Big schools of chub — little schools of kids.
No lawsuits — so far.
That sums up Saturday’s launch of a new, catch-and-release fishery for a technically endangered native fish in the shockingly clear, blue-green waters of Fossil Creek.
“We had somewhere between 30 and 40 kids and their families” at a fly-fishing clinic near a campground alongside the travertine-tinted rush of the stream, said Kirk Young, head of the fisheries branch for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “I think just about every one of them caught a fish.”
The children released every one of the fish unharmed, thanks to the rules requiring barbless hooks, artificial flies and lures and immediate release.
The Game and Fish Commission last week rejected environmental groups request not to open the unique native fish fishery in the restored stream.
Critics argued the state should simply protect booming populations of native fish there, including roundtail and headwater chub, spikefin dace, razorback suckers, gila topminnows, loachminnows and sonoran suckers. Most of those fish have been forced out of other streams they once dominated by a combination of introduced fish and the impact of dams, diversions and cattle grazing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded the roundtail and headwater chub would qualify as endangered species if it only had enough money to do the studies needed to put them on the list.
However, Game and Fish biologists maintain the catch-and-release fishery will build public interest and affection for the native fish that fills the niche of trout in warmwater streams, without damaging the Fossil Creek population.
“We had 20 volunteers from angler clubs, so they could take the kids out one-on-one and show them how to work a fly — or with a normal tackle with a float and fly on the end,” said Young.
The commission approved the fishery on the assumption that people drawn to a catch-and-release fishery would take care of the creek and perhaps even report violations and problems caused by the weekend groups that now camp and often leave piles of trash.
“I don’t know how many bags of trash we brought out (on Saturday),” said Young, “but everyone seemed to wind up carrying out a bag of something: Those are the kind of people that are going to be using this place” to fish for the native chubs.
The remarkably clear waters of the spring-fed stream have in the past four years become a bastion for native fish dwindling in almost every other stream in the state. For a century, a Phoenix power company diverted most of the water from the creek to generate electricity. Four years ago, Arizona Public Service agreed to return the water to the creekbed.
Young and a team of biologists discovered that a natural rock formation two miles from the top of the creek had created a series of small waterfalls had prevented non-native fish like sunfish, catfish, bass, carp from swimming upstream from the Verde River.
So the biologists removed as many native fish as they could downstream from that natural barrier, poisoned out the non-native fish, then returned the endangered natives to the stream. All told, they removed 277 roundtail and headwater chub from the bottom 12 miles of the stream.
Since then, the number of chub in the stream has grown to an estimated 15,000. Biologists had assumed that roundtail chub dominated, but recent studies show that the somewhat more rare headwater chub actually dominates in the upper half of the stream.
Young said Game and Fish will carefully monitor the number of native fish in the creek to make sure that opening the fishery won’t prove a problem.
Twice a year, the biologists will put out about 60 hoop nets in the 4.5-mile stretch of the river now open to catch-and-release anglers, to monitor the population.
However, environmentalists say the biggest danger lies in the possibility that fishermen will reintroduce non-native fish to the stream above the fish barrier near the junction with the Verde River the state built to protect the natives.
Removing sunfish, catfish, bass, carp or other non-native competitors would prove much more difficult than the last time, when the now-dismantled hydroelectric flume made it possible to virtually shut down the creek to get rid of the non-natives.
That’s why a number of environmental groups and the Yavapai Tribe urged the state to both ban fishing and police the weekend visitors to make sure no one dumps non-native fish in the creek.
The commission decided instead that responsible fishermen would help monitor the creek, rather than pose an additional threat.
In the meantime, the travertine-saturated creek with its long chain of small waterfalls and deep pools has already started to rebuild the remarkable pools and rock formations.
Composed of dissolved calcium carbonate saturating the water that has seeped through layers of buried limestone, travertine readily coats rocks, roots and sticks in the streambed. In addition to giving the water a striking blue-green color, the travertine forms the kinds of drip castle dams that have made Havasupi in the Grand Canyon famous.
Young said researchers reported the appearance of 10-inch high travertine dams in some places within the first year water returned to the stream bed.