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Field Notes ....a Fish Under Fire

"A river or stream is a cycle of energy from sun to plants, from insects to fish. It is a continuum broken only by humans." ~Aldo Leopold

Another fire weather red flag warning alert lights up my phone. The wind outside howls and whistles through the cracks in the doors. Smoke has filled the air and sky surrounding us with a grey brown hue. The northern New Mexico wildfires dominate even the National evening news reports. This year is especially bad, especially early. Climate changes have become impossible to ignore. The snow has retreated early, leaving the rivers flush for a shorter span. The wind is relentless, further desiccating the landscape. The tulips in the garden barely bothered themselves to bloom. Little white bundles of alpine pennycress in the meadows are spaced farther apart than in years past.

I decide to seek inspiration and clearer skies west, in the mountains of Arizona. The truck is packed with light rods, fly boxes curated and nets chosen for their suitability for small native fish, sleeping bags, dehydrated packaged meals and drinking water.

wildfire burn scar

The journey soon began to write its own story. My plans to share observations of hiking in to catch tiny wild fish in remote and unknown to me forests, escaping the view of smoke filled skies was instead diverted and plunged into the aftermath of the 2011 Wallow Fire; a fire that burned over a half million acres. The forest had a story to tell; of peaceful blue skies and trips through hell. We left the paved roads to travel deep into a burn scar with seemingly no end.

wilderness campsite

Our campsite was at the base of a steep cliff filled with Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep. Their grazing and climbing turning rocks, sending them tumbling down toward the river below. A cacophony of percussion sounding throughout the night. Tiny baby sheep follow their mothers along the most treacherous of ledges without hesitation. The first night was spent catching tiny brown trout on a para-adams during a hatch well past dark; too dark to see the fly on the water or to watch the drift. Hook sets were on instinct alone, the sound of plip in the water, a visualization in my head. Since brown trout are non native and predatory, I didn’t feel good about my chances of catching an Apache Trout in this stretch.

In the morning, the calls of crows and robins woke us. Arizona woodpeckers and hummingbirds flew from tree to tree as we sipped our coffee. The river meanders along unassumingly through the blackened matchsticks that rise from the parched earth. The warm smell of ponderosa pine floats through the air.

apache trout

Apache Trout are Arizona’s state fish and I had come to the White Mountains for the sole purpose of catching one. The Apache Trout has become a recreational asset to the state as well as the enormous antlered elk that are hunted in the White Mountain range. Although once abundant, in the 1880’s early settlers harvested so many Apaches that the state agencies had to begin stocking non native species, like rainbow trout and brown trout, to keep up with the increasing problems of overfishing by the European settlers.

While the attempt to fill the water with supplemental fish was well intentioned, it became even more of a detriment to the yellow, spotted, native fish. These newly stocked rainbows and browns competed with the Apaches for food, were predators to them and diluted their genetics. Adding to their peril was cattle grazing, timber harvesting and the degradation of the river banks as a result of these practices. In 1955 the White Mountain Apache Tribe sounded the alarm for these powerless little indigenous trout by closing reservation waters with pure genetic populations of the fish. In 1969, the Apache Trout was the first fish species to be listed as endangered.

More than 50 years later, I’m holding a beautiful golden yellow Apache trout in the half million acre burn scar of the Wallow Fire. After years of restoration efforts, 11 years ago the massive Wallow Fire once again placed these fish in jeopardy.

Sparked by a camper’s mismanaged fire on May 29, 2011, an uncontrollable wild fire began to move through the White Mountains. 40 days later, the fire was contained. It burned over half a million acres in two states. This catastrophic level of wild fire can result in detrimental erosion causing siltation to load the river; along with “scouring floods” due to the soil’s inability to hold moisture, that wash away critical spawning habitat-- both making it impossible for fish to survive. Apache trout were actually extracted from the streams, after the fire and before the monsoon, to protect and hold them until it was safe to return, ensuring the survival of at least some of the fish. It can take decades for the soil and vegetation to be restored in such uncontrolled burn areas. Warmer water due to loss of shade, along with the siltation burden can cause algae growth from decreased oxygen, and increased phosphorus in the water. For fish who thrive in cold, highly oxygenated water, this can spell disaster. In 2006, Apache Trout were stocked and populations were doing well but significant loss occurred after the Wallow Fire. We can assume that similar circumstances are happening here right now in New Mexico along the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire corridor. Valuable Rio Grande Cutthroat populations are in danger.

The trees on the east side of the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest were so badly burnt that most of them did not survive. The trees on tribal land to the west lived. The White Mountain Apache Tribe practices cultural burning of the land to rejuvenate and shape the landscape. The trees on the reservation had been thinned and thus changed the dynamic of the fire from a fast spreading, hard to control crown fire, back down to the ground which allowed firefighters to create borders and ultimately suppress the fire.

fly fishing

Now, walking along the river banks, the riparian area is once again filled with budding raspberries, pine siskin, and varieties of grasses. The hillsides are regenerating with young aspen trees and ponderosa pine and strawberries with white blooms sending out shoots. Burnt trees litter the forest floor becoming homes for lizards and rabbits. The river is once again filled with the golden color of the Apache trout.

The sojourn comes to an end as we return home. The Northern New Mexico skies have cleared and the air is cool and sharp. Snow once again caps the mountain peaks in the distance. It’s not enough. It won’t be enough to undo what is changing all around us. But it is something. Something to hang hope on. Nature always finds a way to heal itself; but not without major changes to our habits, changes to the way we approach forest management and the input and insight from Native Communities who cared for the land for centuries before settlers.

Anglers are a hopeful bunch. We throw tiny insect imitations to concealed trout with the hope that they are not only there, but that they are hungry and that our imitation might just work. Anglers' voices were instrumental in stopping the mining of the fragile ecosystem of Bristol Bay in Alaska. We regularly stand up for removing barriers to spawning salmon and steelhead in California and throughout the west. Maybe if enough of us have hope in our hearts and in our actions in our own communities and forests, we can begin to positively impact the struggling environment around us. To begin to save what we love and what gives us so much.


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