Anglers enjoy catching native Gila trout stocked at Goldwater for annual Game & Fish event
PRESCOTT – Anglers at Goldwater Lake got a rare and memorable treat during the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s annual Free Fishing Day on Saturday, June 4.
On Friday, the lake joined a short list of Arizona waters which have been stocked with Gila trout, one of the state’s two endangered native fish species, for non-recovery purposes.
The Gila trout dropped into Goldwater were brood stock. They were all larger, older fish from the Mora National Fish Hatchery in northern New Mexico that were retired from the breeding program there.
Several fishers among the approximately 150 to 175 men, women and children who participated in Free Fishing Day in the 95-plus degree heat caught anywhere from one to several of these big, ornery, golden-yellow fish near the shoreline. The male Gila is darker in color and has a more pointed snout, whereas the female is brighter and has a more rounded nose.
Anglers were allowed to keep the fish and eat them if they so desired.
Grant Schiedel, 28, a Cub Scout Den Leader with Pack 7330 at the Prescott Valley Elks Lodge, nabbed a 1-pound Gila trout with a spinner. Originally from Mesa, Schiedel said he had not caught one in the past, although he has been fishing for the last 10 to 15 years. He had his 8-year-old son Jessie with him.
Jamie Murua from Mayer was even more fortunate after hauling in three monster Gilas of 3.0, 3.15 and 3.8 pounds, respectively.
And then there was Michael Webb, 54, of Prescott Valley, a longtime angler who used crappie jigs to nab two Gilas, one of which weighed 2 pounds.
“They’re aggressive and fun to catch,” said Webb, who’s been fishing since age 3 but had not lured in a Gila until Saturday.
Marci Alderman, Arizona Game and Fish’s sport fishing education coordinator from Phoenix, brought two certified angler instructors with her to help novices fish at the lake from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. They provided loaner poles and free bait to those who didn’t have either.
Prior to this weekend, Alderman said, only Frye Creek and Frye Mesa Reservoir in Safford had been stocked with Gila trout. And those who wanted to catch them had restrictions. Since 2009, retired brood stock have been stocked in Frye Mesa Reservoir, which is difficult for the public to access.
“It’s a special regulations water, so your limit on the Gila down there is only one fish,” she added.
However, anglers at Goldwater, a so-called general fishing water, are bound by no such special regulations. Under the standard regulation, a fisher could catch as many as six trout in any combination.
Mike Anderson, native trout coordinator with Arizona Game and Fish, said most of the approximately 1,000 Gila trout stocked in Goldwater Lake on Friday were 3- to 5-year-old fish from the Mora hatchery whose time had come to be released. Another 1,000 rainbow trout, weighing about 1 pound each, were also dropped into the lake.
“Ideally, if this works out and people are good with it, we could potentially continue doing this kind of this way in the future,” Anderson added. “A lot of the efforts that we’ve made from a recovery standpoint, specifically, have been in very, very small systems – streams that are 3 or 4 miles long and [with waters traveling] 1 or 2 cubic feet per second. They [Gila trout] don’t grow very big unless you’ve got big water. They’re only going to get as big as their space lets them get.”
The New Mexico hatchery maintains a brood stock management plan for the adult Gila trout. Once an adult has spawned three to five times, once per year, it is retired. That way the younger adult fish are given the chance to reproduce and maintain variance in the trout’s gene pool. Mature Gila trout typically weigh 3 to 5 pounds and are more than a foot long.
“The offspring that we get off of those [brood] fish are what we use for recovery action to get them off the endangered species list,” Anderson said. “New Mexico has the same fishing derby going on today [Saturday] in the Gila Wilderness National Forest.”
Anderson said Gila trout have been on the endangered species list since the early 1970s, although progress has been made over the past few years to increase their numbers. Arizona has two different geographical areas managed for Gila trout.
“A lot of the early recovery efforts [for the Gila trout] went on in New Mexico,” he said, adding that Western wildfires have hampered recovery efforts to a degree. “And we’ve really started ramping them up in Arizona. We’ve got four populations of Gila trout that are going towards recovery [of the species], and we’d like to get a couple more going in the next year or two.”
There’s a special rule within the endangered species act that lets Game and Fish use the trout, such as the brood stock, for recreational purposes. The Gila trout loaded into Goldwater on Friday will likely “persist” in the lake for a little while before they are all caught, Anderson said.
“This is not some unicorn species that never can be seen or touched or eaten,” he added. “They’re designated in Arizona as a sport fish. And because of that rule that’s in the Endangered Species Act, we have management authority with the Fish and Wildlife Service to set regulations for them.”
The Gila trout is native only to Arizona and New Mexico. Four populations of Gila trout exist, although there will likely be more.
Grant Langmaid, fish biologist at Mora National Fish Hatchery who hauled the Gila trout to Goldwater with Anderson on Friday, said the trout has five different lineages.
Those lineages include the Whiskey Creek, Main Diamond, South Diamond, Spruce Creek and Iron Creek. The hatchery keeps these spawning wild fish separate from other fish species it spawns, Langmaid said.
Mora is the only hatchery in the world currently raising Gila trout, although Langmaid said Mora is working with Anderson to send Game and Fish Gila trout eggs so the fish can be raised in Arizona.
“Part of it’s about going out into the streams and getting wild fish and bringing them back to the hatchery to keep wild genetics in the population,” he added. “A lot of people don’t know about Gila trout. Everybody likes to go out and catch rainbow trout. I always tell people when they come to the hatchery, ‘These are your fish. Gila trout are not scattered across the country. They’re only in the Gila wilderness and over here.’ People should take an ownership and a pride in that.”
Anderson added that the Apache trout, Arizona’s other native trout species on the endangered list, is faring better than the Gila. Time will tell whether both species continue to thrive in the Southwest into the late 21st century.
“We’re a little bit closer on Apache trout,” Anderson said. “There’s a couple big projects that we’re working on in the next three to five years. Ideally, within that period, we could probably propose them for being delisted. We’ve got about 25 populations and we have to get to 30.”