Say it ain’t so.
Summer must really be over — the hatchery trucks have all been parked.
After plopping 146,000 fish into Rim Country streams and lakes, the Tonto Creek Hatchery this week finished its final round of stocking.
Now, the Arizona Game and Fish biologists will devote themselves to growing a fresh batch of “eyed” eggs into next year’s spring and summer bounty.
The hatchery truck made one final run, to dump a final batch of trout into Woods Canyon Lake, which this season received 87,000 of the 146,000 stocked.
That could explain why the store at Woods Canyon Lake sells more fishing licenses than any place else in the state.
The second biggest seller of fishing licenses in Arizona is the Payson Walmart, said Tonto Creek Fishery Manager John Deihl.
The increasingly scattered fishermen this week made the most of the final few glory days. A relative handful spread out around the shore of Woods Canyon, which was spattered with the spreading rings of feeding fish — like so many giant raindrops.
So now catch rates will dwindle with the temperatures in stretches of water that have gladdened hearts all summer — with no more fish stocked into the East Verde River, Haigler, Tonto or Christopher creeks — not to mention various Rim lakes.
Fortunately, the competition from the hoards of Valley escapees has also dwindled — so local fishermen can still lower their blood pressure and savor the sound of running water, despite diminished, but inextinguishable hopes of hooking a straggler.
The Tonto Creek Hatchery labored all summer to use the fish raised in the course of a two- and three-year cycle to turn Rim Country streams and lakes into the most popular fishing spots in the southwest.
The state’s roughly 255,000 fishermen spend an estimated $831 million on equipment and travel, according to a study by researchers from Arizona State University, based on figures from 2001. The study found that the state’s 135,000 hunters generate another $127 million. Combined, hunting and fishing generate $314 million in wages and $58 million in tax revenue annually, concluded the study. Fishing accounts for about 80 percent of the total
In Gila County fishermen and hunters spent $39 million — which generated another $47 million in related economic activity. Fishing and hunting in the county produced 769 jobs and $1.8 million in taxes.
The twice-weekly Tonto Hatchery stockings turned Tonto Creek and the East Verde and other smaller Rim Country streams into some of the top stream fishing stretches in the state.
Over the course of the season, the East Verde got 12,000 rainbow trout, Tonto Creek got 10,000, Haigler Creek got 10,000, Christopher Creek got 6,000 and several lower-elevation lakes got 6,000.
Some of those streams have now dwindled to a trickle and even the larger waterways — like Tonto and the East Verde — now harbor only a few wary trout that managed to avoid the thickets of lures, flies and baited hooks flung upon the waters by the summer crowds. Some lunkers on those creeks actually make it through the winter, to face the gauntlet of summer hooks all over again.
However, the Rim lakes — especially Woods Canyon — still have a lot of trout. Although the numbers have fallen from the peak stocking period, local anglers who head for the Rim lakes will face less competition for trout much more willing to bite as the cold weather reduces the amount of other food.
Deihl recommended Woods Canyon, Blue Ridge, Knoll and Bear Canyon lakes.
Stream fishermen can also go looking for trout that evaded the summer rush, especially on stream stretches that require a hike to reach. Such streams often have naturally reproducing populations. The upper reaches of Horton Creek has a naturally reproducing population of Brown trout — lurking in the tiny pools of a creek that all but dries up before reaching its junction with Tonto Creek.
The lower reaches of Tonto Creek, near Bear Flat, also have a good supply of fish, long after the fair-weather fishermen have given up on the summer-stocked reaches of the creek close by the highway.
But for now, the hatchery workers will start getting ready to grow another 150,000 fish for release next year, while nurturing the eggs that will produce the trout for the season after that.
They’ll also be keeping a wary eye on bald eagles, raccoons and anyone else who might have plans involving the big fish-growing ponds — especially the pond that harbors about 2,000 fish carried over for an extra year. The hatchery doles out these 3- and sometimes 4-year-old fish, which can grow to 10 to 12 pounds — monsters to make the average angler holler and tremble — and buy drinks for the house.