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THE OUTDOORS : Trout Paradise Lost : Fishermen of the Black Canyon Area of Colorado River Should Have Been There in the 1970s

April 19, 1989|PETE THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

WILLOW BEACH, Ariz. — Huge trout no longer have a huge following here, unless you count the people who gaze at the thousands of pictures on the walls of the Willow Beach Marina.

It's impossible not to notice the five-pounders, the 10-pounders, or even the 21.3-pound rainbow trout mounted in a glass case on the wall behind the bar.

"Were all these fish caught here?" a first-time visitor, seemingly amazed at the display of photographed trout, asks a sales clerk.

She nods, smiling to others who know as she does that this weekend fisherman is building his hopes on history.

The fish that made the stretch of Colorado River immediately below Hoover Dam one of the country's best rainbow trout fisheries have long since disappeared. The 3,000 or so pictures on the Willow Beach "Wall of Fame" are mostly of fish caught before 1980, and scientists to this day can only theorize about what caused the decline.

For the first time this decade, however, bigger trout are showing more frequently, perhaps indicating that all hope is not lost for the embattled fishery.

"Upriver, this year is the best it's been since the flood went over," says Bill Tennis, 75, a regular here for the last 40 years. He is referring to the high-water conditions in 1983, when Lake Mead flowed over the Hoover Dam spillway, sending a 450-foot-wide waterfall cascading down the dam's 726-foot concrete walls. "The moss is growing back and they're bringing in some pretty nice fish."

Tom Ard, 39, a Glendora resident who has come here almost every year since he was 7 years old, agrees, saying: "I've seen more four-, five- and six-pounders than there were a couple of years ago."

A 10-pound rainbow was caught in December of 1987 to back their claims of the fishery's possible rejuvenation.

Still, these fishermen are admittedly over-optimistic if they think that the trophy-sized rainbows that made this stretch of river famous will thrive again as they once did in the confines of Black Canyon, where jagged lava peaks and walls 1,000-feet high rise like moonscape from the water's edge.

There have simply been too many changes in the river.

Duke Crowe, 72, arrived here just after World War II. He witnessed the taming of the mighty Colorado by a series of dams built to meet the needs of Los Angeles. "It was isolated back then, wonderful," Crowe recalls. "In those days, if you saw three boats in the area, it was a big deal. You'd go over and shake their hands and ask where they're from."

The late Cliff Barnson, called by locals the greatest trout fisherman ever, was here before the completion of Hoover Dam in 1936, when, as Tennis puts it, "the river was a river." Barnson died in his sleep of heart failure two months ago.

In the 1930s, navigation by boat was hazardous and access by land was limited at best, according to Crowe.

What trout there were--Nevada fisheries personnel say there were none until they began stocking just before 1960 but Barnson, Tennis and Crowe, revealing wallet-sized photos of trout they caught in the late 1950s, say otherwise--were mostly sub-three-pounders.

"They were not the real big ones . . . no trophies, just native fish that were in the river," Tennis says.

Labor demands grew, though, and towns such as Boulder City, Nev., Bullhead City, Ariz., and Parker, Ariz. sprang up to house the builders of dams and their families.

Davis Dam was erected in the late 1940s and Lake Mohave was created; the river above it backed up and access was improved. The rapids Crowe spoke of disappeared, giving way to deep channels and swelled shores. Ringbolt Rapid, an insignificant ripple between Willow Beach Resort and Hoover Dam, is now recognized as the southernmost rapid on the Colorado River.

"It's roaring in September," jokes owner Ron Opfer of the Willow Beach Resort. "On a scale of one to 10, it's a .0025."

Farther downriver, Parker Dam was built and Lake Havasu was born. Recreational opportunities grew in the area and the crowds flocked to these reservoirs on the river.

The numbers of fishermen increased rapidly in the late 1960s as word spread of a tremendous rainbow trout fishery at 600 feet above sea level in the middle of a desert, where temperatures have reached 127 degrees.

No snow. Not even the scent of pine. Just plenty of rainbow trout, which grew abnormally fast in the nutrient-rich water that flowed out of Lake Mead at a cool and comfortable 52 degrees.

"They would make you lift anchor and give chase," Crowe says of the spirited fish.

Joe Janisch, Arizona fisheries chief, agrees. "We're talking monster trout," he says.

Trout proliferation began in earnest when Arizona and Nevada began stocking programs, dumping fingerlings immediately below the dam. The fishery improved even faster after 1962, when the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery, located a short distance upriver from the marina, took over that task.

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