Fossil Creek Fishing: Now Any Chub’Ll Do

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Roundtail chub? Headwater chub? Not to worry. Catch that chub, too — any chub’ll do.

That’s the solution the Arizona Game and Fish Commission hit upon Wednesday when faced with protests from environmental groups about plans on Saturday to open a catch-and-release fishery for native fish on a restored Fossil Creek.

The environmental groups hoped to block fishing in the creek as the result of the discovery that the creek is full of headwater chub rather than the nearly identical roundtail chub, also known as the Verde Trout.

The Commission voted to go ahead with plans to open the fishery for both chub, reasoning that the rules will require anglers to use barbless hooks on artificial flies and lures and to release any fish they catch immediately — no matter what sort of chub rises to their artificial flies and lures.

The October-April roundtail chub season along 4.5 miles of the 14-mile-long creek will open on Saturday, with the season on headwater chub delayed until Oct. 10. But that’s largely a technicality now, since the rules require anglers to immediately release either chub they catch, which even some experts can’t tell apart with the naked eye.

tell apart with the naked eye.

Environmentalists noted that the original plan called for a season just for roundtail chub, which exist in more than 21 other places. Current regulations allow anglers to take one roundtail chub per trip but to immediately release any headwater chub they catch, which exists in about 18 other places.

Six environmental groups and the Yavapai-Apache Nation appealed to the state to not allow fishermen into the canyon until the fish populations have stabilized and the state can get some control over visitors and partyers who “trash” the accessible portions of the canyon every weekend. The environmental groups represented included the Centers for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Maricopa Audubon.

However, the commissioners reasoned that even if 5 to 7 percent of the fish caught and released later died from the stress and injury, it would have no impact on the booming chub population in Fossil Creek.

The debate really came down to a vigorous disagreement about whether luring fly-fishermen and other catch-and-release fishermen down into Fossil Creek will help or hurt the effort to establish a rare, protected population of native fish.

The environmentalists say drawing more people into the canyon will only make a bad situation worse and perhaps lead to the re-introduction of non-native fish, with disastrous results for the natives.

Game and Fish officials argued that the sorts of visitors drawn to a catch-and-release stream will actually help monitor use of the creek, while building public support for these unique, native fish.

Robin Silver, founder of the Centers for Biological Diversity, protested any recreational fishing in the creek, restored about four years ago when Arizona Public Service shut down a historic hydroelectric plant that had for a century diverted most of the water from the spring-fed creek.

Biologists captured nearly 300 native fish and moved them to nearby holding tanks. They then poisoned and removed all of the non-native fish, before returning the native fish to the creek.

Biologists now estimate the creek harbors some 15,000 chub. They had assumed most of those fish were roundtail chub, but a genetic study by researchers from Arizona State University revealed that the somewhat more rare headwater chub dominates except near the junction with the Verde River.

Both chub probably qualify for protection as endangered species. Although they rarely occur in the same stretch of stream, they will freely interbreed when they do. They’re both listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “warranted but precluded” list — which means biologists think they’re endangered, but don’t have the money to do the studies to put the fish on the official list, with all the protections that result.

Environmentalists argued the state and federal governments should more rigorously protect a creek that has in the past four years become one of the most important refuges for a number of endangered native fish, pressed toward extinction by loss of habitat and competition with bass, trout, catfish, sunfish, crayfish and other introduced species almost everywhere else. Bringing more people into the canyon will only increase the problems and the risk that someone will put non-native fish back into the creek.

Game and Fish biologists counter that developing a recreational fishery will enable them to increase law enforcement, build public support and bring responsible anglers into the canyon to help report problems.

Speaking against opening the fishery, ASU fish expert Paul Marsh said the catch-and-release fishing could harm many of the chubs of either sort, noting that studies of related fish suggest they’re sensitive to handling.

However, Kurt Young, head of Game and Fish’s fishery branch, said that after handling thousands of trout and hundreds of chub, he’s convinced that chub are much hardier than trout, when it comes to handling. Numerous studies suggest that 5 to 7 percent of trout caught and promptly released will die from wounds and the stress of the experience.

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