A Secretive Cult Celebrates Spring Rites


Larry Duhamell checks the trout before beginning the transfer from the No. 1 run to a truck that will deliver them to Lower Lake Mary near Flagstaff on Lake Mary Road.

Larry Duhamell checks the trout before beginning the transfer from the No. 1 run to a truck that will deliver them to Lower Lake Mary near Flagstaff on Lake Mary Road. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want — oh, you don't quite know what it is you DO want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!

~ Mark Twain

The cottonwoods and willows all along the East Verde have flushed as green as the fevered hopes of a secretive Rim Country cult — whose moment has finally arrived.

They waited patiently through the interminable winter, with its bare branches and empty streams. They have sorted through their boxes of treasures, consulted their oracles and made their pilgrimages to the great, bedecked Meccas of line and lure.

And now, oh best beloved and endlessly patient penitents, the winter of thy discontent is concluded: Thy hour is at hand.

In short, the stocking truck dumped a big load of maybe 800 wriggling, gleaming, perpetually astonished rainbow trout in the East Verde River this week, to the dazed delight of that most amiable and long-suffering of cults — Rim Country fishermen.

Mark Twain may not know what makes the heart ache in the shadow of spring — but it’s no mystery to anyone whose heart has gotten tangled with fly line and the moment that tuft of thread alights, weightless on the still surface of a trout stream.

So some of the most beloved and sought-after people in all of Rim Country laboring up at the Arizona Game and Fish’s Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery spent all week loading thousands of rainbow trout into the sloshing stocking truck, so they could scoop them out by the bucketful to plop into Rim Country streams — including the East Verde (north of the highway bridge), Tonto Creek, Haigler Creek and Christopher Creek.

Additional trundling trucks have also started stocking the Rim Country lakes like Bear Canyon, Willow Springs, Wood’s Canyon and Knoll.

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Rounding up the fish, Larry Duhamell drives them to the end of the run making it easier to net and transfer to the fish truck for hauling.

Christmas for anglers actually came about two weeks late this year, due to a certain stint of complicated dickering between the state and federal hatchery people — compounded by some peculiar mixture of threatened government shutdown and the rehabilitation of one hatchery that was raising most of the state’s native Apache trout — a task that has now passed partly to the Tonto Creek Hatchery.

But never mind that. Why quibble when the angler’s tree has been piled high with presents. To quote A Christmas Carol:

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can.”

And if you’ve had your fly rod rigged and ready for a month now — best sit down for this next bit of news.

The lovely, generous people at the hatchery kept at least 2,500 rainbows and fattened them up for an extra year. So now every stocking will include about 800 cute little 9- to 12-inch “catchable” trout and a generous dose of 3- to 5-pound lunkers — often between 16 and 24 inches long. The hatchery will release two or three times as many of these monster trout as last year.

“We have a good number of incentive fish this year,” said Larry Duhamell, who supervises the raising of some 160,000 releasable trout at the hatchery each year.

Now, Larry’s a heck of a fella: Kindly and smart, brimming with obscure fish knowledge. Perhaps that’s why people in certain neighborhoods run out to watch him pass, hang on every detail of his itinerary and gather ’round to watch him work.

On the other hand, it could be the truck of trout he drives around.

“We had really good feedback on the big fish last year,” he said. “I love those smiling faces. People were catching 5-pound fish. Some of them are just hogs (the fish, not the people). Real voracious eaters (the fish, right, Larry?)”

The Tonto Creek Hatchery will actually take on an expanded role this year in a rare, wildlife triumph — the recovery of the native Apache trout.

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Setting up a hand brigade with three people is easier than a two or one man operation, as Larry Duhamell, in the tank, Bruce Denovain,in the middle, and Mark Severson on the truck, all handle the fish in turn.

Game and Fish, the White Mountain Apaches and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cooperated to save the Apache trout from extinction. Driven under by competition with introduced rainbow and brown trout, the small, gleaming gold Apache trout held out in a few scattered headwater streams on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.

So biologists purged non-native species from a network of White Mountain streams, which they then stocked with hatchery-reared Apache trout. As a result, the Apache trout is one of the few fish to ever make it off the endangered list — and has recovered so well that people can fish for stocked Apache trout in many of those streams.

The Tonto Creek Hatchery for some years has been rearing Apache trout when they’re at the minnow size, but then moving them to the Silver Creek Hatchery near Show Low once they reach a certain size. But the state and federal governments are spending millions to overhaul the Silver Creek Hatchery and the Tonto Creek Hatchery has taken over the job of growing a batch of about 70,000 Apache trout this year for stocking into White Mountain streams.

So Duhamell’s crew has been getting used to the piscine picadillos of their latest house guests.

For one thing, they like a little more krill in their diet. You know, krill — the itty bitty shrimp-like crustaceans that blue whales live on. Of course, a blue whale will eat 40 million krill in a day — whereas Apache trout will settle for a little krill additive to their fish pellets.

The Apache trout also like shaded runs and skitter away from the shadow of a well-intentioned fish biologist much quicker than a rainbow will.

Because the Tonto Creek Hatchery is devoting half its runs to Apache trout, other hatcheries in the system will take over its normal job of stocking the lakes along the Rim, all intensely popular with anglers.

Duhamell said Tonto Creek has ample flows and 52-degree water, just perfect for trout.

The East Verde’s flows remain low, because the Salt River Project hasn’t yet started releasing water from the Blue Ridge pipeline into the creek at Washington Park. SRP officials said they’ve been working on the pipeline up on top of the Rim and will likely start to release water in early May — which will immediately double the flow of water.

Duhamell did make one unnerving comment. He made note of the new paved parking areas and little signs requiring people to leave money in the deposit box for parking. All four parking areas are located now in areas where the stocking truck typically stops to deliver budgets of wriggling trout.

However, anglers pay the cost of raising the fish through their license fees. Therefore, Game and Fish policy forbids stocking trout in fee-paying areas which limit the free access of anglers.

“The little signs say: ‘put your fee in here.’ Now, that’s going to be another deterrent. We can’t normally stock places that charge fees,” mused Duhamell.

Oh. No. Joe. Say it ain’t so.

But never mind that.

Never mind the politics and the bureaucracy and the wars and unemployment. We got no time to worry about all that trivia.

It’s Friday morning.

The weekend crowds won’t hit the best fishing holes until tonight — tomorrow even.

So what are you sitting there for reading the paper? Get your pole! You could be standing knee-deep watching the fish rise like the earth smell of spring within half an hour.

After all — isn’t that why you’re living here?

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