Trevor Nelson sprinted past me — Mercury lugging a wriggling net laden with 20 pounds of panic-stricken rainbow trout.
I turned and lumbered along in his wake, anxious to get into position to capture the image of the impending trout hurl into the rejuvenated East Verde River.
As Trevor nimbly jumped a downed log in his hurtle toward the creek, a gleaming trout bounced from the net and landed, wide-eyed and astonished, amid the pine duff.
Now, in my normal frame of mind — this would have looked like dinner, butter, lemon, heaven.
But I was chasing the trout truck, the closest thing to Santa Claus you can find in the high country in July — on a mission to fill the East Verde River with a gleam and a hope.
So I bent, scooped up the dismayed trout with barely a break in stride and sped after Trevor. I flung my rescued trout into the sparkle of the East Verde — feeling ever so slightly like one of the team, and so vicariously beloved by an underground fraternity.
Pretty much every day of the week, Trevor and fish biologist Larry Duhamell load up the sturdy Arizona Game and Fish trout stocking truck at the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, to spread joy to creeks and lakes throughout Rim Country. On Wednesdays, they usually cover Tonto and Christopher Creeks. On Thursdays, they generally shower their blessings on the East Verde River.
Normally, they would have given up on most of the East Verde by this point in the summer, as water temperatures creep above 70 degrees, which all but incapacitates the cold-water-loving rainbows.
But this year, the Salt River Project is releasing 35 cubic feet per second into the East Verde at Washington Park, extending the cool-water season clear through the summer. Monsoon rains last week have muddied the waters on the lower half of the creek, but the stretch below Washington Park and through Whispering Pines before major tributaries join in still runs clear and cold.
The dramatic increase in summer flows on the East Verde promises to convert the stream into one of the premier trout streams in the state, with easy access all along its course.
Duhamell and Nelson marveled at the transformation of the stream due to the flush of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. SRP plans to run about 11,000 acre-feet annually down the East Verde to its reservoirs on the Verde River near Phoenix. That amount will drop by about 3,000 acre-feet in a couple of years when Payson brings its own pipeline online. Still, the East Verde will no longer dwindle to near extinction every summer — going dry entirely in some stretches.
The Arizona Game and Fish biologists hope that with the enhanced flows, many of the thousands of trout they stock into the creek every summer will spawn and leave eggs and bolster a fragile wild population there now, which holds on mostly in the upper reaches of the creek where few anglers wander and the spring-fed creek never runs dry.
The Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery produces about 700,000 rainbow trout — mostly fingerlings. They stock about 146,000 fish into streams and lakes annually — the bulk of them in the heavily fished lakes on the Rim — including Woods Canyon, Willow Springs, Bear Canyon, Black Canyon and Blue Ridge.
Duhamell and his cohorts hope that the increased flow in the East Verde will make it as reliable and varied a place to stock trout as the spring-fed Tonto Creek has long been.
Certainly, the recent tour along behind the sloshing trout truck sampled the often hidden charms of the East Verde, especially along the now fulsome stretch between Washington Park and the Control Road just outside of Whispering Pines.
Without the water from Blue Ridge, that stretch of creek along Forest Road 296 slows to a spring-fed trickle in the depths of summer. But now, it gushes along like some Colorado trout stream.
All along the route, delighted residents stop, watch, chat — inconspicuously memorizing the stops and planning a stealthy return before the weekend crowds can clean out the stocked fishing holes.
Duhamell tries to be pleasant but noncommittal about his exact movements.
“The locals will clean them out before the weekend,” he joked.
Fishing license fees pay for the stocking, and anglers contribute more than $250 million annually to the state’s economy, according to estimates by Game and Fish.
So Duhamell and Santa’s other helpers mix up their runs, putting fish in different holes every week, sometimes shifting up the days they hit certain creeks. Some fish experts say that stocked fish take a day or so to recover from the trauma of the move from the fishery to the stream, but Duhamell says that he’s often seen people come running with poles in hand and pull out a fish before he pulls away.
So I felt a little like a spy, trundling along behind the trout truck — memorizing each stop.
You see: I have a conflict of interest. My idea of heaven is standing in a trout stream as the daylight fades, my tufted flies afloat on the current. I don’t really care if I catch anything, which is good as I am an indifferent fisherman. The catch always presents a moment of moral crisis — my base appetites struggling against the faint, fluttery stirring of my inner Buddhist. I used to always eat the poor fellows, now I usually let them go.
So I followed the lads from stop to stop, from one sparkling stretch of rejuvenated stream after another.
And at the end of the day, I made careful note of the spot on Flowing Springs Road where they backed the truck up to the creek, opened up the pipe on the back of the truck and released the last 70 or 80 fish in the tank into the last fishing hole of the day.
And I know I should tell you just where that spot lies.
But I can’t. I just can’t.
It is not only that rescuing my one trout made me part of the team.
It is as I already confessed: I have a conflict of interest.
The clouds are gathering, I’m wrapping this story up early — and with any luck at all, I can be standing there, gathering research, by the time the sun sets.
Weekly stocking: Bear Canyon Lake, Black Canyon Lake, Blue Ridge Reservoir, Canyon Creek, Christopher Creek, East Verde River, Haigler Creek, Knoll Lake, Tonto Creek, Bear Flats, Willow Springs Lake, Woods Canyon Lake and Workman Creek.