The plight of the Gila trout

Deep in the New Mexico desert, amongst Anasazi ruins and rough, wild country lurks the rarest of the rare.

Huddled as close to the fallen tree as we could get, Kirk and I looked at each other, our eyes wide with surprise and a touch of fear. The bullet had missed us by a wide margin, but the fact that we could hear it as it zinged overhead after the ricochet was unnerving.

“Wait for him to reload,” Kirk said. “Then we’ll get over that little rise and out of range.”

A few more shots rang through the trees along the creek bottom, and we could hear the lead crashing through the cottonwoods just a few dozen yards away. With each shot, we sank lower to the ground, making ourselves as small as we possibly could.

Finally, the shots ceased, and we popped up from the shelter and sprinted about forty yards over a small rise and out of the spray of handgun shots coming from the unknowing shooter. We hollered and yelled as we ran, but we suspected the target shooter was wearing earplugs as he or she clipped the trees from a nearby stretch of private land along the remote little creek, deep in the heart of southern New Mexico’s Gila country.

We’d spent a couple of hours driving a deeply rutted gravel road into the backcountry during the July monsoon season, and then hiked a few miles up a tiny creek that held one of the last stronghold populations of native Gila trout — one of only two trout subspecies native to the far southwest. The other native — the Apache trout — swims a bit farther to the west in Arizona. Both are rare, but efforts to recover them at that time were moving along nicely. We didn’t know that, years later, this little creek would fall victim to a hotter-than-hell wildfire, and the efforts to restore Gilas to this watershed would have to start all over from scratch.

And it’s not the first time a restored Gila population had to be brought back from the brink. Climate-induced wildfires are more and more common along the Mogollan Rim, and restored Gila trout streams have been in the crosshairs of wildfires a number of times. Thankfully, hearty Trout Unlimited volunteers have helped state fish and game managers salvage as many of the priceless fish as possible, rearing them in hatcheries until their wild habitat bounces back from its touch with inferno. Efforts to restore Gila and Apache trout continue today, even the face of ever-intensifying fires and a warming climate that’s noticeably different than it was even just a couple of decades ago.

But ignorance, at the time of our visit, was bliss. The bottom country around this remote stream north and east of Silver City was lush and green, not what you’d expect in the desert Southwest. Wildflowers soaked up the sunlight after a week of solid rain, and the grass along the trail draped over the bare dirt, disguising our path as we pushed deeper into the wilderness in search of these special trout.

Seven of us pierced the Gila wildlands that day, and, despite the best efforts of a clueless pot-shotter, all seven of us made it out without holes in our hides. We never figured out who was shooting or what they were shooting at.

But we did catch Gilas. Lots of them.

On the whole, they’re a pretty unremarkable fish, at least to look at. They look a little like their cousins to the north, the Rio Grande cutthroats, but without the heavy spots and, of course, without the tell-tale gill slash. They also resemble another Gila cousin — the rainbow, but without the red stripe. But, for small water, they were strong, thick-bodied, bronze-hued trout that put a good bend in a light, glass rod. And chasing them where they belonged, in this remote and wild country about a hundred miles from the Mexican border added to the adventure of checking another fish off the life list.

Kirk, at the time a guide, editor and freelance fly fishing writer, remarked more than once about the countryside and the sheer bounty of the mountains that sprang from the arid desert and pushed their way into the clouds. The summer monsoons — at times so torrential that every low spot on the map brimmed with standing water after a storm — greened up the landscape and pushed the Gila’s fauna into full view. We chased wild turkeys out of the piñons, spooked fat and happy mule deer and watched golden eagles ride the steamy thermals overhead.

After days spent hiking deep into the backcountry along the West Fork of the Gila River in search of brown trout, and touring Anasazi cliff dwellings abandoned for some unknown reason a thousand years ago, we rested our bones at the funky Gila Hot Springs Lodge, where good whiskey and warm water lulled us to sleep.

But the day I held that first Gila trout in my hands — a victim of a high-floating Adams — will always be special to me. Native trout, because they’ve been pushed into the recesses of their former ranges, are special creatures in a world where better is often measured by bigger. That’s certainly true in much of the Gila, where smallmouth bass and opportunistic browns now dominate the main stem of the Gila River. The native fish, pushed nearly into memory, now thrive only in tiny waters where the only people interested in seeing them rise to a fly are those of us willing to navigate treacherous mountain roads and then hike deep into the wild.

