Just getting to a stream that holds native Apache trout (Oncorhynchus gilae apache) can require a lot of work, as Tyler Coleman found out on a recent trip. Found only in headwater streams high in the White Mountains, the state fish of Arizona requires pristine habitat, including cold, clean water and undisturbed, forested banks. After precipitous population declines in the first half of this century, the species has made a remarkable—although still ongoing—comeback.
Range and Habitat
The original range of the Apache trout comprised an estimated 820 stream miles in the high-mountain watersheds of the Black, White, and Little Colorado Rivers above 5,900 feet in elevation in eastern Arizona. They are one of only two trout species native to Arizona, the other being gila trout (Oncorhynchus gilae gilae). By the mid 1950s, the Apache trout populations were confined to just 30 stream miles, or about 3.7% of their native waters. They have since been stocked in isolated streams outside the native range in the Pinaleno Mountains, Mount Graham, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as in some lakes.
Federal and state hatcheries have been producing Apache trout since the 1940s as a way to supplement and reintroduce native populations and to provide recreational fishing opportunities. Apache trout require clear, cold, gravel-bottom streams, many of which had been damaged by poor grazing and timber-harvesting practices. Therefore, stream restoration has played a major role in rebuilding native populations. A broad coalition of federal, state, and private conservation organizations worked together until the Apache trout was downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” in 1975—a major accomplishment in a short period of time.
One innovative part of the restoration program involved receiving a special dispensation to allow some fishing for Apaches, even when the species was listed as endangered. The idea was that angler involvement was vital to the project, which proved to be true. There are still limited opportunities to fish for wild Apache trout in remote streams.
A sign of how abundant the species once was, photographs from the late 1800s show early settlers of the region harvesting hundreds of Apache trout at a time. In an attempt to increase fishing opportunities for the expanding population—and with the mistaken notion that they were addressing overfishing of Apache trout—state and federal agencies began stocking nonnative trout species throughout the region in the early 1900s. These stocked fish would nearly wipe out the native trout through predation and interbreeding. By the mid 1950s, the White Mountain Apache tribe had closed all their streams to fishing, and the Apache trout became one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1969.
Tactics and Flies
The world-record Apache trout, caught from Hurricane Lake in 1993, measured 24 inches and weighed just over 5 pounds. In general, however, they are under 12 inches in high-elevation streams, where they feed almost exclusively on aquatic insects. This makes for excellent dry-fly fishing with standard searching patterns—such as Parachute Adams, Elk-Hair Caddis, and Humpies—and the species is known to fight hard for its size. In lakes, where the trout do eat larger prey, Woolly Buggers, small streamers, and damselfly nymphs are top producers.