The Life Of A Lurking Lunker

Forest Service plans ambitious repair of Tonto Creek to make it once more a trout’s paradise

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Pete Aleshire photo

No Pools: Tonto Creek lures 10,000 anglers every year, but floods have swept away the logs, rocks and debris that create pour-overs that in turn create the deeper pools trout need. Most of the stream now lacks pools and good trout hiding spots, as in this stretch.

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Pete Aleshire photo

Making of a pool: Rock ledges like this one create small waterfalls, which then erode a downstream hole that forms a pool, where trout can hide and rest while waiting for dinner to float downstream.

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Pete Aleshire photo

Tonto Creek picks up runoff from off the Rim and runs all the way down to Roosevelt Lake, where it widens and runs through boulders and past saguaros, like along the stretch pictured here.

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Pete Aleshire photo

End of the stream: Tonto Creek often all but dries up once it emerges from Hellsgate Wilderness and spreads out before flowing into Roosevelt Lake. Easy access to the stretch above Bear Flat make it one of the most heavily used trout streams in the state, but the 22-mile stretch through the narrow canyons below Bear Flat offer a different adventure for canyoneers.

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Pete Aleshire photo

Boulders galore: Crews hope to use trees and rocks to create pools and trout habitat while taking advantage of the natural mix of sandstone ledges and boulders.

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Pete Aleshire photo

Surveys of Rim Country visitors found that hiking, camping and fishing are big draws — and Tonto Creek remains one of the most popular destinations.

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Pete Aleshire photo

Concentrate use: Pools like this provide a refuge for most of the 2,000 trout stocked into Tonto Creek every week during the summer fishing season, but the good fishing holes have dwindled. That concentrates all the fishermen in a few places, something a new plan to create more pools and riffles may prevent.

Where oh where do the lunkers lurk?

Where oh where have they gone?

Well, now that experts have studied beleaguered Tonto Creek, the trout have mostly taken to huddling all hungry and dispirited in a dwindling number of pools.

Blame the Dude Fire — at least when it comes to the condition of one of the most popular trout streams in the Southwest.

Tonto Creek gushes from a reliable, natural spring and gathers up the water from four major tributaries draining off the Mogollon Rim, as it tumbles down toward its eventual merger with Roosevelt Lake.

Every year, 10,000 fishermen trek to Tonto Creek to match wits with varied success against trout with brains the size of peanuts. The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) stocks 2,000 to 3,000 fish into the creek at about 12 locations every week all summer and some wild brown trout and surviving rainbows persist to lure the fall and winter stragglers.

However, after the Dude Fire denuded great swaths of the 25 square miles of forested watershed draining into the creek, a series of floods scoured out the streambed. The floods swept away the graveled riffles that interject oxygen into the water, pulled down trees that shade and cool the water and worst of all, carried off the logs, rocks and debris that create the small dams that produce the 5-foot-deep downstream pools that trout so dearly love.

As a result, fishermen have had to converge on the few surviving pools, concentrating use, trampling stream banks — and turning that soulful communion with nature most anglers seek into a weekend crowd scene.

It doesn’t have to be that way, the Forest Service has concluded — in cooperation with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The Payson Ranger District has just finished a study of the creek, which ended with the recommendation that crews in the next one to four years work a 4-mile stretch of creek bed to create a whole series of riffles and pools. The plan calls for a series of log and rock barriers between Highway 260 and the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, mostly simply wrested into place, but some anchored with steel cables. In addition, the project envisions planting willows, using logs to create overhanging banks, working on trails to concentrate foot traffic and spread fishermen out among many scattered, deep pools.

All that should make life much better for trout, native fish, underwater plants, aquatic insects and other wildlife — not to mention fishermen who make a major contribution to the tourist economy of the Rim Country.

“The ideal trout stream has areas for them to feed and areas for them to loaf,” said Natalie Robb, fisheries program manager for the Mesa Region of the AGFD.

Mind you, she wasn’t criticizing trout for a lack of ambition, simply making reference to how much trout like places where they can float just outside the main flow of the stream, waiting for bits of food to come floating downstream to them.

“They need places they can hide from predators — an overhanging bank, a big rock, a deep pool. They want trees over the stream, so it cools the water. They want riffles” where the flow of water over shallow, gravelly areas mixes oxygen into the water “and places to rest,” she concluded.

As it happens, all those qualities work just fine for native fish like speckled dace and for aquatic insects and plants — all the interacting pieces of a healthy riparian ecosystem.

Tonto Creek’s decline from a trout’s point of view actually dates back to the 1960s, when a massive flood swept through the Tonto Creek Hatchery, emptied out the trout ponds there and rampaged on down the canyon — leaving trout strewn on Highway 260 and scouring out the stream.

The effects of the massive Dude Fire in 1990 administered another blow to all of the creeks running off the Rim. In some creeks, ash and silt smothered the creeks. For instance, mud flows off those denuded slopes wiped out the native Gila trout that Game and Fish had labored to reintroduce to Dude Creek.

But the floods caused by the inability of the seared watershed to hold back runoff instead scoured out Tonto Creek, with its steep gradient and its rocky bottom.

Grass and brush and small trees have grown back in the burned area above the creek, although the natural recovery was slowed by the intense heat of the fire in the badly overgrown forest. That heat killed the soil bacteria and turned the organic material in the soil to ash. In some cases, the heat formed a glazed crust, preventing water from soaking in.

So wildlife biologists hope that enough vegetation has returned to the watershed to slow down runoff to make it possible to rehabilitate the stream.

The plan calls for the creation of 61 different structures that will take advantage of the natural terrain, boulders, logs and the stream’s geometry to create as much variety as possible, with an emphasis on provoking the water into digging and maintaining deep pools. In some cases, that might mean using equipment to position boulders to create a backup with some spillover. Typically, pools form downstream from such obstructions as a result of the digging action of a small waterfall.

Trout love such pools because they can wait in the still water for the spillover into the pond to deliver the minnows, insects and larvae they love to gobble — without fighting the flow of the current. In addition, the pools provide still water for the growth of aquatic plants, which in turn attract the small fish and aquatic insects and larvae on which the trout feed.

In addition, crews will use logs placed strategically along the bank to create an overhang, which again provides cover for the trout. In conditions less steep and rocky, the action of the stream undercuts the bank. Trout linger beneath this overhang, waiting for food to come floating downstream. In the Tonto Creek renovation, logs will serve the same purpose.

Finally, the crews will plant willows along strategic stretches. These fast-growing riparian plants normally seed on sandbars along meandering streams — and so have a harder time getting established along a steep, rocky stream like Tonto Creek. The plantings will shade key portions of the stream and the roots of the willows will not only protect the banks, but create more hiding places for trout and more habitat for their prey.

The team in charge of the restoration is now working on the environmental impact statement — and hoping that the grants from the federal Wildlife Conservation Fund don’t dry up before crews can get the project under way next year.

“A lot depends on the funding,” said Robb. “Right now, times are tough. I’d like to get it done next year, but if the money dries up, we’ll have to do it a little at a time. We have it budgeted and allocated to us right now, but things could change — the way things are going.”

So, hopefully the trout might loaf in whatever pools they can find for the moment — but the grant-givers will need to get busy soon.

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