Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mike Lopez Interview - State of White Mtn Fisheries

Wallow Fire burn intensity map.
The aftermath of the Wallow Fire hasn't been pretty. Many of the trout streams of Arizona's White Mountains have experienced devastating fish kills. Only in rare instances was it the fire itself that killed fish, rather it has been the subsequent ash laden runoff that has dealt the knockout blow.

With public access to the forest essentially shut-down, rampant speculation and second hand rumors have been swirling regarding the fate of many trout streams in the region. In an effort to determine the facts, I recently contacted Mike Lopez, Fish Program Manager for the White Mountain region. The following is a bit of our correspondence:

WJ - What a devastating wildfire. I fear the worst for some of the fisheries within the Black River and Blue River watersheds. What are your post-fire observations of these fisheries?

ML - The Blue River has experienced a fish kill due to ash flows in early July that ranged all the way down through the San Francisco River through Clifton. We have not been able to get into the Blue to assess the extent of the fish kill, but hope to do that soon. Some of the major tributaries, such as Grant and KP Creek should come out okay, although may see some sediment deposition is the pools. These tributaries will play an important part in acting as refuges for some fish to get out of the ash flows coming down the Blue River itself.

The Black River mainstem is a pretty special place for many anglers... any glimmer of hope for it?

ML -
The Black River [mainstem] is an unknown. It didn't have much intense burning right on the river, but quite a bit up in its tributaries. It could see some ash flow fish kills, but might not. Again, it depends upon the storms. I'll try to get more info out to you as we figure it out.

WJ -
How are the East/West Forks of the Black River faring?

ML -
The West Fork Black River is a mixed bag. The very upper portion above FR 116 was nearly untouched, so the Apache trout there will be okay. The middle reaches did see some impact from the fire, including some areas burned very intensely. There may or may not be some fish kills in the middle and lower reaches due to ash flows. It all depends upon the strength of the storms that drop on the intensely burned areas this year. The lower reaches below the campground were nearly untouched, but could still see a fish kill due to ash flows coming from the middle reaches.

The East Fork Black is also a mixed bag. The lower portions were burned mostly low intensity, but the middle portion between Diamond Rock and Three Forks was hit pretty hard. There could be ash flow fish kills downstream from this heavily burned area. Again, it all depends upon the strength of the storms that hit that area. If it only gets small storms that flush ash through in small quantities, then the fish will be okay. If a strong storm hits an intensely burned area and all the ash comes down at once, that is when the fish kills occur.

WJ -
From the burn intensity map it looks like the Fish Creek drainage was hammered... any hope for the Apaches in the creek?

ML -
Fish Creek was burned very intensely in it's upper reaches. We documented live fish and young-of-year in that heavily burned reach when I saw it in late June, but would anticipate that it will kill from ash flows. This one is especially unfortunate, since that Apache trout population was doing so well, and we anticipated opening it to angling as soon as 2013. But this will change those plans for sure. If the barrier does not blow out, we will be able to restock it next year if we feel the habitat can support them. We will need to assess the habitat issues on this stream especially, since it was burned so intensely and we anticipate some severe issues.

WJ -
I was glad to see that the upper (wilderness) portion of the West Fork LCR was spared by the fire. How did the South Fork and East Fork of the LCR come out?

ML -
I too was happy to see the West Fork LCR come out untouched by the fire, at least upstream of Sheep's Crossing. Downstream between Sheep's and Greer has some burn, but mostly low intensity and very small portion of the stream. So the entire West Fork LCR should be okay.

The South Fork LCR was burned fairly well. We have already documented a fish kill in that stream due to a couple ash flows in early July. The barriers are still intact, but the trout were hit pretty hard. If the barriers remain intact, we should be able to restock that stream next year to get that Apache trout population started again. If the barriers blow out, it will take longer to repair the barriers before restocking.

The East Fork LCR was a mixed bag. The Apache trout population is located entirely upstream of Hwy 273 and was untouched by the fire. The lower portion just upstream of Greer was burned very intensely. We documented a fish kill in that lower portion right after the fire and prior to the monsoon rains, which is very unusual. Normally fish kills do not occur until the ash begins washing into the stream. But the area I saw was nuked to the very edge of the stream, including the willows on the banks. Initial ash flows have come down through the East Fork, through the LCR in Greer and into River Reservoir. So far, it was not enough to cause any fish kills in the LCR or River Reservoir, but that potential still exists.

A big thanks to Mike Lopez for taking the time out of his schedule to fill us in on how the White Mountain trout streams are faring! Keep up the good work Mike.


  1. Great interview and questions. I think all of us are agonizing over the future of those waters. Thanks again for a great post.


  2. Hey Will... any updates on the mainstem? Crossing fingers here. thanks.

  3. Still haven't heard anything definitive. I just put an email into Mike a couple of days ago, asking for the latest... I'll post what I learn. I did hear that some browns survived in the W. Fork, which is good news and provides a glimmer of hope for the mainstem.