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Flying fish in the forest

The endangered Gila trout were airlifted and stocked in a small Arizona stream through cooperative efforts by many agencies. George Andrejko/Arizona GFD

Up in the sky — it's a bird — it's a plane — no, it's a barrel full of endangered Gila trout flying up the mountain to be transplanted into their new homes as part of a survival-of-the-species project.

These are hardy little stockers, too. They had to endure an 11-hour tanker truck trip from the Mora National Fish Hatchery and Technology Center in New Mexico to tiny Frye Creek in the Penaleno Mountains of southeastern Arizona.

Then, after the 500 fingerlings had done their road time, they were loaded into 50-gallon transport drums, attached to a helicopter by long-line slings and flown to staging sites on the mountain where they were then tenderly transferred to 5-gallon pails before being hiked — sloshed — up another three miles along a bushwhacked trail to finally be stocked in small cold water creek pools.

The step-by-step process was taxing to both the trout and the transporters.

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"But well worth the effort," said Jason Kline, Arizona Game & Fish biologist and project coordinator. "Mortality rate was under four percent and with an operation of this size and complexity, we're absolutely ecstatic with this kind of result."

Acting Regional G&F Supervisor Don Mitchell concurred.

"This whole effort started from an informal discussion at one of our Angler Roundtables when some trout fishermen began asking about the possibility of adding to the local gamefish population," Mitchell said, "and here we stand today, just 18 months later, with fish on the mountain.

"All the parts of the puzzle fit together nicely, and the stars could not have been aligned any more perfectly in this monumental accomplishment."

Recognizing that the proverbial journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step — this is just the initial leg of a lengthy project — it is none-the-less a historic move forward.

Gila trout, declared endangered in 1967 and found only in just a few miles of western New Mexico/eastern Arizona high country streams, have been forced to constantly swim against the current of extinction.

Described by some poetic scribes as "swimming expressions of antiquity" and "artifacts of epochs past," these once ubiquitous copper-colored swimmers have had to fight for liveable stream space and battle extreme drought, forest fires, and a myriad of cultural disturbances that threatened to reduce the once-common fish to a textbook example of a species that became extinct.

River homes seasonally became either mud bogs or flooded their banks. Dams blocked travel routes and changed rivers into lakes and non-native stocked fish frequently won the territorial battle between natives and interlopers.

"These are feisty fish," Jim Brooks of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. "We're not dealing with stream chickens, like hatchery-raised rainbows. These are aggressive, wily fish with an innate instinct for survival."

Greg McReynolds of Trout Unlimited in Albuquerque has legally fished for Gila trout in New Mexico and said they are great to catch.

"They aren't college educated and you don't have to match the hatch," he said. "If you put a fly in the water, they'll bite it. They take artificials with glee and fight like the dickens."

Time and patience will be needed in order for that to happen in Arizona, although that's eventually the plan, to be able to offer limited opportunity fishing (barbless hook, artificial fly, catch-and-release) for anglers.

"This will be the only place on Earth where you can fish for five species of trout on the same mountain," Kline said. "You'll be able to catch another Arizona native, the Apache trout, at the top of the nine-mile stream, the native Gila trout somewhere within the five mile run we're currently in the process of stocking, and find some previously-stocked brookies, browns, and rainbows in pools in between."

The most recent effort covered about half the planned Gila restoration area on Frye Creek. At altitudes of 6,000-7,500 feet, surrounded by pine tree greenery interspersed with fall foliage color, the stream offers eddies, pools, overhangs and cool waters (63 degrees at transplant time) that should provide comfortable accommodations for the newly-arrived trout.

"We'll go back in January to do our first follow-up visit to monitor how the initial stocking went," Kline said. "We'll go back again a few months after that to make a decision about additional stockings (three are planned), but I'm hopeful we won't need all three transplants to build a stable population because that stream is so nice for natural propagation.

"There are bugs and flies everywhere and we even had food coming off the water as we put the fish in."

Good news for a fish whose diet consists of aquatic insects such as caddis flies, mayflies, and beetles.

From a health and heartiness standpoint, Gila trout are hardier than many of their species brethren. They can withstand much wider variations in water conditions and temperature fluctuations and all other factors being normal, expectations of a sufficient population in a relatively short timeframe are realistic.

The two dozen personnel that participated in the initial stocking were on their respective payrolls but had volunteered to spend their duty hours on the mountain.

Represented among the work shirts of different colors was the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona Game & Fish Department, civilian volunteers and supply contributions from the U.S. Department of Reclamation.

"It's the only way you can get things done," Kline said. "Different entities are better at different things and everyone contributes their specialty to help close the deal."

Intergovernmental cooperation is essential to be effective.

"In the West, states have responsibility for wildlife while the Forest Service is charged with sustaining the diversity of woodlands," Coronado National Forest Fish and Wildlife Manager Rick Gerhart said. "Habitats that support recovery efforts like these take place on public lands.

"So in the case of Frye Creek, the fish were grown in a federal fish hatchery and transported by FWS to the release site where Arizona Game & Fish coordinated their release into habitat managed by the National Forest. Clearly, no single agency could accomplish this without the cooperation and participation of others and all of us working in partnership."

Because of the close cooperation between bureaucratic entities, out-of-pocket costs have been kept to a minimum.
"I haven't figured out the nickel and dime factor yet, but it shouldn't be prohibitive," Kline said. "Hard costs were limited to fuel and mileage to transport the fish from the hatchery and rental of the helicopter for the barrel drops, but the manpower costs came out of individual department budgets."

Stocked fish this time came from two age classes, a 2009 spawn in the 3-6 inch range and a larger 2008 group that fell into the 8-10 inch size group.

Some 12- and 13-inch fish also managed to find their way into the stocking barrels and fish larger than this are considered relatively rare.

So while Gila trout probably won't reach trophy-fish proportions in these small headwaters, they should ultimately be a prize coveted by anglers interested in catching native trout in native haunts.