By Jon Johnson
MOUNT GRAHAM – Nearly 200 threatened Gila trout were saved from a likely fish kill on Mount Graham last week as a group of biologists and wildlife managers from the Arizona Game & Fish Department and Mora National Fish Hatchery braved dangerous conditions to rescue the fish from Ash Creek and Frye Creek.
The fish were rescued from a likely fish kill situation as ash and debris clog up the waterways on Mount Graham following the Frye Fire, which burned 48,443 acres.
In 2004, a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team reported four of five fish areas were minimally affected by the Nuttall Complex Fire because it burned with low intensity in three of the four watersheds, however a loss of fish population occurred in Marijilda Creek and Frye Creek, which was stocked with Apache trout that became hybridized. The Frye Creek and Ash Creek area had a high-intensity burn during the Frye Fire, increasing the likelihood of a total fish kill for the Gila trout.
Ironically, some of the fish may have experienced their second rescue from a fire as roughly 200 Gila trout were previously rescued from Spruce Creek in the burned area of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in New Mexico in June 2012 and relocated to Ash Creek.
On July 12 and 13, biologists with the Arizona Game & Fish and Mora Hatchery electrofished the trout from Frye and Ash creeks and backpacked them out of the area in 4-gallon insulated buckets with aerators. The fish were then transported back to the hatchery in New Mexico.
According to the Arizona Game & Fish Department, the group salvaged 79 Gila trout from Ash Creek and 111 from Frye Creek. The Mora National Fish Hatchery grew roughly 70,000 Gila trout in 2016, stocking more than 18,000 of the fish into Arizona waters and the rest into waters in New Mexico.
Gila trout were first brought back to Frye Creek on Nov. 4, 2009. The trout were transported to the area in helicopters and then volunteers and wildlife specialists with Game & Fish and the U.S. Forest Service backpacked the fish into different places along a two-mile section of the creek and released approximately 500 of the trout, making Mount Graham the only place on Earth with five species of trout in the same range, including two native Arizona species. All of the fish came from the Mora National Fish Hatchery in New Mexico.
The Gila trout took well to the area, and in February 2011 the first-ever open season of Gila trout in Arizona was approved for the Frye Mesa Reservoir.
While Gila trout in Frye Creek was strictly catch-and-release, the limit for taking the trout out of Frye Mesa Reservoir was one fish per angler. The Arizona state record is 3 pounds, 5.6 ounces, caught by Robert Woods, of Flagstaff, on Feb. 28, 2011. The catch-and-release record is held by Safford resident David Griffith, who caught a 15-inch Gila trout in Frye Mesa Reservoir on March 14, 2011.
The Gila trout was previously endangered but was downgraded to threatened after being closed to fishing for more than 50 years. The Gila trout naturally come from the headwaters of the Gila River system in New Mexico and Arizona.