Chasing "Red Chili" in the water
Words: Ellen Kersh
Photos: Gene Kersh
For three days in June my husband Gene and I backpacked along the middle fork of the Santa Barbara River in the Pecos Wilderness of Northern New Mexico. We chose the Middle Fork because Carson National Forest was one of the remaining forests open in New Mexico due to severe drought and fire danger. Also, I’m preparing for a six-day backpack trip on the John Muir Trail so we’re testing out gear, food, and hiking for multiple days. To add interest to our hike we photograph and identify the wildflowers we see along the trail. We nicknamed this flower Jester’s Hat.
Red Columbine Buttercup
To top it off, we were going to fish for the illusive New Mexico native cutthroat trout. The Santa Barbara is designated special “Red Chili Waters,” which means catch and release using only artificial bait. Our streams and rivers are exceptionally low and warm this year as a result of lackluster snowfall and spring precipitation. This makes for less than ideal conditions.
We left in the pre-dawn hours of June 6 on the three hour picturesque drive known as the “High Road to Taos” which meanders through the rural Northern New Mexico villages of Tesuque, Nambe, Chimayo, Truchas, and Penasco. We stopped to fill up at the only open service station in Penasco where we got gas and some tips from the locals.
Bucks, bulls, and belts
Service Station, Penasco, New Mexico
We drove for 6 miles on the well-maintained gravel Santa Barbara road to the campground and parked the car in a nearly empty mid-week parking lot. The 2 or 3 other cars appeared to belong to dogs and their day hiker pals. We hoisted our packs upon our backs and headed into the Pecos Wilderness on Middle Fork trail #24. The trail follows the river to the wilderness sign and begins a gradual climb for two miles. Here the trail splits, the West Fork to the right, the East and Middle Forks to the left.
Heading toward the Santa Barbara
Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico
We continued to the left and began to hike up a series of switchbacks, across avalanche skree decorated with brilliant lime green lichens, and climb over numerous fallen logs along the ridge trail. It then opened up to this view of Truchas Peak in the distance.
truchas peak 13,102
Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico
At 13,102 ft., it’s NM’s second highest peak. After four miles of hiking above the river we reached the junction of the middle and east fork trails where an expansive, lush meadow awaited us. We set up camp here flanked on either side by towering aspen and ponderosa pine trees. Stage 2 restrictions meant no campfires, so we lingered drinking tea and watching the fiery colors of the setting sun dance in the sky and sublimely fade into an inky blue-black dark night. After Venus and Jupiter made their appearance it was time to clamber into our tent for the night.
Just about the time we were falling asleep the eerie yips and yaps of coyotes echoed down the canyon breaking the forest calm. We thought if we looked out our tent, many sets of glowing eyes would be surrounding us. This auditory illusion is termed the “beau geste” effect. It’s the result of the variety of sounds each coyote can produce and the way their sounds distort in the environment. This can make two coyotes sound like six. Soon the chorus of coyote barks dissipated and the woods were quiet once more. Nature calls during the night were rewarded with a sky so clear the magnificent patterns of the constellations lit up the darkness and the distinct red-orange glow of Mars stood out above the tree-lined horizon.
We woke to a crisp, dry morning, had coffee and oatmeal, gathered provisions for the day, strapped the rod cases to the packs and continued south on trail #24. We jumped rocks to cross the river which last summer was a definite wade. It was a 1.25-mile hike to the green, grassy meadow we had fished last year. We caught cutthroat in this meandering section of the Santa Barbara before and were eager to get fishing. We assembled the rods, chose our flies, and strode toward the “honey hole” with energized optimism. We worked up and down both sides of the banks approaching cautiously and quietly, yet the skeptical fish darted away in the low, clear water. Occasionally, the fishy’s would tease us with just enough tug on the line to keep us trying for more.
After much tramping through sticky branches of rosehips, willows and mountain mahogany, jumping across river rocks and small springs, we headed back north toward the meadow hitting pools along the way. The outcome was similar as in the morning. About this time we’re feeling a bit unlucky and just wanted to get “the stink off”.
Its getting late in the day, sorta past the ideal “catching time”. We’d been resting in the shade and decided to head back to the trail. I came to a bank with a small pine tree offering some cover. I crouch down low and approach the bank stealthily and drop my line in the water and let it drift down. I pick the line up and repeat the same cast. I’m thinking to myself, “I know a fish is in there” and BOOM! FISH ON! I say calmly, “Gene, I got one”.
the catching spot
Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico
Here it is, a native New Mexican cutthroat trout. Its red belly glowing in the intense mid-day sunlight. We took some photos, gave thanks, and watched as the fish swam away.
red chili trout
Santa Barbara River, New Mexico
We did it! Our goal was to catch and release a native cutthroat. With the challenging circumstances, it made the result even sweeter. Back at camp we toasted to the fish, reveling in the brilliant colors, its size and feistiness. All which got brighter, bigger, and stronger with each toast.
There is a sense of excitement when you feel the fish take the hook and you react quickly yet firmly to set it. There’s this power play bringing one to the net, but I must admit I have remorse for the fish so I apologize and thank it before I release it. We do this so the population will grow and for others to experience the sport as well.
Hiking out the next day allowed for some introspection time. When fishing, one has to be observant, quiet, stealthy, and so patient it becomes a meditative practice. There’s this moment when it all comes together. You know what I’m talking about. It can be a tug and set on the line, the perfect golf swing, or when you’re running. Time seems irrelevant because it’s effortless. It’s magic and it’s the reason we keep coming back.