An opinion piece on my experience fishing and working at some of the many trout streams in the Southwest that have been touched by wildfire.
Wildfire has always been a constant in the American West. Recently it has entered the public view even more, with longer and more intense fire seasons. This ‘new normal’ as people are calling it has had a major impact on our western streams. Specifically the native trout who call them home.
Nowhere is this more true than in the southwest. The Apache and Gila trout who call the high elevation streams of Arizona and New Mexico home didn’t begin with much remaining habitat. Relegated to high elevation strongholds above natural and man-made barricades long before huge fires burned across their mountain homes. In the past 15 to 20 years many of these remaining populations were dramatically affected by the flames that consumed large areas of the forest across their range.
My goal is not to vilify fire nor the management of it across the southwest. In fact across many of the National Forests in Arizona and New Mexico land managers are doing an admirable job returning low intensity, healthy fire to the landscape. In some cases it was just a combination of figuring out fire needed to be in the system too late, paired with historic drought conditions. The overcrowded forest and tinderbox dry conditions led to the largest fires in either states history. In the home range of the Apache Trout was the Rodeo-Chediski Fire – 468,386 acres and the Wallow Fire – 538,049 acres. The Gila Trout had the Silver Fire – over 133,000 acres and the Whitewater-Baldy Complex – 297,485 acres. These were not just large fires, but were geographically centered in the homes of these fish.
The massive scale of these fires led to entire watersheds being burned. This was initially devastating to native trout populations. The ash and debris flows from storm events after the fire often scoured all fish life from creeks. What the ash and debris didn’t get, the sun did. These creeks relied on shade to protect them from harsh summer sun and with the canopy cover lost, the sun bakes these little trickles to temperatures that threaten their finned inhabitants..
The damage wasn’t entirely negative, while it did destroy many native trout populations. It also removed non-native browns and rainbows from many creeks. The fish and game agencies in both states as well as US Fish and Wildlife were quick to recognize this. Almost immediately they began finding new spots for these native trout, which before would not have been viable. From the ashes of some of the most devastating fires in state history has risen new hope for native salmonids.
I have been lucky enough to help with assessments and habitat improvement projects on some of these creeks that the native fish call home. This has included planning and surveying for small rock and log structures and fish barriers. Assessing areas for streambank erosion and channel stability. Recording data and modeling temperature changes in salmonid streams. Some areas are easily road accessed, while others required miles long hikes up nameless side channels. The one constant is that these high elevation torrents and trickles currently or will hold ALL native fish species.
These creeks were not immediately available for the fish, years of recovery in the watershed were needed to allow vegetation to return to the burned slope. For the creeks to cut through debris and return to stable streambeds. This long wait has led to frustration for many. People who want the creeks of their childhood to hold the browns they grew up catching. But is the wait not worth it? Are a few hard to access creeks changed from invasive trout to natives such a high price to pay?? There hundreds of miles of creeks where you have the opportunity to chase browns and rainbows. Is it so bad to leave a few creeks to the native fish? A spot where you have the opportunity to chase some of the rarest salmonids in the world. I would say it is definitely worth it! It seems a growing number of people and organizations agree. From fisherman to conservation organizations. Groups like Western Native Trout Initiative are doing some incredible work not just funding restoration work, but introducing people to our native fish and how cool they are. There are more and more people stepping up to advocate for native trout endemic to southwestern streams. It is incredible to see!
The wait is coming to an end on many of these creeks, fish have been returned and state agencies are opening them to angling. Populations stable enough to reproduce and be open to angleing. I know not all the water is available yet, but more and more opens up each year. It is an exciting time to be fishing in the southwest!
These creeks will never look the same in our lifetime, probably not even for another generation down the line. That is no reason not to enjoy these new landscapes. Deep forests of pine and fir have given way to thickets of scrubby oaks and spiky currant. Aspen are beginning to reach skyward and a deciduous forest is beginning to replace the conifers that once dominated the land. Willows are starting to line the channels again and with them come beavers, little stream architects who do more to repair a stream than humans ever could.
Most of these streams are small and in out of the way places. They often don’t have trails along their edges, access to the creek takes effort. What a fitting way to fish to these hardy trout. It wouldn’t be the same if it came easy. Just as these fish didn’t take an easy path to recovery catching them should be no different.