Trying To Outsmart A Wild Trout Gets The Adrenaline Pumping

Early fish hatchery operators Walt Drorbaugh, second from right, and Boy Haught, at right, lived and worked in relative isolation, tending the fish, harvesting them and then transporting them to the many creeks around the Rim Country.

Photo by Andy Towle. |

Early fish hatchery operators Walt Drorbaugh, second from right, and Boy Haught, at right, lived and worked in relative isolation, tending the fish, harvesting them and then transporting them to the many creeks around the Rim Country.


Having hiked and fished just about every stream under the Rim that had any chance of holding a trout has been an adventure over the last 50 years. 

It still gets the adrenaline pumping in this aging outdoorsman — trying to outsmart a wild trout and succeeding in catching one of those brightly colored game fish on ultralight gear.  When I find a secluded stretch of water that has a rainbow, brookie, or brown trout, I often wonder how that fish took up residence in a creek that is very much off the beaten path.

By numerous conversations with a few of the still living pioneers and their descendants, I have found some of the answers to my question of, “How various species of trout are present to this day in some of these creeks?”

Hearing stories of trout in the 18- to 24-inch category only whetted my appetite to know more of the history of trout fishing in the area.

Ronnie McDaniel, who has spent his entire life in the Rim Country, and Dan Drorbaugh, the son of one of the pioneer managers at the Tonto Fish Hatchery, have many interesting stories of the earliest fish stocking programs.  


Photos courtesy of Dan Drorbaugh

The Tonto Fish Hatchery, which began operation in 1936 with rather primitive conditions, was able to supply sufficient numbers of various species of trout for numerous local creeks. Boy Haught, the first manager, with four other employees, had the responsibility of raising and disbursing trout in all of the clear, cold spring creeks coming out of the base of the Mogollon Rim.

If the water could sustain a trout, they were stocked periodically; even the more remote and hard to reach streams had trout — with the primary goal of future natural reproduction for that water. Even creeks that only flowed a mile or two were candidates for the Tonto Creek Hatchery stocking program. 

If the water was cold and pure with an acceptable Ph, chances were excellent a species of trout would be introduced much to the delight of future anglers.

Today, these waters are not familiar names that trout enthusiasts would even consider when planning a future fishing trip. Upper Weber, Pine, Bray, Bonita, Dude, Chase, Ellison, Perley, Dick Williams, Rose, Reynolds, Spring, and Workman still have healthy flows of clear and cold water, but are now destinations for fall hunting and not the “rod and reel” crowd.

These were waters that were very fishable well into the 1970s with the chance of catching a rainbow, brookie, or brown depending on the specific creek and what species had been originally stocked.

Many of these creeks mentioned were also recipients of extensive improvements by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which had numerous camps under the Rim during the 1930s.

The CCC was a federal program for the 18- to 26-year-old young man that was unemployed because of the Great Depression and was put to work in the wilds of all of the western states. While hiking on Dude Creek prior to the big fire, I came upon many of the catchment ponds created by the CCC by cutting down trees and placing them in strategic spots along the creek. Each one of these ponds created excellent fish habitat for the abundant brook trout in the stream.

The first hatchery manager, Boy Haught, in the earliest years, would often use his mule, which was equipped with metal panyards to transport trout into some of the tougher to reach areas.

Dan Drorbaugh, who is now in his 60s, has fond memories of hiking with his dad, Walt, when they used metal backpacks to transport fingerling trout into some of these remote waters.

Dan also remembered when there was a massive fish kill created by a forest fire, which triggered heavy silt runoff. The next year, in the spring of 1962, a couple of these two-mile creeks had to be restocked with fingerling brook trout that adapted extremely well to the creek environment.

They would hike to the headwaters and release small fish, which would eventually inhabit the rest of the creek downstream. Dan’s recollection of course was the answer to why we caught so many brook trout in creeks as small as Dude where the deepest pool may be only three feet.


Photos courtesy of Dan Drorbaugh

Walt Drorbaugh lived at the hatcher with his wife Elaine and son Dan, photo upper left, along with other hatchery workers. They had to tend the fish, including cleaning and maintaining the tanks year-round, even with several feet of snow on the ground, photo above.

The water conditions determined the species of trout that was stocked in a particular stream.

Consequently, some of these waters today have natural reproduction of wild trout with a fishable population that was stocked more than 50 years ago.

Other streams have been damaged by floods and wildfires over the many years and they now have few or no trout. Time has proven that many of these small streams not only can hold trout, but they can actually reproduce in their natural habitat.

In addition to the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, there were other hatcheries that were privately owned by some of the local homesteaders.

Remnants of the old Chase Creek operation still exist with the concrete raceways and a dilapidated building still standing. The purpose for this hatchery was to raise trout to sell to Phoenix restaurants and any ranchers who may have wanted to stock privately owned waters.

For most of these old small hatcheries, all that is left may be a foundation which is well overgrown and a story that may still be told in a few of the pioneer families of the Rim Country.

Even Horton Creek had a hatchery, which was in operation in the early to mid 1940s by Calvin Greer for the state of Arizona.

This operation raised German brown trout that were stocked in many of the steams beneath the Rim. Pioneer Payson resident, Ronnie McDaniel, spent many summer days during his childhood helping his great uncle Calvin at the hatchery and learning how to fly-fish the local streams.

This hatchery was located near the headwaters and was reached by an old road, which is now the Horton Trail. There is hardly a trace of the old foundation still left, but the impact of the early stocking program is still with us today when this bronze-colored fish with bright red dots is caught in local streams by an often-surprised angler.

Ronnie also shared stories of the CCC improving much of Horton Creek by creating holding ponds, which allowed some of those browns to grow to 20 inches or more.

When his uncle would teach him how to tie flies, they would take the new, feathered bait to one of their favorite pools on the creek to try their luck at hooking a trophy brown trout.  

He has other fond memories of accompanying his uncle to out of the way streams south of Young with names like Workman, Rose, and Reynolds, which all had catchable trout populations.

From simple beginnings, we now have “state of the art” fish hatcheries on Tonto and Canyon Creek that supply hundreds of thousands of catchable rainbow and Apache trout to the Rim Country and the White Mountains.

It is a short 30-minute drive from Payson and it is well worth the visit to see how a hatchery accomplishes the goal of providing trout for the Rim Country and all of Arizona. Make sure you take a few quarters to buy the fish pellets so that you can feed the various species of trophy trout in the lower pond.

The Tonto Fish Hatchery is open from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily and it is the perfect place to visit when friends or relatives ask, what there is to see in the area.

This weekend enjoy the scenery and sounds of Rim Country, God’s creation.


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