By Debbie Kay
The landlocked desert state of Arizona may be a surprising choice for unique trout habitat, but they boast two unique species here; the Gila and Apache trout. Both species have had their struggles, but have managed to survive through fish and game efforts. These fish have gone from being so plentiful they were caught by the hundreds to the brink of extinction. Now they’re back, with populations sufficiently healthy that catch and release fisheries have reopened. The streams of the White Mountains, home to the Apache trout, and Gila, San Francisco and Blue River systems, home to the Gila trout, have had to undergo major stream use changes to keep these fish alive.
Land Use and Desert Trout
Though some have blamed overfishing for the near extinction of the desert trout, land use choices was another large factor. There were two groups that were most responsible for this. First were ranchers, who allowed grazing animals like cattle into the streams, crushing eggs, clogging water with silt and diverting waterways with heavy hooves. The second was landowners who pulled all of the other streamside vegetation away so that they could get a clear view of the water. Thickets of willow and other shrubs provide cooling shade that allows ample oxygen on hot summer days, strengthen river edges from landslides during rains and protect trout from predators. A combination of zoning rule changes near these critical river systems, reintroduction of hatchery populations and isolation from competing cutthroat and other introduced species have all helped to bring the fish back.
The Gila trout are a two-state fish, with populations that stretch between Arizona and New Mexico. They are currently still in recovery and non-fishable across most of their range, except the population that lives in the Frye Mesa Reservoir in Southeast Arizona, where there is a one-fish limit. There are also a few catch and release zones in New Mexico where you can try your luck. They can be caught with very similar techniques as hatchery rainbows. They like dry flies, wet flies and nymphs, and some will take spoons and spinners. Gila Trout are one of the more beautiful, unique looking trout, and sport an iridescent gold color along their body, covered with dark, tiny speckles throughout their length. Their white belly will be streaked with red and orange during a spawn, and many of them boast bandit mask spots along their eyes.
These Arizona-only fish were once so plentiful that historic pictures exist of hundreds being pulled from White Mountain streams at a time. Today, they are threatened, though recovering. This is one of the first examples of tribal intervention to protect a traditional species, as it was the Apache tribe who lobbied for the conservation of the trout in 1955, almost twenty years before the endangered species act was introduced in 1973. Forty years of protection, hatchery support and habitat protection and improvement has created three hatchery systems to support trout populations and many catch and release streams. The largest hatchery and stream system with pure populations of the trout remains on the Apache reservation, and requires special permission from the tribe. Two state programs have also helped to make an all-access catch and release fishery for Apache trout as well. They average nine inches in length, with occasional biggies up to twenty inches, and have an olive body with dark spots, larger than the Gila’s, and a yellow belly. Bait that looks natural will usually attract an apache trout, but they’re shy. Thanks to the cooperation between state and federal government, tribes, and half a dozen anglers’ groups, the chance is finally available to try and catch one.