Fishing For Native Trout? Leave Your Goals At Home

Written by: Daniel A. Ritz

After becoming acutely aware of the difficulty of finding native trout in the Southwest, author Daniel. A. Ritz connects with a small, albeit exemplary Gila trout.
All photos: Daniel A. Ritz/ @Jacks_Experience_Trading

Editor’s note: Orvis has joined Trout Unlimited in sponsoring Daniel Ritz’s attempt to complete the Western Native Trout Challenge in a single year. He’ll be checking in regularly from his travels. Watch this space for more.

It was a parent’s worst nightmare. 

In the fall of 2005, I was a college freshman sitting in Dr. Jerome Miller’s Philosophy 101 class at Salisbury University on the eastern shore of Maryland. Miller was enthusiastically challenging his students to “forget your goals,” and change the way we contemplate true value and meaning. 

We had just finished reading Viktor Frankl’s A Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he analyzes his experiences in the concentration camps before introducing his theories of meaning. 

While on the surface, the connections among a booze-soaked wanna-be beatnik college freshman, fly-fishing for rare native trout, and true existential crisis in the face of religious persecution may not seem obvious. But more than 15 years later, miles back on Willow Creek in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, I found myself back in that classroom questioning damn near everything I had found important to that point. 

Perfection at Whitewater Creek, New Mexico.

This was the first leg of my pursuit of the Western Native Trout Challenge, which requires an angler to catch each of the 20 native trout species in the 12 states of the American West, and my 18-hour drive from home had transported me to a burn-scarred, pine-tree strewn drainage punctuated by a stream that at times only sickenly dribbled along. 

My brain began to spin, and I became overwhelmed with the thought that my goal of connecting with one of the world’s rarest trout, the Gila, could be a failure to launch. 

“Am I going to have to come back here? It will only be later in the summer and less water.  Do I have enough money to come back? Did I bite off more than I could chew? I really thought  I could do this. What was I thinking?  I am going to be the laughing stock of the fly fishing community,” I said to myself. 

It only made it slightly better that none of my party had seen any sign of Gila trout, either. 

The evening after arriving at Willow Creek, I was lucky enough to meet and interview Jim Brooks, the ex-US Fish and Wildlife employee whom a colleague referred to as the man “probably more responsible for Gila trout still being on this planet than any one single person on earth.”

An Apache trout, found on a stream in the Baldy Wilderness in Arizona.

Without knowing it, Brooks provided a much needed shot in the arm. 

Nowadays, Brooks is a liaison for Trout Unlimited after retiring from a more than 30-year career in wildlife management. After seeing diminishing water across the southwest and wildfires of unprecedented consequence ignite in what he called the “center of the universe of the Gila trout,” he felt that it simply wasn’t an option to give up. 

Remembering Miller’s “throw away your goals” experiment, I realized that my focusing on the goal of the “challenge” portion of this trip, while important as a guiding framework, had allowed me to slip into a check-the-box mentality. I was stressed because I was looking for happiness from the accomplishment, when the meaning one finds in valuable experiences is inherent, present regardless of external influence. 

Twice during my trip to the Southwest, once while in pursuit of Gila trout in the Gila National Forest and another time searching for Apache in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, I found myself spiraling with anxiety as to whether I would be able to “get it done.” 

Bushwacking toward the headwaters on the West Fork Of the Black River, Arizona.

Each time, after I realized I was already doing what was important to me and I remembered the true meaning of my standing there in these beautiful western landscapes, the icing on the cake quickly seemed to come in the form of native trout dining on my fly. 

While my pursuit of all 20 of the West’s native trout has barely begun, I have realized that if I could do it all again, I would relieve myself of the stress of the world “challenge”every chance I could. 

While it certainly is challenging, instead of focusing on “the Challenge” itself, I’ve become fond of “the search.” 

We anglers are awfully forgiving of ourselves, aren’t we?

Daniel Ritz is a writer, angler, and Communications Manager at Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

3 thoughts on “Fishing For Native Trout? Leave Your Goals At Home”

  1. I am the “Dr. Jerome Miller” to which Dan Ritz refers at the beginning of his essay, and I’m delighted to learn that he continues to be haunted, bedeviled, confounded, upended, by philosophy’s challenge to abandon goal-seeking “challenges.” I myself was blessed to come across a book entitled Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler, by Burns and Gerdts. It contains 123 color reproductions of Homer’s magnificent paintings of anglers fishing out of New England and Canadian camps. Spend a few hours insider these paintings and the paradox starts to dawn: it’s the trout that’s fishing for us, reeling us in, carrying us downstream into the white waters of grace.

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