Comeback Fish Returns To Fossil Creek

State hopes to create blue-ribbon fishery in a restored Fossil Creek for the threatened Verde trout

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Rory Aikens, AZ Game and Fish

Arizona Fish and Game workers removed chub from Fossil Creek prior to using a chemical to kill all non-native fish in 2004. Workers then returned the roundtail chub to the stream to create a catch-and-release fishery.

The Verde trout have finally got a stream to call their own — the resurrected Fossil Creek.

And that makes perfect sense.

After all, both fish and creek faced near extinction — but are now making a comeback.

The Arizona Department of Game and Fish hopes to create a unique, blue-ribbon catch-and-release fishery in the stream for the Verde trout, also known as the roundtail chub.

The stream has been closed to angling for more than two years but, in October, the state will open a catch-and-release fishery in hopes of creating a distinctive fishing opportunity while also saving a native fish.

“One of our fondest hopes is that conscientious anglers will be attracted to the blue-ribbon fishery, and they’ll take care of the creek and keep it from getting trashed. It’s a beautiful area.”

Stream managers have been alarmed by the amount of trash left alongside the creek by visitors who flocked to the creek when it was saved from the flume of a power plant several years ago.

The roundtail chub once filled the ecological role that trout now account for throughout the myriad tributaries of the Colorado River.

But a century of dam building throughout the chub’s range transformed the nature of the fickle, flood-prone, sediment-laden streams to which the roundtail chub had adapted and put the natives at a fatal disadvantage against introduced predators like bass, catfish, pike, brown trout and rainbow trout.

By the same token, Fossil Creek flowed for millennium from a travertine-rich spring — a wild and verdant stream tumbling off the Rim and rushing to its merger with the Verde River. But a century ago, settlers built a flume to divert most of the creek’s water through a small power plant — which provided electricity to Jerome and an infant Phoenix.

About five years ago, Arizona Public Service shut down the still-operating hydroelectric plant, and returned the water to the streambed.

Fossil Creek remains one of the few streams in Arizona with high concentrations of the mineral travertine. Dissolved in the water in the network of rock layers from which the stream emerges, the travertine readily forms deposits along the stream bed. That’s what created the world-famous dams, pools and strange, melted formations in Havasupi Canyon.

The return of the stream to its bed after a century reincarnated an ancient ecosystem, but with some of its key pieces missing.

Over the decades, catfish, sunfish and other introduced fish had taken over the stream — ousting the natives like the roundtail chub. Now with the natural flow restored, biologists hope to return it to a more natural state.

The roundtail chub is considered a “sensitive species” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It once occurred in thousands of miles of streams and rivers in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and California. Now, it has vanished from California and is considered “imperiled” in Arizona and “threatened” in New Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the chub has disappeared from half of the streams it once occupied, and populations have declined dramatically in the places it persists.

The predatory fish has oversized fins, large greenish scales, a pouty mouth and ability to tolerate a huge range of temperatures in flood-prone, streams. The chub can grow to two feet long, but normally grows to more like 8-12 inches in the small streams where it’s now found. A member of the minnow family, it played a key role in the pre-settlement streams of the southwest.

In the good old days, its chief predator was the Colorado River squawfish — or pikeminnow — which once grew to six feet long and 100 pounds on the undammed Colorado River.

The roundtail chub generally lived in streams below 7,546 feet in elevation — dividing up the territory with several other chub species. The Verde trout can survive in water temperatures up to 102 degrees, but prefers ranges between about 72 and 75 degrees.

They’re apparently not picky about what they eat — using their three rows of teeth to chow down on even crayfish, an introduced pest that has created ecological havoc in most streams in the southwest. The chub also eats grasshoppers, ants, plants, plankton, aquatic insects and the eggs of other fish. As a result, they will respond aggressively to the blandishments of fly fishermen.

It takes them six or seven years to reach maturity and start spawning, probably in shallow pools with a bottom covered with rocks and cobbles. A single female will lay 25,000 eggs, but hardly any of the young survive their first year.

The Verde trout never thrives in the same stream with trout, catfish and bass — all introduced fish that came from a much more intensely competitive world. The pre-settlement streams and rivers of the southwest had few predator species, all of them adapted to floods and murky waters. The damming rivers and streams in Arizona and stocking programs for non-natives have overwhelmed most of the native fish, turning many streams into cold, clear trout heavens.

So the Arizona Department of Game and Fish resolved to turn the restored Fossil Creek into a little bit of heaven for roundtail chubs.

As APS removed the flume and other facilities, biologists using nets, electro shock and fishing lines caught as many of the chub in the old creek as possible. Then they used a chemical to effectively smother everything with gills — a process called “renovating” the stream. That was the only way to get rid of the other species, like bass and catfish.

Finally, fish biologists using helicopters and other forms of transportation returned the chub they’d removed — along with fish grown in hatcheries.

Now, Game and Fish hopes Fossil Creek will become a draw for anglers seeking an unusual experience, especially flycasters.

Starting in October, the stream will reopen to fishermen — but only those willing to use barbless hooks and return what they catch carefully to the stream. Biologists hope this will foster the growth of big fish with plenty of fight and could draw anglers from all over the state. Of course, the Verde trout was long considered a “trash fish,” because of its many bones and the faintly slimy layer with which they protect and streamline themselves. However, that should pose no problem for catch-and-release fishermen seeking a unique fishing experience.

The hope for a big boost in angling is based on the success of the state’s effort to save the Apache trout, which has already yielded streams in the White Mountains where anglers can catch the native trout.

In the meantime, maybe the chub can make a dent on the crayfish population — and recreate their ancient lifestyle in a stream of their own.

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