A hardy band of about 25 local flycasters has started a Rim Country chapter of Trout Unlimited, the pre-eminent national organization dedicated to protecting the streams.
Trout Unlimited started 50 years ago and now has 150,000 members nationwide, with local chapters dedicated to protecting the fish habitat — like the East Verde, Tonto Creek and a host of smaller Rim Country streams.
The existing Payson Flycasters Club has launched the Gila Trout Chapter of Trout Unlimited, with meetings slated for the last Saturday of each month at 9 a.m. at the Mazatzal Casino.
The meetings start with breakfast then move onto discussions of fishing holes, stream conservation programs and assorted yarns inevitably swapped when fishermen gather.
Starting the Trout Unlimited chapter will bring a stronger focus on conservation and habitat protection, said chapter president Bob Yorst.
The club hopes to nudge the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department into enhancing the fishing potential of streams like the East Verde and making it more of a year-round stream for anglers.
“Trout Unlimited has a little more push,” said Yorst. “A little more backing to get things done.”
The conservation organization supports scientific research, helps acquire habitat, gets grants for conservation efforts and works with government agencies to protect sport fishing streams and recover endangered fish populations.
The formation of the chapter locally comes at a key moment, with several major initiatives under way that would increase fishing opportunities in Rim Country and perhaps hook more Valley visitors.
Rim Country already is the site of one of the most successful trout conservation efforts in the country, with the recovery of the once nearly exterminated Apache Trout, a gleaming gold native species that thrives in small, high-altitude streams. The species has recovered so well that anglers can fish for them in about a dozen streams.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are now looking for opportunities to save the native Gila Trout, which favors lower elevation streams and was once widespread in the upper drainage of the Verde River.
This fall, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department plan a major project to improve the fishing along Tonto Creek, one of the biggest tourist draws in Rim Country. Flooding after the Dude Fire substantially altered the stream, leaving debris and filling many former fishing holes with sediment.
The Tonto Creek project will use logs and rocks to improve the habitat for trout by increasing the number of deep pools and riffles favored by trout. Trout in small streams depend critically on deep pools where they find cover and food, without fighting the current.
Riffles play a critical role in spawning and injecting oxygen into the water.
The stream is heavily stocked every summer from the spring-fed Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery at the head of the creek at the base of the Rim.
Moreover, the U.S. Forest Service has set up a comprehensive process to gather public input on a revision of the master plan for the Payson Ranger District on the Tonto National Forest.
That includes the establishment of a committee to study the East Verde River, with an eye toward protecting rare and endangered species, improving the fishing and increasing visitor use — while protecting the ecology of the stream.
That group has held wide-ranging discussions on possible options. Some have advocated introducing Apache or Gila trout in some stretches of the stream. The East Verde has several natural divisions, including a wild stream above Washington Park, a middle section cut off from the downstream reaches by the waterfall at Waterwheel near second crossing and the lower section, which Game and Fish stocks heavily with rainbow trout from the fish hatchery every summer.
East Verde prospects
The prospects for the East Verde further brightened when the Salt River Project concluded an agreement to take over the Blue Ridge Reservoir from the mining company that built the dam that created the 11,000-acre-foot reservoir.
That reservoir will now provide Rim communities with 3,500 acre feet annually, which will flow through a not-yet-built pipeline. But the balance of the 7,000 to 11,000 acre feet SRP could take out of the reservoir annually would flow through the East Verde from the Washington Park pump station down to the Verde River and the Horseshoe Reservoir.
Although SRP will manage that flow to maximize the amount that reaches its reservoirs down in the Valley, the water could be released in a way to make the flow of the East Verde more substantial and reliable.
Youtz said the group hopes to work with the various state and federal agencies to make the East Verde more of a year-round trout stream, instead of “put and take” stream stocked for summer visitors.
That might mean stocking the stream through the winter, when the cold, clear water actually makes for a better trout stream than the warm waters of late summer.
Currently, Game and Fish stocks scattered deep holes during the spring and fall, but stops stocking the lower reaches when the water warms up in the final summer months. Renovation of the stream could create more trout habitat, including pools and riffles farther from the road that could harbor over wintering, wild trout populations, he said.
Rim Country already supports the two busiest outlets for fishing license sales in the state. Most licenses are purchased at the store at Woods Canyon Lake, with the second most sales coming from Payson’s Walmart.
The plans to improve fishing on both the East Verde and Tonto Creek could further enhance the area’s reputation with fishermen. Visitor surveys show that outdoor recreation is the Rim Country’s biggest draw for tourists, which now ranks as the leading local industry.
“Up to this point, it’s been a put and take stream, our goal is to make it more of a wild trout fishery — so fish can be spread out up and down the stream instead of dumped in a hole and taken out in a few days,” said Yorst.