But what most folks don’t realize is that the trophy fish in today’s chopped up version of our country’s once-pristine heart aren’t the interlopers that’ll hit a popper in froggy water or chase a streamer in a deep hole under the highway bridge. The real trophies are the fish you can only get to with effort and tire rubber and locked-in hubs. And even then you have to park and walk, sometimes for miles, because that’s what it takes to experience the land as it was a century ago, or longer. And that’s the kind of land that nurtures the rarest of the rare.

Long live the Gila trout, and God bless the angler willing to chase them. As long as we walk the creekside trails and marvel at a creature so rare that it nearly winked out of existence, we know someone cares enough to check in on them now and then.

And as long as we tell our children the tales only these adventures spawn, we can rest knowing these fish have a future.

Click HERE for the full article by Chris Hunt in Hatch magazine.

Bounty on brown trout to protect native fish

LEES FERRY — The reflection of the red rocks made it tough to tell where the water ended and the cliffs began as Barron Tsinigine cast his line into the river. It was daybreak and he had been fishing for rainbow trout, until he found out he could earn $25 for landing a brown trout.

That’s when his plan changed.

“I’m in the same boat as everyone else right now. I’m unemployed and it’d be nice to make a little bit of cash, as well as get a meal,” Tsinigine said. “I’ll be out here fishing either way, at least now I can get paid for it.”

Tsinigine was one of the first anglers to participate in Arizona’s incentivized harvest of brown trout. Wildlife agencies are funding the pilot program to cull the brown trout population in the Colorado River, in the hopes of keeping the predacious trout from moving downstream and endangering native fish, like the humpback chub.

Anglers can catch a $25 check for every brown trout harvested, as long as it is at least six inches in length. To receive the reward, the brown trout must have been caught legally in the Colorado River, in the roughly 15-mile stretch between the Glen Canyon Dam and the Paria River inflow.

There is a newly established station at the Lees Ferry boat ramp where anglers can clean the trout and fill out data cards. They must also deposit the fish head and entrails at a collection station outside the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center.

“The only extra step for me is filling out a card and I want to do that because how else are they going to know where to send my check,” Tisingine said, with a grin. “I drive by the center no matter what. This is as simple as it can be. My wife will be thrilled.”

By incentivizing anglers like Tsinigine, the National Park Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department are hoping to avoid the use of more aggressive management tactics — like disrupting spawn beds or electro-fishing — to diminish the population of brown trout.

“It is unfortunate that such a coveted sports fish, like brown trout, lives in an area that is incompatible with our native fish management plan,” said Scott Rogers, an aquatic wildlife program manager for the Game and Fish Department. “But we’re not trying to remove every brown trout, just enough to mitigate the risk of them moving downstream.”

Program to thin fish population

This is one of the first such harvests in Arizona. It will run for the next three to four years, at which time wildlife agencies will reassess the trout population.

The brown trout, known for its olivebrown scales and its ability to evade capture, is a fish-eating predator that was introduced to the state in the 1930s.

“As brown trout become adults, they feed almost exclusively on other fish and they have a voracious appetite,” said Ken Hyde, chief of science and resource management for the park service at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “Our real worry is that they move downstream and start eating native fish that are considered endangered or threatened.”

Generally, fish only move downstream when they run out of space or food. According to Hyde, monitoring data from the Game and Fish Department has shown a dramatic increase of brown trout over the last six years.

“As a fish-eating fish, having them in the same system as endangered or threatened native fish can be problematic if we don’t manage it closely, which is why we’re trying this incentivized program,” Rogers said. “This is an experiment, but we’re hopeful that it will be successful.”

If at the end of the pilot program the harvest is considered unsuccessful, the two agencies will turn to more aggressive mechanical removal tactics.

“We’re asking the public to pitch in because we need their help to avoid taking more drastic steps,” said Jeff Arnold, a fish biologist for the park service at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “Mechanical removal is more expensive and much less popular among native tribes and angler groups because they think it will have a negative impact on the rest of the fishery.”

