Coronado Trail National Scenic Byway

Words from the Road

The Apache Trout Makes a Comeback
by Peter Aleshire

A handful of glimmering White Mountain trout streams now harbor a heartening comeback tale – and a thrill possible nowhere else on the planet. Standing there in the wet sparkle, you can flick a tufted fly and snag an Apache trout – a fish once in danger of extinction that now promises an economic payoff to the namesake Indian tribe that saved it. And if all goes well, that wildlife success story will be followed in several years with the recovery of its kissing cousin, the Gila trout.


Once, the Apache trout wriggled and darted in streams throughout the White Mountains. The accounts of early settlers and soldiers report streams teaming with the small, golden native trout. Soldiers' journals report fishing orgies that pulled hundreds of trout out of the brimming streams flowing off Mount Baldy, which remains the wettest, trout-friendliest place in Arizona. But a century of dams, diversions, cattle grazing and the mass stocking of non-native rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout obliterated the native species, which held out in a couple of remote, unstocked streams on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.


The demise of local fish species in the face of introduced, hatchery hoards came as sadly familiar news. Most native fish in Arizona quiver close to extinction, thanks partly to the dams on virtually every Arizona river and the introduction of exotic species that have disrupted the ecology of river-dwelling fish that also face the voracious competition of non-native fish like bass, catfish, carp and rainbow trout. What makes the story of the Apache trout unusual is its happy ending. “This will be the first fish ever to make it off the threatened list, without actually going extinct,” says Arizona Game and Fish biologist Scott Gurtin. “We’re just trying to save every piece of the puzzle,” observes Arizona’s Native Fish Program Manager Rob Bettaso, who notes that every species of trout has unique characteristics and adaptations. In addition to the thrill of catching or just glimpsing a unique native fish, protecting different species of trout safeguards their unique characteristics. That could prove crucial, in a genetically homogenous world of hatchery-raised rainbow trout increasingly vulnerable to a plague of viruses or parasites.


Once, the Apache trout – a small, spotted, gleaming-gold cousin to the rainbow spawned in streams throughout the White Mountains, while the Gila trout occupied the streams that drained into the Gila River. Ancient people trapped and hunted and netted them, as evidenced by decaying fish traps found in 1,000-year-old cliff dwellings. In the past the Apache people rarely ate fish, and for centuries Apache warriors effectively protected the native trout by resisting first the Spanish, then the Mexicans and finally the Americans. But the trout seemed doomed in the decades after the US Army broke the resistance of the Apaches in the final decades of the 1800s. Settlers soon diked, dammed and diverted many streams and rivers. Moreover, wildlife agencies began planting the rainbow, brown and brook trout popular with sportsmen, dumping hundreds of thousands of hatchery-reared fish into the streams every year. Equally devastating, ranchers set cattle loose all year-round. In seeking out grass, cattle often wade back and forth across a stream, breaking down the overhanging banks. Repeated studies have documented that once cattle start grazing along a stream bank, the trout populations in that stream decline drastically.


The native trout might have held on throughout its range, but for the introduction of non-native trout. Biologists aren’t sure why the non-native trout displaced the native trout almost everywhere they overlapped. Perhaps they gained an advantage because they spawned earlier in the year, so that by the time the Apache and Gila trout fingerlings hatched the streams were already alive with hungry, non-native trout. In any case, the Apache and Gila trout were soon vanishing throughout their range. The voracious brown trout soon gobbled all the natives in the low-elevation streams, the cold-tolerant brook trout in the frigid headwaters and the rainbow trout in most of the stream sections in between. Bred to be fast-growing and disease-resistant, the release of millions of hatchery rainbows in almost every White Mountain lake and stream soon drove the Apache and Gila trout to the edge of extinction. The natives disappeared from most streams between the 1880s and 1950, holding out in a handful of remote streams on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation and in the small streams that formed the headwaters of the Gila River. By the late 1950s, the native trout held on only in a few streams where waterfalls protected them from the ravages of non-native trout migrating upstream. After the Apache trout’s range plunged from 600 miles of stream to just 30 miles, the federal government declared the fish endangered in the 1960s, later downgrading its status to threatened in 1975. Ironically, the Apache trout made its last stand in certain areas on Mount Baldy, which the Apache considered so sacred that they barred most outsiders from entering.


The tribe and the federal government have spent the past 40 years gradually returning the Apache trout to additional streams. First, they learned how to grow the skittish native trout in hatcheries, mostly in the federal Williams Creek Fish Hatchery near McNary. Here, the breeding stock selected from the last holdout streams produce eggs --often with careful, artificial insemination in special trout runs to ensure genetic diversity. Once the eggs hatch and the fish grow big enough, they release the fish into the streams. Hatchery managers still haven’t figured out how to grow large numbers of the even more skittish Gila trout. Even in the hatchery runway, the Gila trout spook into a skittering frenzy whenever a shadow falls across the water. Finding a way to raise large numbers of Gila trout in the hatchery for reintroduction to the streams they once occupied remains the key to their future. But the success of the hatchery breeding program for Apache trout opened the floodgates to recovery. Biologists identified 28 streams the Apache trout once dominated, often in combination with native, carplike suckers and minnowlike speckled dace. The recovery plan calls for eventually putting Apache trout and the other associated native species back into each of those streams.


Wildlife managers have been working their way through that list of streams. First they build large concrete barriers at the lower end of the streams, to keep non-native trout from swimming upstream. Then they move upstream, using quick-dissolving poisons to kill the non-native trout. Finally, they stock the cleared-out stream with hatchery Apache trout. Some streams now have self-sustaining wild populations, and biologists simply monitor them to make sure non-natives don’t suddenly show up. Other streams receive hatchery Apache trout every summer, which allows wildlife managers to open those streams to fishing. The chance to catch a unique species of trout has drawn anglers from all over the world, especially fly fishermen eager to hook a unique species of trout.


The success of the Apache trout program now serves as a model for bringing the Gila trout back into the streams that feed into the Blue and Gila rivers. Still, Apache trout populations remain vulnerable. Forest fires can trigger erosion that can smother a whole network of streams. Moreover, non-native trout have demonstrated a frustrating ability to somehow get around even the best fish barriers – perhaps with help from careless fishermen who catch a trout below a barrier and release it upstream above the barrier. In addition, the reliance on Apache trout raised in fish hatcheries leaves them vulnerable to epidemics of disease. The $2.88 million recovery effort has drawn support from wildlife and anglers groups and only scattered opposition. The most serious opposition comes from the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, which protested the recovery plan on the grounds that it might lead to restriction on cattle grazing on federal lands with trout streams. On the other hand, many fisherman have already voted enthusiastically for the effort by flocking to the alluring, soothing trout streams in the White Mountains, especially the dozen meandering streams where you can still catch the golden dream of trout that have lived in these waters for the 70,000 years since their line diverged from that of their rainbow trout cousins.


The whole gleam of happy happenstance overlaps like golden scales –a unique species named for the people who saved it from extinction, out of reverence for a sacred mountain.