The strong smell of the wet leaves on the trail makes me imagine I could be along any trout stream in the country. The towering, alcove pocked cliffs of orange volcanic tuff let me know I'm somewhere in the southwest. But when I catch a Gila trout toward the end of my November fishing day, I know I can only be in the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico- in this case on the Middle Fork of the Gila River. I not only caught that Gila, a survivor from a stocking done at the Gila forks awhile back, but also good sized browns and a few rainbows on that same day.
The Middle Fork of the Gila River has nearly 40 miles fishable water almost all in the Gila Wilderness and accessible only by foot or horseback. Oddly enough, because of several good overland routes to upstream destinations, the stretch directly above the Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center ( the only part available for a day trip) may actually receive less fishing pressure than spots deeper in the wilderness. This lower Middle Fork (from its confluence with the West Fork upstream about 8 miles or so) is a peach of stream if you wait until mid to late fall to fish it. Come in the summer and you may be disappointed, especially if you've come for trout. The water will be warm and you're more likely to see suckers than anything else. There may be bluegill and smallmouths, but since I usually avoid the lower elevation Gila streams as day fishing destinations in the summer, I'm no expert. Two things you will definitely see in late Spring and early Summer : people, and once July 4th rolls around, rain. Two more reasons to schedule your trip for October or November. In those months there will be cool mornings, warm afternoons,and blue skies.The fishing will be in pure or nearly pure solitude. On my Election Day trip ( I voted early), the VW van at the trailhead told me I was likely to encounter a few hippies at the hot spring a 1/2 mile or so up the trail. I did, and they were the last people I saw for the next six hours or so.
I've learned not to waste my time casting below the hot spring. Even where the water (and the gravel) looks good, it's too warm for most trout. There are good holes where the stream runs against the rocks soon enough above the spring. Drop a nymph to the head, the tail, the slow water on the inside of the bend, or right where the water is deepest and you'll come up with something: if there are trout there, they'll take.
In places the lower Middle Fork breaks into smaller channels edged with bear grass and with deeply undercut banks. The water can be three feet deep or more and holds some large browns. You'll have to be extremely stealthy to hook one. In November the leaves are gone and the undergrowth is crunchy, so it is important to constantly anticipate and plan your approaches. In general, even though the fish here aren't as spooky as on smaller Gila streams, it's best to stay out of the water and fish from cover(and from the bank) whenever you can. If you do get one these jumbos on your line then hold on for dear life, like it as not you'll lose it due mostly to the sheer shock.
The sun sets quickly in these deep canyons, so it's advisable to turn around early, especially if the plan is to fish on the way back. More than once I've stumbled back to the car in total darkness( I bring a flashlight now).If I don't want cold feet on the drive home, I soak them in the hot spring on the return hike: an extra amenity that very few trout streams offer and a nice way to end a day of fall fishing on the Middle Fork of the Gila River.