Mechanical removals include the disruption of spawning beds and electro- fishing.

“An incentivized harvest is the least intrusive type of management, which is why we are starting with that,” Rogers said. “By communicating with anglers, we’re hoping to convince them to partake in this program so that we can avoid any other invasive and aggressive means of mitigating the brown trout problem.”

The first time Jim Strogen went fishing was when he was 3 years old, or perhaps he was 2. He doesn’t remember. But he says he probably learned to fish faster than he learned to walk.

The lifelong angler is a recreational fishing representative for the technical working group of the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program. Strogen has been acting as a bridge between agencies and anglers throughout the development and launch of the trout harvest.

“The hardest part of starting a new program is getting the locals to buy in,” Strogen said. “It’s hard for some anglers to understand the importance of native fish down river because, from an angling perspective, humpback chub isn’t something we care as much about as brown trout.”

According to Strogen, the idea of catching and killing fish for money is also alien to many anglers, especially fly fishermen, who primarily practice catch and release.

“It’s not inherently obvious to a lot of anglers why catching a brown trout and killing it is a good thing because many have been taught it’s better for the environment to release them,” Strogen said. “But in this case, keeping and killing the trout is what’s best because if this type of management fails, then those agencies are going to have to try something more aggressive.”

Throughout the development of this pilot program, Strogen, Hyde and others involved in its development have been conducting informational meetings with popular fishing organizations, like Trout Unlimited, to explain directly to anglers how an incentivized harvest will help.

“Anglers are key to helping us manage brown trout,” Hyde said. “It’d be tough to get trout numbers back down without them.”

Incentivized harvests elsewhere

While this is one of Arizona’s first paid harvests, other states, such as Washington, have been funding similar programs for years.

According to Hyde, the brown trout program was generally modeled after the Northern Pike Reward Program run by the Colville Confederated Tribes’ Department of Fish and Wildlife.

For the past four years, anglers in Washington have been rewarded with $10 for every northern pike harvested in the Columbia River between Wells Dam and the Canadian border. Like the brown trout, the northern pike is an invasive species that feasts on other fish.

“For us, any northern pike is a bad northern pike. We want them all gone. They can consume so much fish that they can essentially wipe out all our other fisheries,” said Holly McLellan, the principal biologist for the tribes. “We’re very concerned about the expansion of northern pike into waters where they can consume salmon and other native fish.”

Since the start of the reward program in 2017, more than 3,100 northern pike have been caught by anglers, a third of those pike this year. The pike program operates on a budget of approximately $30,000 a year and has funding through 2025.

One of the key differences between these two incentivized harvests is the six-inch size minimum in Arizona. In Washington, a harvested northern pike of any size is compensated with $10. Last year, the average size of pike turned in for a reward was 16.5 inches.

“We’re really trying to concentrate on adults because they’re the biggest, the most likely to eat the most amount of fish,” Hyde said. “If the adults also move down river, they are more likely to spawn and continue expanding the brown trout population.”

Since the launch of the pike program, McLellan says one of the challenges has been maintaining anglers’ interest. While the first year of the program brought in over 1,000 northern pike, the next two years saw a steady decline to just under 400 pike in 2019.

That has now bounced back to 1,060 pike turned in by mid-November of this year. One of the reasons for the renewed interest is the improvements the department has made to communication, according to McLellan.

Consistent reminders on social media as well as the promotion of the program in nearby cities and towns has kept the harvest on the minds of avid anglers. McLellan believes this is an important aspect of any successful program because it corrects misinformation and reminds anglers that they can both help the environment and earn money.

“We want anglers to feel like they are part of the solution to this problem. Together, we can accomplish our objective in removing them,” McLellan said. “The rewards program is the angler’s way of helping solve the problem.”

Anton L. Delgado is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/ AZCentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @antonldelgado and tell him about stories at anton.delgado@arizonarepublic.com.

Environmental coverage on az central.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“We’re asking the public to pitch in because we need their help to avoid taking more drastic steps.”

Jeff Arnold Fish biologist, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Click HERE for the full article by Anton L. Delgado in The Arizona Republic.