Tuesday, May 25, 2010

White Mountain Wilderness Trout Streams- Lincoln National Forest,New Mexico


I think of the creeks of the White Mountain Wilderness (near Ruidoso, New Mexico) as my home waters. I know they are 100-125 miles from my house in Las Cruces, but that's just a fact of life here in New Mexico: most of us live and work in the desert valleys, but we play (and fish) in the mountains.
A two hour drive brings me to Three Rivers, name notwithstanding, a very small, steep stream(singular) on the western flanks of the 12,000 foot Sierra Blanca, the "white mountain" of the name of the wilderness(though not actually in the wilderness, but on the Mescalero Apache Reservation).This massive peak towers 7,000 feet above the desert floor and makes it own weather, which provides enough moisture for the several small trout streams, including Three Rivers which flows into a closed desert basin, disappearing beneath the sand. To fish here, you'll be hiding behind boulders, stumbling down steep banks and frequently resorting to the bow and arrow cast. The quarry: six to eight inch brook trout, but with the chance lurking for a heavy 10-11 incher that will give you a thrill. Bring your shortest, lightest rod and maybe some kneepads and you'll have a lot of a fun.
Directly across the ridge are the Rio Bonito drainages, about 15 miles northeast of the resort town of Ruidoso, New Mexico. Passing by heavily stocked Bonito Lake( open April through November) brings you first to the South Fork Bonito Creek and then to the permanent stretch of the Bonito main stem seven miles further down Forest Road 107.The reliable water on the Main Bonito, and the best fishing is in the wilderness, but even there, the water can get frighteningly low in dry years. In wet years, there may be water and fish in the non- wilderness sections both above and below the lake. There is also a permanent stretch much lower down at Fort Stanton which may contain browns, though I've never fished there. In the main stem Bonito are small brookies and rainbows. There can be some large (12-15 inches) rainbows here in May and early June, from, I would assume, a spawning run from the lake. Fish a large caddis at the tail of a plunge pool, or a weighted prince nymph right in the froth for one of these prizes.
The South Fork has more fish, rainbows, brookies and even a few cuttbows up high, and catching a couple dozen seems no great feat, but I've never caught anything bigger than 10 inches. The South Fork also has reliable water in late spring and early summer (before the monsoon starts) even in dry years. It also clears much more quickly. The nearby Ruidoso River will run brown as chocolate milk for a week or more after a heavy summer rain, while the South Fork will clear in a day or two. The only problem with the South Fork is the developed and popular Forest Service campground of the same name that sits beside the creek. This means there'll be backpackers, picnickers and hikers all along the stream every weekend in the spring, and once school lets out, they'll be there every day all summer long. Walking in a couple of miles leaves most of them behind, but lots of luck with those really nice pools about 3/4 mile from the trailhead; if they don’t have kids jumping in them, they're frequently fished out by mid-July.




Small tributaries of both forks hold brook trout. Some, such as Argentina Canyon, because it's really difficult to fish, and also looks highly unlikely to contain fish, have grown some fairly large brookies in the past, bigger than in either main branch. Argentina was silted in and had little habitat last time I visited, but the brookies could return.
In July 2008, the remnants of Hurricane Dolly brought an excessive amount of moisture into the area. Sierra Blanca received 9 inches of rain in one night. The resulting floods washed out bridges and damaged homes along the Ruidoso River. The streams of the wilderness were heavily eroded, especially the high gradient Three Rivers creek. I visited in September(08) and saw no fish. Although I’ve so spoken to a couple of people who say they saw fish in there this past summer. The main fork of the Bonito above the South Fork is blown out as well: a wide gravel wash with a few inches of water trickling down the middle. It’s doubtful they’ll be any fishing there anytime soon.A few good water years in a row would really help the situation. The South Fork seems to be doing better, there are still a few catchable fish. It also may be able to repopulate from the lake. Three Rivers could be supplemented ,this time, since no hatcheries are raising brook trout, most likely with rainbows, although cutthroats would be a better choice.UPDATE (4/13/14)- The Southfork Rio Bonito drainage burned severely in 2012, it is most likely fishless. Parts of the Main Bonito drainage burned as well, it is unlikely that it has any fish either. Three Rivers population of brook trout continues to survive. Water quality in the Ruidoso River is very poor- the fishing has not been good. There are plans , however,to reintroduce Rio Grande Cutthroats to its three forks on  the Mescalero Reservation- which would be great.

6 comments:

randall norred said...

Do you have a google maps with all of these streams marked? Im new to the area and am looking for places to fish.

devon said...

None of these streams are hard to find. Unfortunately, at this point, only Three Rivers and the Rio Ruidoso( technically not in the wilderness) have fishable populations. Eagle creek( Northfork), Rio Bonito( main and South fork)and Argentina Canyon have all been seriously affected by flooding and ash run-offs from fires. The turn-off for Three Rivers Forest campground is off US 54 north of Tularosa. Rio Ruidoso runs right through the town and also has several forks on the Mescalero Reservation.The Rio Penasco is also nearby right along US 82- with very few free access points( see my blog and read Rex Johnson's comments).Fresnal Canyon right along US 82 on the west side of the mountains, has fish, but is a very, very rough place to work your way in and out of. Tularosa Creek coming off the west side of the Reservation right along US 70 always has good water, and could still have fish.

Sherie Wood said...

Does the wilderness still look the same after the flooding and fires? Your pictures from 2010 are beautiful; I'm wondering what the area looks like now...

devon said...

These areas are not looking real good right now. South fork bonito and Bonito Lake camping area were burned pretty severely, as was North Fork Eagle Creek and parts of Main Bonito.Flooding has altered the areas as well.

Helena Roderick said...

Hi I love you pictures! I love the second place where you n your dogs in the picture, can you tell me name of the place and how to get there ? We went to ruidoso not too long ago to find those streams but we couldn't find that place.. :(

devon said...

The picture with the dogs is the South Fork of Bonito Creek- which experienced severe fire damage 3 years ago. The campground is no longer open,and I believe the road to the trail head is closed too. Check with the Forest Service about access to this area. The main stem of Bonito Creek and Argentina Canyon( in two of the photos) and it's road and trail are open and not as severely damaged as the South Fork bonito watershed.