Funny how life works out. Back in 1957 on the fishing trip that changed his life, John Diehl was just a tadpole -- 5 years old at the rushing headwaters of his life.
His father had resolved to introduce the boy to fishing. So they set out from the Valley for Payson and then Tonto Creek. They trundled painfully all through the night up the interminable dirt road, one flat, two flat, three flat tires to Payson.
They stopped in Payson to fix the tires, a little town in the middle of nowhere -- defined for Diehl by its proximity to an actual trout stream.
A few adventures later, the boy stood on the banks of Tonto Creek, a 10-inch trout struggling at the end of his line.
He was hooked. The boy, that is.
Now 54, Diehl runs the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, tending to the health of 660,000 fish -- including the nearly 2,000 rainbow trout that will next Monday and Tuesday get dumped into Tonto, Haigler and Christopher creeks, plus the East Verde River, to launch a fishing season in the Rim Country.
The sloshing of the hatchery stocking trucks brimming with fish marks one of the most eagerly awaited rites of spring for Rim Country anglers, who hang on the stocking schedules like sports fanatics attend to box scores.
The dispatch of the trout trucks to release a fresh season of small rainbows at a dozen spots along Tonto Creek, 15 locations on the East Verde, four spots on Christopher Creek and eight locations on Haigler climaxes a long winter of cleaning fish runs, monitoring fish health and chasing off bald eagles, osprey and raccoons hoping for a free lunch. Stocking will continue all through the summer, since eager anglers will catch about 80 percent of the fish released each week, said Diehl.
The amiable hatchery manager grew up in the Valley, venturing out as often as possible on hunting and fishing trips with his father and his brothers. He never hesitated before declaring his fisheries major at Arizona State University. He went to work for Game and Fish right out of college and never regretted the choice for a moment --despite long hours. Diehl and his wife, who is a school teacher, managed to raise six kids on a state salary -- and most of them now also fish.
He's also raised most of the state's species of endangered fish, worked at most of the hatcheries in the state and stocked creeks and rivers in Arizona with millions of fish -- plus one very lucky cat (but more about that later).
"Funny how it goes -- that I caught my first fish on Tonto Creek and end up my career here," he said this week as he readied for another season's stocking.
"But in all that time -- the only days I ever didn't want to come to work were when there was some personnel problem. As far as working with the fish, I really enjoyed it."
Raising the trout that sustain a booming state fishing industry turns out to be unexpectedly complex, what with eggs imported from Tasmania, one endangered species preying on another, lurking parasites, hungry otters, over-eager anglers, and mud-bogged stocking trucks.
The rainbow trout the hatchery produces remain the mainstay of the stocking program, although the hatchery also raises endangered Apache trout. Other state hatcheries raise other introduced trout and many of the 32 surviving native fish -- almost all of them threatened or endangered.
The process starts with trout eggs flown in from other states -- and sometimes other countries -- since none of the state's hatchery's have the space to produce eggs. A hatchery that produces eggs must keep fish until they're five years old, since fertility peaks among the female trout in their third and fourth years.
By contrast, most of the fish released for anglers spend one to two years in the hatchery before their release. Producing rainbow eggs would consume about half the state's hatchery space, but the state can get the eggs for free from other states through cooperative arrangements that involve wildlife swaps -- like pronghorn antelope for rainbow trout eggs.
The eggs arrive in specially designed coolers that drip water from a tray of ice on the top down onto three or four layers of trays with trout eggs nestled in what amounts to super duper meshed paper towels. In order to mix in genes from wild trout from time to time, the hatchery has imported eggs from pure strains of trout from as far away as Tasmania.
Hatchery trout are bred for "catchability," fast growth and resistance to disease and crowded conditions, but an infusion of eggs from more purebred wild strains keeps them from becoming too "domesticated."
"You get too much inbreeding and you end up with retarded fish -- bunch of imbeciles out there," laughed Diehl, "just a hunk of meat with a wiggle."
