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Outwitting the Official State Fish of New Mexico

I have the happiest views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from almost anywhere in my Santa Fe County home. This is where the Rockies in New Mexico begin. As I write this, the day is merging with the night, the time when the muses visit painters and poets.

A towering anvil-headed anvil cloud in September turns the color of a watermelon over Santa Fe Baldy and Hamilton Mesa. The trailing, curved edge of the cloud that sweeps over the mountain peaks looks like a transparent lavender curtain that is moved by the wind through an open window.

The moisture that is squeezed out of this moving work of art meets the steep, dark mountain slopes, which are softened by green and blue needles from pine, fir and spruce trees. The water flows through gray granite crevices as it trickles downhill. The rain invades streams and then ritos with names like Azul, Padre, Valdez and Chimayosos. These noisy, cobbled creeks will soon beget the actual pecos, but before they do, their waters sit in dark pools in the cool shade of lanky alders whose roots knot the riverbank. This is habitat for Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout.

The Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout is named after the purple splash under its gills and is only found in its river basin of the same name. In the spring of the year the spawning males are covered in red over the head and chest. It’s breathtaking, like they’re soaked in blood.

Under these September clouds, the fish lie in pools while they are flooded with fresh vegetables in the shade of the ponderosa tree trunks that have fallen into the creek. Or they lay on the edge of a lichen-covered rock in a vortex just behind a slide of foamy water, waiting for a grasshopper or caddis fly or clumsy moth to come too close.

A beetle turns into food with a dart and roll. Unless this beetle is similar, bare fur and feathers adorn a tiny, barbed hook.

A jerk and a splash, and in a moment I can see my reflection on the shimmering flank of a trout, and feel it tense its cold muscles in my wet hand as it backs up with a part of its tail teeming with spots Peppercorns slide into the water.

It’s an ongoing longing: outsmarting cutthroat trout in the highlands, especially with my children, is one of my favorite things to do. I never feel more alive. I am a participant in nature and not just an observer. Bordered by brush and boulders, these tiny streams require stealth and attention, as well as a certain determination. The experience sharpens your senses and clears your head, like flossing your psyche. I think I don’t think at all.

It’s physically demanding too. A friend of mine compared cutting cutthroat waters to casting yoga. It takes some time to pull an arch out from under overhanging alders from behind a boulder on one elbow. Many cutthroat creeks in Upper Pecos, as elsewhere in New Mexico, are typically small and not well attended. You’ll make your own trail across falls and boulders and through patches of prickly wild raspberries properly colored like a trout’s neck.

Trout don’t grow big in small bodies of water, but when I catch a cutthroat it makes me feel like a man who just found a bag of money. Each fish is uniquely adorned with a constellation of black spots that lie on a background from a color palette borrowed from a September sunrise adorned with the tattered, leftover clouds from last night.

The Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout is the official state fish of New Mexico and is believed to be the first trout documented in the New World. When the Entrada des Coronado passed near Pecos Pueblo in 1541, a chronicler noticed that Truchas were swimming around.

Now, 477 years later, the domestic trout range is greatly reduced, yet still offers remarkable fishing opportunities not found anywhere else.

A partnership between the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish seeks to multiply these opportunities through scientifically sound conservation measures. These efforts are funded through the sale of fishing licenses and taxes on fishing rods and tackle, electric motors, and fuel for small engines and motor boats. The funding enables Rio Grande cutthroat trout biologists to renovate streams and expand populations, maintain a rigorous and healthy breeding population, and ensure the genetic purity and future of these native trout in the southwest.

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Craig Springer

Fish Biologist, External Affairs, US Fish and Wildlife Service – Southwest Region

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