Anglers could get to fish for native Gila trout for first time in a century
Arizona anglers will have their first opportunity in more than a century to fish for Gila trout if the Game and Fish Commission approves a staff request Friday.
"This is a rare opportunity," said Kirk Young, chief of fisheries for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
"If we can build excitement for native fish, we want to do that," added Rory Aikens, a department spokesperson. Fishing builds public support, and public support is one of the keys to recovering a species, he said. Another major key is appropriate habitat.
The federally threatened Gila trout is one of only two trout native to Arizona, alongside the state fish, the Apache trout. The federal government downlisted the Gila trout from endangered to threatened in 2006, and created a special rule to allow limited angling. The federal government hasn't listed any critical habitat for the fish.
The Gila trout disappeared from its native habitat in Arizona around 1900, long before the state had fishing regulations, Young said.
The state started stocking the Gila trout back into Gap Creek on the Prescott National Forest in the late 1960s, but the habitat wasn't that great and they didn't survive, Young said.
In recent years, the recovery program for this fish has been more successful.
Today about 1,000 of them are located in three streams: Frye Creek in southeast Arizona, Raspberry Creek in the White Mountains and Grapevine Creek east of Prescott, Young said.
The Gila trout is native to only New Mexico and Arizona. New Mexico has a larger population and has been allowing people to fish for limited numbers of the Gila trout for a few years now.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raises the Gila at its Mora National Fish Hatchery in New Mexico, and it recently notified Arizona it has about 1,000 surplus Gila trout available.
Arizona has enough Gila trout for its recovery program, and these 9-inch to 15-inch fish are larger than the state usually stocks for that program anyway, Young said. The recovery stocking takes place in remote locations where the agency has to haul the fish in with backpacks or helicopters, so the smaller the fish the more they can bring in, he explained.
So the Arizona Game and Fish Department is asking the commission to approve stocking and fishing for these trout in the Frye Mesa Reservoir southeast of Thatcher, on Mt. Graham in the Coronado National Forest.
"If the commission approves the proposal, we would create another unique opportunity for anglers - fishing for five species of trout on the same mountain - Gila trout, Apache trout, brown trout, rainbow trout and brook trout," said Don Mitchell, Tucson regional fishers program manager for the state agency, in a press release.
Such an approval also would make Mount Graham the only mountain on earth where people could fish for both the Gila and Apache trout, he added.
State officials keep the non-native trout out of Frye Creek above the reservoir with a fish barrier. About 98 percent of the non-native trout that the state stocks in its waters are rainbows, Young said.
If the commission approves the request to fish for Gila trout - which Young believes it's likely to do - anglers could be going after the fish as soon as this month. They'll face a one-fish bag limit.
"We want to give the public a little taste of what's to come," Young said.
The agency hopes to eventually recover the native Gila trout to the point where people can fish for them more often.
While people would be able to keep the Gila trout they catch in Frye Mesa Reservoir, Young hopes they use a barbless hook, shoot a photo and put them back so even more people will get the rare opportunity to catch them.