was involved in the Gila trout recovery efforts and that he is pleased to see his work produce results.

“This took long-term dedication to make this happen; dedication to the fish, wanting to see it recover and sticking with it,” Turner said.

The Gila trout was first listed as endangered back in 1966, which resulted in the suspension of fishing and closure of numerous streams within the Gila forest and wilderness areas.

Many Gila trout saved from fire, floods and drought during the recovery effort have since helped create new populations of Gila trout at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service state-of-the-art fish hatchery in Mora. A backup population of Gila trout is maintained at the facility and fish are raised for continued stocking.

“This is only the beginning, a drop in the bucket,” Jim Brooks of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said of the recent successes and stream openings.

Brooks said pure strain Gila trout are deserving of the efforts made to restore them to their traditional habitat. Similar restoration efforts are underway in neighboring Arizona.

So far such efforts in New Mexico have included the removal of non-native sport fish such as rainbow and brown trout from Gila trout streams and the installation of barriers to prevent these fish from moving back into reclaimed areas.

Brown trout tend to prey upon the Gila trout’s young and compete for food and space while rainbow trout breed with Gila trout to produce hybrids that jeopardize the pure Gila trout’s more desirable traits, Brooks said.

Gila trout are well adapted to the wildly fluctuating temperatures and water flows found within the Gila wilderness areas.

“The best fish for this area is the native Gila trout,” Brooks said. “Not a stocked brown or rainbow.”

Other obstacles encountered during the effort to restore the Gila trout included local opposition to the state and federal government’s overall effort, especially, the use of a poison typically used to clear streams of non-native fish.

And the environment itself dealt its own harsh blow to the project as forest fires and resultant floods damaged trout habitat and set back restoration efforts at a critical juncture.

But the team has overcome many of those obstacles and as more streams are cleared, reclaimed and restocked the threat to the Gila trout diminishes, Brooks said.

“We’re not backing off on this project at all,” he said. “Black Canyon is a nice offering but the best is yet to come.”

Brooks said he expects to see the recently renovated stretches of the Upper West Fork of the Gila River and Mogollon Creek to produce results that locals may be looking for – good-sized fish in sustainable numbers available to anglers within the next few years.

And as the fishing expands and improves, Brooks said he expects local outfitters who typically rely on deer and elk hunters for guide work will find anglers making additional demand for their services.

But fishing guide Jerry Burton, 67, of Albuquerque, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and the original petitioner to have the Gila trout downgraded, said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to this initial offering of the Gila trout.

“These are relatively inaccessible areas, the fish are small and it can be tough fishing in there,” Burton said. “There are probably some individuals out there who may say this is a unique fish and I’d like to catch one and they might produce some business for the outfitters down there. But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

In the meantime Dennis Johnson of Las Cruces says he’ll be there on opening day, armed with his fly rod, hiking boots and an itch to catch one of those rare and sometimes troublesome, Gila trout.

“My experience down there is they’ll probably be very non-selective but real picky about the presentation,” Johnson said. “One bad cast and you’ll put them down.”

And what’ll he be fishing with you might wonder?

Why an elk-hair, caddis fly, of course!

If you go:

From the northern part of the state take I-25 south to State Road 60 at Socorro and head west to State Road 52 just before reaching the Very Large Array. Head south to the Beaverhead work center and then take Forest Road 150 south to Black Canyon.
State Road 52 can also be accessed off I-25 at the Cuchillo turnoff near Truth of Consequences.
Or even further south, take State Road 152 at the Hillsboro turnoff and head west to State Road 35 and head north to Mimbres. Take Forest Road 150 north to Black Canyon.

See this article at the Santa Fe New Mexican also.

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