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Fish Tales 

M.H. Salmon's love for the Gila River shows in this charming paean

M.H. Salmon is a Southwesterner cast from the old-school mold.

He's unabashed about his love for the somewhat politically incorrect "field sports"--hunting, fishing and the like--and he wants to protect our regional watersheds and wilderness so he can continue to indulge in them.

His writing has a bit of throwback about it as well. His new book, a charming paean to the last remaining wild stretches of the once-mighty Gila River, casts back to the work of J. Frank Dobie and other early Southwestern men of letters who were also men of the saddle, the hunt and the river.

This isn't surprising, as one of Salmon's many sidelines is selling and publishing classic and forgotten books about "Western Americana, the great outdoors and natural history," including several of his own, under the name High-Lonesome Books in Silver City, N.M.

For all his bookishness and writerly skill, though, Salmon makes it clear in ¡Gila Libre!: New Mexico's Last Wild River, out now from the University of New Mexico Press, that he prefers to be knee-deep in the Gila, casting about for catfish and trout. His slender collection of short set pieces, columns, fish tales and polemics about the upper Gila watershed, one of the last remaining wild rivers (meaning undammed and undiverted) in the region, offers a rather compelling argument for the backwoods lifestyle, though I suspect all Salmon is trying to do is celebrate a rare, threatened landscape while telling some stories about fishing.

He includes stories about the Mimbres group of the Mogollon culture, an indigenous band that once lived among the sky islands and riparian plenty of the Gila headwaters, on and around what is today the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico. During a particularly wet period in their history, when the fish and game were easy to catch, and food was easy to grow, a surplus allowed a group of artisans to thrive, creating some of the most unique and beautiful pottery in the region. Salmon also gives a nod to some of the mountain men and professional hunters who once stalked the upper Gila. The lives of men like James Ohio Pattie and Ben Lilly offer a glimpse of what it was like to live off the land, to know the land on a level that few of us ever will.

But it is two other sons of the Gila who brought the headwaters fame: Geronimo, who was born and raised in the Gilalands and who may have been wild river country incarnate; and Aldo Leopold, who Salmon calls "America's patron saint of conservation." Leopold extolled the Gila's riches in magazine articles and official reports early in the 20th century, and by 1925, the Forest Service had set aside 800,000 acres of the Gila National Forest as a wild and roadless place, an early precursor to the hundreds of similar wilderness set-asides spawned under the 1964 federal Wilderness Act.

Leopold could have been talking about the Gila headwaters today when he described his ideal wilderness in a 1921 article quoted by Salmon: "By Wilderness I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two week's pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages or other works of man."

The last third of Salmon's book is given to short stories about his many fishing expeditions in the Gila Wilderness. I don't fish; still, Salmon's humanity, his honesty and his obvious enchantment with his river--and all that lives in it and along it--is always present, so I was happy to follow him up and down the flow, from one deep trout-crowded pool to the next, just listening.

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