Trevor Nelson, the Canyon Creek Hatchery manager, lifted a cover off the indoor raceway filled with thousands of young Gila trout and they all darted for cover at the other end of the tank.
That is exactly what anglers like me want to see in any hatchery-raised trout, because to us it means the fish will be in the best possible shape to avoid predators in the wild once they are stocked.
From a fish rearing perspective, it means a lot more work! Not only does the sudden exposure to light bother them, but any foreign objects or quick movements, like the brush that is used to clean their tank daily can put them off their feeding schedule for hours.
In the outdoor raceway where larger Gilas are growing to catchable size, they can’t be fed like the rainbows in the raceway right next to them.
Hatchery-raised rainbows seem conditioned to know that folks near their raceway means that they can expect to be fed. The Gilas will only eat if the food is tossed across the rainbow trout raceway into their tank. They panic with too much human contact. Like I said, a seemingly perfect fish for stocking and thriving in our streams, but a true pain for efficient production in the hatchery.
For a confirmed fish geek, it doesn’t get much better than a recent field trip I took with Tom Herman, the Payson Flycasters Club co-president.
I’ve had similar behind-the-scenes tours at Tonto Creek Hatchery when I’ve taken the Julia Randall Elementary and Rim Country Middle School after-school fly fishers up to the hatchery on a Saturday each April.
Both at Tonto Creek and Canyon Creek hatcheries, what amazes me is the dedication and passion for the fish that these tireless AZGFD employees have for their charges. Working at a hatchery is a 24/7 job.
They need to respond immediately to any changes in the water chemistry. They are always checking for any unhealthy looking fish to be sure that they quickly protect the hundreds of thousands of fish they raise each year for anglers to catch.
They are constantly on guard for predators on site. Great blue herons and ospreys are an ongoing daytime threat, but raccoons and even bears can appear at night.
Besides providing for the needs of the hundreds of thousands of fish they raise from eggs each year, they deliver these fish to the lakes and streams in great health for us to enjoy catching throughout the season.
At Canyon Creek Hatchery, Nelson has a bold goal for his facility that I know he will pull off. He plans to make Canyon Creek Hatchery the Gila trout production hatchery for the state.
Gila trout are one of two threatened trout that historically were once found in Arizona. While the Apache trout range was in the eastern part of the state, Gilas were found in many of the streams in our area.
He not only wants to help save these fish, he wants to produce enough Gila trout to provide fish for stocking in their native Arizona streams for anglers to enjoy catching. Eventually, he hopes the stocking plan will be successful enough to replace rainbow trout stocking in many of those streams.
Gila trout are very similar in appearance to rainbows, but with a beautiful, golden-brown hue.
Unlike rainbows, which are non-natives that AZGFD must stock as triploids to ensure that they are unable to reproduce, Gilas that are not harvested from a creek will have the ability to naturally reproduce and could ultimately become a breeding population in any stream in which they are stocked. This would return a very desirable native game fish to the waters around Payson.
Currently, Gila trout brood stock are only raised at the Mora National Fish Hatchery in New Mexico. Their efforts are designed to ensure the greatest genetic variability and maintain distinct lineages of trout that are threatened and could be lost to our streams forever.
The concern for such a valuable repository of a threatened species is that if something catastrophic were to happen at Mora, that would pose a devastating blow to Gila trout.
That is where Trevor’s plan for Canyon Creek will serve two important functions. It will provide an essential backup population of these threatened fish, and allow AZGFD to begin to create a strain of Gila trout well suited for recreational fishing.
He plans to continually infuse his Gilas with a variety of fish brood stock genetics from Mora to keep their reproductive viability optimal, but with an eye for producing larger fish that grow more quickly, that will be valued by Arizona anglers.
To pull this off, some drastic changes to fish rearing are an important part of the plan. A big investment was recently made to procure six 1500-gallon circular tanks that will be housed inside a large, converted storage shed. These tanks will keep the fish constantly swimming against current just as they will experience in the wild, but even more importantly, it causes all of the waste sediment to accumulate in the middle of the tank. Simply by pulling a valve, the sediment is quickly removed with no human disturbance to the wary fish.
Lighting upgrades will allow for the fish to remain on their feeding schedule longer and grow faster. The use of covers to provide some hiding locations in the tanks will keep the fish calm and more inclined to feed more naturally.
Thank you to the Mogollon Sporting Association (MSA) for their donation of $25,000 toward initial upgrades to the Canyon Creek Hatchery. The MSA understands the importance of working to protect this threatened trout and knows that Rim Country anglers will love catching one of these treasures in the near future. It is a bucket-list fish for many fishermen, and will certainly bring anglers from across the state and country to Rim Country to try their luck.