In a rare good-news conservation story, the Apache trout has not only become the first North American fish to make it off the endangered species list, it has become a major draw for fishermen nationwide.
Moreover, the finny comeback story turned on the remarkable cooperation between the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help the gleaming gold native trout wriggle back up and out of the sluice of extinction.
The beautiful, spotted, golden fish once found in nearly 1,000 miles of streams, by the early 1950s hung on in only eight streams in the White Mountains. But after decades of effort, biologists have restored the native trout to 27 streams, after building fish barriers and removing the non-natives. The Apache trout are well enough established in some 118 miles of stream front, according to Arizona Game and Fish Native Trout Coordinator Julie Meka.
The effort now stands as a national model -- and offers a blueprint for the planned reintroduction of another native trout -- the Gila trout.
The Gila trout historically lived in streams feeding into the Gila and Verde rivers and fish biologists are working on a recovery plan for that species as well. The reintroduction of the Gila trout could then provide certain Rim Country streams with a unique, species of trout exquisitely adapted to local conditions -- and likely to draw eager anglers.
In that regard, the Apache trout provide a model -- having done so well that anglers can now add them to their life list. Fishermen are coming from all over the world to fish a handful of streams and lakes where they're stocked all summer long.
Christmas Tree Lake, in the heart of the area of the White Mountain Apache Reservation normally closed to outsiders, represents the showcase of the recovery effort. The Tribe charges anglers $25 a day to fish for the Apache trout in this catch-and-release lake -- but that entitles fishermen to take a cast at catching the world's largest Apache trout.
Once upon a time, the Apache trout hunted careless bugs on almost all of the streams that ran out of the White Mountains -- about 820 linear miles of trout heaven. They glided through all the lakeless, wildly variable streams in
such numbers that the journals of the cavalry patrols chasing the Apaches include accounts of the piles of trout they hooked every time they camped.
The small, wary native trout is closely related to the rainbow, but exquisitely adapted to the small, flood- and drought-prone streams of the region. They boast the largest dorsal fin of any trout -- which helps them hold their position in a small creek in heavy flows.
But then anglers and wildlife officials introduced brown, brook and rainbow trout into nearly every stream in the Rim Country and White Mountains. The voracious fry of the fall-spawning brown trout gobbled up the spring-spawning Apache trout. Meanwhile, the mass of spring-spawning rainbows interbred and out-ate the dwindling natives.
Moreover, grazing cattle trampled banks and stripped streamside vegetation while clear-cutting by loggers spurred erosion that often dramatically changed stream conditions.
By the 1960s, the Apache trout had been all but exterminated. The undersized survivors hid in the headwaters of eight creeks in the heart of the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Those last few streams all had natural barriers like waterfalls that kept the introduced browns and rainbows from getting to the upper reaches. All ran down from a mountain sacred to the Apache, who traditionally did not eat fish as a result of cultural taboos that associated fish with the underworld.
However, even before the nation passed the Endangered Species Act, the Apache acted on their belief that the Creator had placed each animal in its proper place -- a plan human beings must respect.
"Everything has its place," said John Cade, director of the White Mountain Apache Department of Game and Fish. "God put it there -- so it should be there and protecting them is part of that. And when the tribe noticed that the non-native (fish) were taking over, they decided that it would be better to keep it the way it is."
So the tribe closed a huge chunk of the central reservation centered on Mt. Baldy to outsiders, including the headwaters of the eight streams that still harbored small, pure populations of Apache trout, Cade said.
"What the Tribe did in the 1950s was unprecedented," said Jeremy Voeltz, a project coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and project coordinator for the reintroduction effort. The Apaches felt it was the right thing to do -- and the momentum has been building over the decades."
The federal government first proposed listing the trout as endangered in 1969 and issued its first recovery plan in 1974. The recovery plan had advanced sufficiently to switch the category from "endangered" to "threatened" in 1975, said Meka.
The first major step in the recovery involved figuring out how to grow the trout in a hatchery. As it turned out, the Apache trout needed a different mixture of feeding pellets from rainbows in the hatchery and showed more sensitivity to temperature and water quality.
Even now, the Apache trout don't do well in lakes without high quality water. The Alchesay National Fish Hatchery in Williams now produces eggs, which the state's Silver Creek and Tonto Creek hatcheries turn into stockable fish.
Next, biologists had to find a way to protect the Apache trout from the non-native trout, since heavily stocked rainbows interbred with them and the fall-spawning brown trout gobbled up the newly hatched fry of the spring-spawning Apache trout.
Before biologists could return the Apache trout to a stream, they had to kill all of the non-native trout.
Unfortunately, that generally meant killing all the fish in the stream with chemicals. In streams that had a mix of native and non-native fish, biologists sometimes resorted to the more costly and less efficient use of electrofishing -- so they could return the natives and remove just the non-natives.
Generally, the tribe has resisted chemical methods, preferring the more selective approach of electrofishing.
Fish managers also had to construct fish barriers somewhere along each stream, to prevent non-native trout from reinvading. Unfortunately, such fish barriers fail eventually -- so keeping the non-natives out of the 27 streams that now harbor populations of Apache trout will require periodic efforts to check for invaders and remove fish that somehow get past the barrier.
Now the "renovated" streams stocked with Apache trout offer a unique fishing experience, especially for fly fishermen taking advantage of the native trout's preference for insects. The record for hook-and-line catch of an Apache trout stands at 5 pounds -- a 24-inch Apache trout caught by Lyle Hemphill in Hurricane Lake in 1993.
The state record for catch-and-release waters stands at 20 inches, a trout caught and measured and released back into Christmas Tree Lake by Cameron Frieh in 2006.
The White Mountain Apache Tribe takes quiet satisfaction in the recovery of their namesake trout. As John Cade put it on behalf of the tribe. "The Creator put them there. So we try to protect them all."