The dry arid mountains of Arizona and New Mexico are home to a very unique species of Salmonids known as Gila Trout. These close relatives to Cutthroat and Apache trout are characterised by their trademark large yellowish heads and small black specks along the body. They are opportunistic feeders and will devour anything from small macro invertebrates to smaller trout including their own young. Spawning takes place in late spring and eggs hatch within the next few weeks. The species is native to the tributaries of the Gila River, but are now limited to only a few small streams and creeks. Due to the size of the streams they inhabit, they are limited to very small amounts of space and are usually unable to move up or downstream their entire life. This limits their ability to spawn in the wild.
Over a few decades, the species numbers had rapidly declined due to over fishing, wild fires, and habitat destruction with less than 20 miles of river in which they could inhabit. Non native species such as the much larger Rainbow Trout and Brown Trout impacted the species with cross spawning,competition for food, and predation. Iron, Mckenna, and Spruce creeks were the last few strongholds for Gila Trout. Areas that once boasted up to 30,000 trout had dwindled to less than 7000 and continued to plummet.
Introductions had taken place with the cooperation of small environmental groups such as Trout Unlimited, private fishing clubs, and Arizona Fish and Wildlife to ensure the species survival in future years. Fish hatcheries around the country came together to help restore populations in the wild. A few wild Gila’s were caught using harmless electric fishing methods and were kept as breeding pairs for the hatcheries. Once the hatchery fish reached substantial size,they were released back into their native habitats. These efforts drastically improved the wild populations. There are now 14 fishable populations in the wild.
Scientists that have conducted recent studies on introduced populations have shown that they had rapidly increased. They have found mixed sizes, indicating that the fish had spawned successfully without artificial stimulation. Anglers around the world now have a chance to catch the Gila trout without having to worry about harming populations. Catch and release regulations now keep the trout healthy and manageable. The future looks bright for this once highly endangered species.