Let the wars begin.
And the mystery endure.
Pine and Strawberry are battling to the last clipped barb for bragging rights to the most absurdly, deliciously, ridiculously oversized fish caught in the East Verde.
Specifically, late last week Pine resident Jack Kearns went hiking up an almost dry stretch of the East Verde above the Rim Trails subdivision -- driven by the completely implausible triumph of a Strawberry man just a few days earlier, as reported on this page.
That earlier story reported that Aaron Cox, using a seductive little jig he'd perfected on steelhead in continent-sized Alaskan rivers, hooked and landed a monster 23.5-inch-long rainbow trout in a tiny pool on the East Verde just off the Control Road near Whispering Pines and Houston Mesa Road.
The thought of some Johnny-come-lately Strawberry transplant securing bragging rights to the Mogollon Monster of East Verde Trout riled Kearns, who has been fishing the stream for the past 15 years.
So he figured he'd try this one certain pool he knows on the East Verde. He ventured forth armed with his secret weapon -- a plastic grub, one of those corpse-white plastic buggers with a curly-cue tail that makes it dart and shimming when reeled in at the end of a spin cast rig.
He set out from near where the Control Road crosses the East Verde at Whispering Pines. Upon reaching the crossing, he discovered the road dry, indicating that the creek had gone to ground above the crossing.
No sensible man would have set off up a dry river hoping to catch a 23-inch trout.
But Jack Kearns is a fisherman: sensible don't apply.
He made his way to a spot upstream where he remembered a deep pool created by a little, improvised check dam.
He approached the pool carefully -- and just about swallowed his Adam's apple.
Moving through the three-foot deep, 12-foot-long, nine-foot-wide pool, he caught a glimpse of what looked like a monster trout. The theme from Jaws sounded in his head.
So Kearns jumped back, to avoid alarming the Great White Trout.
"Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. What am I gonna do?" he recalls thinking.
So he scurried around to the upstream end of the little pond and rigged his faintly disgusting plastic grub. Approaching on hands and knees to avoid spooking the trout, he cast blindly over the check dam.
"Whomp," says Kearns.
The giant fish raced for the far end of the pool, where Kearns feared the six-pound test line would snap on the roots of an undercut tree.
The man and the fish waged a titanic struggle -- zim, run, reel, veer, pull, reel, run, zim -- until Kearns got it into the shallows.
He grabbed it, hands trembling with excitement.
He's lucky the monster didn't bite his thumb off.
Get this: 28.5 inches long.
The fish had a fiercely elongated lower jaw, a sign of great age and fierce appetites among trout. Odds are, that fish had been eating well for at least five or six years to reach such a size.
He was one prodigious fish. Mind you, the state record length for a rainbow trout is 32.5 inches. The record for a brown trout is 36 inches.
But which was it?
And how the heck did it get into the East Verde River -- stuck in a pool about as deep as he was long, isolated from the rest of the stream both upstream and downstream?
Kearns figures it was a German Brown Trout, given the speckling of dark spots, the hook jaw and the lack of any more than a suggestion of pink along its sides.
But what the heck is such a monster brown trout doing in the East Verde, since Game and Fish stocks the stream with only rainbows?
Could a wild brown trout have survived for five years on a stream that sometimes dries up?
Brown trout are voracious predators. They eat almost anything and could easily make a living on the hatchery-reared rainbow trout dumped constantly into the East Verde. Hatchery biologists say that in places that do have brown trout, the lunkers will come darting out of their hiding places and gobble up two 10-inch rainbows in one gulp.
But so far as they know, no brown trout live in the upper reaches of the East Verde.
Alternatively -- the Salt River Project has a pipeline that runs from the Blue Ridge Reservoir up on the Rim and dumps water into the East Verde, not far from where Kearns hooked his monster trout. Several days before he set out to show Strawberry who's boss, SRP tested a rebuild of that pipeline by letting 30 cubic feet per second loose in the East Verde. Could the monster brown trout have somehow gotten into the pipeline, avoided getting chopped up by the power generators and somehow come gushing out into the little stream?
Not likely, says John Diehl, manager of the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery run by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
In fact, Diehl thinks he can solve the mystery.
After seeing a photo of Kearns' trout, he said it looks like a Rainbow Trout to him -- which means the fish is only about four inches shy of the state record.
In fact, Diehl said the trout could be one of the "incentive" fish he stocked on the upper East Verde the day before Kearns' big catch. The hatchery each week puts out hundreds of fish, mostly 1- and 2-year-old pan-sized wriggler. But they also keep a pond in which they grow assorted trophy fish -- including lunkers bigger than 20 inches long that they dole out one at a time to the major stocked Rim creeks -- including the East Verde, Tonto Creek near Kohl's Ranch and Haigler Creek near Young. The hatchery stops stocking Christopher Creek and the Lower East Verde in August.
Diehl noted that they're only stocking the uppermost reaches of the East Verde now as flows drop and temperatures rise. However, in another week or so SRP plans to again release 30 cubic feet per second into the East Verde, which would prompt a fresh round of stocking on into September.
In the meantime, Kearns has officially secured bragging rights as the Big Mucky Mucky Trout Fisherman of the East Verde.
Or as he put it as he drove off with a boy's grin and hands still shaking with excitement to ponder the $300 cost of stuffing and mounting the trout of a lifetime, "I wasn't going to let that guy from Strawberry get the best of me."