The hatchery has a big, protected tank with half a million tiny fry, hatched from the imported eggs. They lose 10 or 15 percent of those fry. Once the fish get big enough, they're moved to outside trout runs -- where they lose another 5 percent to various causes.
The key to keeping the fish healthy and putting on weight as fast as possible lies in regulating the injection of the food pellets into the trout runs -- and changing out the water often.
Back when Diehl caught his first fish, hatcheries fed the trout ground up meat from slaughter houses and other unsavory sources. Sometimes, they'd hang carcasses over the fish runs so the maggots would drop into the water. Mercifully, dried pellets had been perfected by the time Diehl started his long career as a fish wrangler.
When the water from the runs gets heavy with food bits and fish feces, it's diverted into settling ponds. Those ponds are periodically pumped into trucks and hauled up to the Rim where the water is sprayed on meadows favored by elk, fertilizing the grass. "So we're really recycling fish poop into elk," observed Diehl.
Once the fish get moved to the big runs, they have to worry about would-be poachers of the feathered and furred variety.
For instance, two bald eagles spend all winter perched in trees near the hatchery -- swooping down periodically to snatch a rainbow. Sometimes, they'll nab an Apache trout, which offers the rare spectacle of one endangered species feasting on another. Raccoons and osprey also stage regular raids. But at least the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery doesn't have to deal with the voracious river otters that hit the ponds at other state fish farms.
At the end of a two-year stay in the hatchery, the rainbows are ready for release -- most of them weighing about a third of a pound.
Diehl said the fish generally won't pay any attention to a lure or baited hook for about a day after they're dumped into a stream, as they reorient themselves and get over the stress of the move. Then they'll generally find a good, protected pool out of the main current and face upstream, waiting for food -- or lures -- to drift past. Many will move no more than about 100 yards before they're caught. But some tagged, hatchery-reared fish have moved 100 miles or more on big rivers like the Colorado.
But the most memorable critter Diehl ever stocked wasn't a trout at all.
He was working at a hatchery near Flagstaff then and they decided to put some leftover fish into the ice-covered waters of Lake Mary. So they loaded up the big coils of tubing used to get the fish from the water truck and drove out to Lake Mary. After working up a sweat cutting a big hole in the ice with chain saws, they connected the long tube to the truck's outlet and opened the hatch.
Nothing came out.
They jiggled the hatch, checked the tube for kinks and scratched their heads.
After about five minutes, water finally came blasting out of the pipe into the lake -- delivering the load of trout.
The mystery of the clogged pipe was solved a moment later when an utterly bedraggled cat crawled out of the water and staggered across the ice.
Evidently, the cat had taken refuge in the tubing back at the hatchery, hung on when the crew packed up the pipe, remained hidden on the drive to the lake, then crawled up to the upper end of the tubing when the crew attached it to the water truck.
When Diehl opened the hatch, the cat had somehow hung on in the entrance to the pipe for five minutes, before losing its grip and getting flushed out into the lake.
"Imagine this cat in there grimacing, holding onto this pipe for five minutes -- and it comes out alive. We were just rolling on the ground laughing," recalls Diehl.
The cat made for the safety of a nearby cabin -- one life short of its nine.
And Diehl had a nice fish story -- well, catfish story -- to top off an eventful career.
On Monday and Tuesday, the Arizona Game and Fish Department will begin stocking rainbow trout in four streams and rivers in Rim Country. In addition to the normal number of one-third to one-half pound hatchery fish, each location will get a couple of 2- or 3-year-old one-pounders.
The trout generally don't feed for a day after being moved, so the best fishing will be within about 30 to 50 yards of the release sites on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The creeks due for stocking and the number of sites stocked on each include:
- Tonto Creek -- 550 fish -- 12 spots
- Christopher Creek -- 320 fish -- 4 spots
- Haigler Creek -- 320 fish -- 8 spots
- East Verde River -- 660 fish -- 15 spots