“Variety is the spice of life,” could be the motto at the Tonto Creek Hatchery (TCH).

Besides the 250,000 fingerlings, sub-catchable, and catchable rainbow trout, they stock into lakes and streams in Rim Country and across the state TCH raises Apache, tiger, and brook trout.

Apache trout

Apache trout are one of two native trout species in Arizona; the other is Gila trout. The Apache trout is our state fish and is only found in Arizona. Tonto Creek Hatchery is instrumental in providing recreational fishing opportunities for this beautiful trout. While AZGFD is working hard in several White Mountain streams to help recover this native trout to its historic watersheds, the department is also providing recreational fishing for Apache trout in selected White Mountain waters.

The intent of the recovery stream work is to enhance their presence and re-establish Apache trout in their historic range. So, in some cases, these streams are completely closed to fishing because of the fragile nature of the population. In others, there are special regulations where the stream will be closed during the Apache trout spawning season, and then opened on May 1 for catch-and-release fishing with only barbless flies and lures.

Recreational stockings in selected non-recovery waters in the White Mountains with Apache trout provide many more anglers the opportunity to catch and value this special trout species and appreciate the important work being done by the department to help this trout in Arizona. That is where Tonto Creek Hatchery’s work comes in.

Bryce Sisson, Tonto Creek Hatchery manager, has worked hard to solve the mystery of why Apache trout have such a difficult time surviving in their early life stages, especially in the egg and fry stages. He has introduced a water purifying system that has resulted in an incredibly successful year of producing young Apache trout. He added ultra-violet light to the water filtering system to help sterilize the water and minimize the bacterial pathogens that often give his Apache trout eggs and fry such a tough time. This year that has resulted in 120,000 young Apache trout. These trout will be ready for stocking in about 16 months.

That is an amazing accomplishment that reflects the incredible dedication and hard work of the TCH staff.

Usually, these Apache trout would be delivered as young trout to Silver Creek Hatchery for further growth, but this year while Silver Creek undergoes some renovations, the Apache trout will be on site at Tonto Creek Hatchery longer, and TCH staff will stock them as sub-catchables and catchables into various recreational waters in the White Mountains over the next year to year and a half.

Tiger troutAnother trout that is special to TCH are the roughly 40,000 tiger trout that they have in their raceways this year. Tiger trout, which is a sterile hybrid cross between a female brown trout and a male brook trout, has an amazing color pattern with characteristics of both parents. In some other western states where tigers have been stocked, it is not uncommon to catch tiger trout in excess of seven or eight pounds. While the tiger trout production at Tonto Creek is less than a decade old, we can all hope for big tigers like that someday. It will depend on great forage in the lakes and the ability for these trout to survive multiple years of fishing pressure.

I watched tiger trout being sorted for stocking and delivered to Willow Springs Lake recently. Before the staff began the operation, they had placed a passive separating system with PVC bar spacers in the raceway so that while the trout swam around in the raceway, the bigger fish were confined to one side of the barrier, while the smaller, still growing trout easily swam through to the other side of the barrier.

When they were ready to begin the netting, Sisson slowly dropped into the raceway, so as not to step on any tigers that like to swim near the bottom of the tank, and began the calculations to determine how many fish to pull from the raceway to stock that day. He hung a bucket partially filled with water from a scale, and zeroed it out so that when he added a full net of tiger trout into the bucket, he knew exactly how much the bucket of trout weighed. He then counted the trout as he released them one by one from the bucket to determine the number of trout in the bucket. He sampled twice more and then calculated the average weight of the trout in the raceway, ready to be transferred to the hatchery truck. This provided staff with a number of trout to weight ratio for the fish to be stocked that day.

The truck has its own key measuring tool. There is a narrow water gauge on the outside of the tank that measures water displacement in the tank. One inch equals 100 pounds of trout, which can then be converted into the number of fish based on the raceway sampling that was done.

As they netted hundreds of fish into the truck, that gauge allowed them to quickly determine exactly how many fish were ready to be transported. The truck’s two tanks transported 1,500 tigers and was followed immediately by the second truck that delivered the rest of the 3,000 trout for Willow Springs Lake. Two similar runs were made to Woods Canyon Lake later that day.

Tiger trout are stocked in several waters across the state. Woods Canyon Lake and Willow Springs Lake will each receive about 7,500 catchable-sized tigers this year, with many in the 11+ inch range. Cataract Lake near Williams is hoped to be a prime tiger trout lake in years to come, and stocking has recently begun there. Kinnikinick Lake, outside of Flagstaff, is a favorite destination for tigers as well. In the White Mountains, Becker Lake receives a small number of tiger trout, as the lake conditions will allow.

Stream stocking

When the staff stocks a stream or multiple lakes with rainbows on a trip, they want to be sure that they equally distribute the fish over several stocking points. That gauge on the truck helps them track the number of fish stocked, and the number of trout remaining after each stop.

I love the science and math that I saw on display, and how the staff has such familiarity with the calculations and procedures that it is automatic as they efficiently go about their stocking routine.

Brook troutThe last of the special fish at TCH that I saw were their brook trout. I am a sucker for brook trout, as they immediately take me back to my childhood brook trout fishing in Pennsylvania. These beautiful fish produce amazing spawning colors in the fall and are a blast to catch on a fly rod.

The 8,000 catchable-sized brookies averaging about 11 inches. They, plus 30,000 fingerlings, will be delivered to Big Lake. The 1,000 sub-catchables are headed to Perkins Tank outside of Williams later this year.

Tonto Creek Hatchery is a wonderful place to visit to get a glimpse of the hard work that is done there each day with a variety of trout species to benefit Arizona anglers. If you would like to see a behind the scenes look at their work, you might enjoy a short video that shows them raising trout from eggs, to fry, to fingerlings, all the way to catchable size in their raceways https://youtu.be/Z7KNph-Lxe4.

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