The Trout You Never Heard Of

From a distance the White Mountains of Arizona, mere miles from the New Mexico state line, look like a purple armada on a sluggish cruise. The small range is an island rising up from the Sonoran Desert to 11,000 feet above sea level atop Mount Baldy.

The White Mountains catch winter snowfalls. A good many streams vein off the steep mountainsides like your digits gripping a softball. Most of the streams finger downhill to the west, begetting larger waters as they go until joining the White and Black rivers that flow toward Phoenix. The Little Colorado River is the thumb that courses north near the town of Springerville and onward to the Grand Canyon.

The headwater streams on this sky island above the desert harbor a yellow treasure: the Apache trout. The only trout species that you never heard of, until now.  And that’s entirely understandable.

This small but stout stream-dwelling trout has suffered a bit of an identity crisis because of its naturally limited range, not to mention isolation. It has gone from anonymity, to misidentification, to Arizona’s official state fish.

Scientists first took notice of the fish in 1873, and mistakenly assigned it to be a form of the Colorado River cutthroat trout, a trout then common in the upstream headwaters of Colorado’s west slope.

Apache trout have long provided high quality angling opportunities. A young Aldo Leopold fresh from forestry school at Yale, writing from Springerville in 1909 on his first U.S. Forest Service assignment at Apache National Forest, invited his dad to visit and catch “very succulent trout.”

The Apache trout remained undescribed without a formal scientific name until well into the 20th century. In September 1972—only 50 years ago—it was named Salmo apache, an epithet that carries some musicality. Its genus has since changed to Oncorhynchus, but its accepted common name remains the same, honoring the White Mountain Apache Tribe that acted to conserve the distinctive trout as early as the 1950s.

In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the newly named trout on the endangered species list, but thanks to ongoing conservation work, the Apache trout was down-listed to threatened and opened to limited angling in 1976.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) continues that conservation work, in large part thanks to excise taxes paid by tackle manufacturers via the Sport Fish Restoration Act.

By conviction of importance, biologists have monitored existing Apache trout populations. They established barriers across streams to prevent non-native rainbow and brown trout from encroaching on Apache trout waters. Brown trout out-compete Apache trout for food and space and rainbow trout hybridize with them, diluting the native trout’s gene pool.

The AGFD staff raise and stock Apache trout from Silver Creek Fish Hatchery, also funded by excise taxes on fishing tackle. Field biologists dedicated to Apache trout conservation work frequently collect fishery data to inform management decisions—and in some cases that has led to new Apache trout waters open to anglers.

Fifty years after being recognized as a distinct species, the Apache trout passed another milestone. It stands to be the first sport fish taken off the federal list of threatened and endangered species as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to de-list the Apache trout in August 2022.

“Sport Fish Restoration funds are critical to Apache trout,” said Ryan Follmuth, AGFD’s Region I Aquatic Wildlife Program Manager. “It funds our staff time and allows us to purchase necessary equipment—and it’s unlikely the recovery of Apache trout would be so far along or so much water open to fishing for them without the funds.”

Anglers currently have access to about 20 miles of Apache trout habitat in four streams managed by AGFD biologists, and according to Follmuth, more stream miles may open to anglers next spring. The Ft. Apache Indian Reservation also has a few select waters open to non-tribal members.

“It’s not a lot of stream miles,” said Follmuth, “but the interest is strong.”

It may not be a cult following—but it’s getting close. Apache trout are one of several trout species in the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Western Native Trout Initiative.

“The fish have hung on through so many challenges—non-native trout, drought, and fires,” said Follmuth. “It’s gratifying to see how far people are willing to travel, and the lengths they go the catch this incredibly unique trout species in an isolated stream.”

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