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Fishing for the Threatened Gila Trout in Arizona and New Mexico

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Gila Trout of Arizona and New Mexico courtesy of the New Mexico Game & Fish

Gila Trout of Arizona and New Mexico courtesy of the New Mexico Game & Fish

Another Threatened Fish Species

The Gila trout is a subspecies of native trout that originated in the southwestern United States of America. The Gila trout are related to the rainbow and cutthroat trout of the salmonids group.

For many years now, the Gila trout were considered an endangered species at risk of extinction. But in 2006, that designation was downgraded to "threatened" after much work was done by the Game and Fish Departments of Arizona and New Mexico.

These agencies made rules that allowed limited sports fishing, for the first time in over half a century. Before the year 1950, when the fishing of Gila trout was uncontrolled, their numbers had been so depleted and reduced that they were made off-limits to fishermen. However there is now legal Gila trout fishing in both states.

Unusual and threatened species of Arizona trout - the Gila trout

Unusual and threatened species of Arizona trout - the Gila trout

Characteristics and History of the Gila Trout

A Gila trout has a yellow head with black spots. It has a maximum total average length of about 55 centimeters or 21 inches. Gila trout are closely related to Apache trout, but the latter has a spot behind the eye, on the head, and big noticeable spots on the body. The Gila trout, in contrast, has numerous small dark spots on the upper half of the body.

Gila trout were initially widespread in the upper Gila River Basin. But like other Arizona native fish, they were decimated by the introduction of nonnative types for sport fishing and bait. They declined in numbers due to hybridization with their closely related Rainbow trout, and predation and competition with Brown trout. In addition, they suffered from degraded habitat: forest fires burned over ever-greater expanses, contributing pollutants, ash, and fire-suppressing chemicals. Grazing near their streams also degrades the habitat for Gila trout populations. In addition, bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites negatively affect native trout.

Today, the distribution of Gila trout consists of fourteen populations in stream habitats in New Mexico and Arizona. Some of the locations in New Mexico include: Deadman and Massacre Canyons, Rainy Mesa, Raw Meat Creek, Hells Hole, Hard Scrabble Canyon, and Loco Mountain.

the-gila-trout-of-arizona-and-new-mexico

How Limited Sport Fishing Returned

Gila trout fly fishing in New Mexico and Arizona was restricted after the fish was listed as an endangered species in 1973. The Gila trout was downlisted from "endangered" to "threatened" in the states of New Mexico and Arizona to enable them to manage the population of these species by regulating sport fishing in selected areas. Guidelines were developed to allow for limited sport fishing in specific waters.

The agencies stopped stocking non-native trout and stocked Gila trout instead. Several organizations built restoration streams which were closed off from fishing. Limiting fishing in those areas gave the unique native species a chance to develop and reproduce. Gila trout replicated from the native gene pool at fisheries are said to be reproducing on their own in New Mexico.

Gila trout have been restored as a sport fishery to four reservoirs and one stream in Arizona. In New Mexico there are currently four streams where you can catch a wild Gila trout: Black Canyon, Willow Creek, Mineral Creek, and Mogollon Creek. Six additional locations in New Mexico are open to angling and contain stocked populations. Fishing for Gila trout increases public awareness of the need for conservation.

There may be days when I can't help an animal in need, but the day will never come that I won't try.

— Paul Oxton

Gila trout head - close-up

Gila trout head - close-up

Gila Trout Restoration

The Mora National Fish Hatchery & Technology Center in New Mexico has been the most important asset in helping strains of Gila trout to survive. This place has been the home of rescued Gila trout that were in danger from huge summer wildfires in their dry locales. Fish were transported directly to the hatchery. The hatchery has also been a valuable asset to scientists conducting studies of fish—in particular, studies about the best feed for young Gila trout.

The Fisheries Services of the US and the State wildlife and fisheries management agencies are responsible for establishing fishing rules and regulations that will work to reduce over exploitation of the Gila trout in Arizona and New Mexico. These rules will help the progress towards full recovery and management of the Gila trout. Support for wisely regulated fishing may come from both sports fishing enthusiasts and private landowners who might benefit from allowing access to fishing on their property. In addition, the involvement of the public in this general action of restoration and conservation can provide an opportunity for their input.

The bottom line behind all the restoration and control of fishing grounds is to establish a strategy to help sustain and maintain Gila trout population. A population is considered stable when it can sustain itself through natural reproduction and can persist under varying habitat conditions.

Consequences of Forest Fires

In 2012, conservationists were concerned that dirt, ash, and charred pieces of wood were coming down waterways into the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. At the time, Spruce Creek, Whiskey Creek, and Langstroth Creek were where biologists were netting Gila trout and then transporting them by helicopter to a hatchery in northern New Mexico. Since 2012, many severe summer fires in Arizona and New Mexico have made biologists more cautious and much better prepared to deal with problems of this kind.

Fishermen Can Bring Attention to Native Trout Species

Ensuring the existence of native fish species will require continued efforts to segregate and enhance their ecosystem. Continued study of the population and their place in Arizona's nature are important. Fishermen's appreciation of this valued stock will help preserve Arizona's domestic species.

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Sources

Joseph R. Tomelleri, 2019, "Gila Trout," https://westernnativetrout.org/gila-trout/

Staff, 2017, "Gila Trout Recovery & Angling," http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/fishing/native-new-mexico-fish/gila-trout-recovery-angling/

Ron Dungan, June 2020, "Tales of the Gila Trout," New Mexico Magazine, https://www.newmexico.org/nmmagazine/articles/post/tales-of-the-gila-trout/

Staff, 2021, "Gila Trout," https://www.azgfd.com/fishing/species/gilatrout/

© 2012 John R Wilsdon

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 23, 2012:

Nice to know that the Gila trout have come off of the endangered list and are now flourishing in Arizona and nearby places. Voted up, useful and interesting.

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