January, 2011

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A Dam(n) Shame

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.

-Theodore Roosevelt, May 6th, 1903, Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon Arizona

Grand Canyon

The average person who visits the Grand Canyon walks up to the edge and peers in for a few awestruck minutes then gets back in their car and drives away.Approximately 5 million come every year. A smaller number hike down the hill and back up again. Even fewer spend the night below the rim. Yet no matter the depth or length of stay, it is tough to use words describing the scale of what is seen. Even the best of photographs or artwork fail to some extent in this regard. Perhaps this is why President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a game preserve in 1906 and later a national monument in 1908. It was clear the political climate was not there for national park status as bills to name the Grand Canyon as such were defeated in 1882, 1883, 1886, 1910 and 1911. Primary objections to national park status may sound familiar today: State’s Rights and Socialism.

Fortunately persistence paid off and in 1919 the Grand Canyon National Park Act was passed and signed into law. In the 1970’s additional acreage was added to reach the present size of nearly 2,000 square miles. According to the National Park Service Organic of 1916, the National Park Service is tasked “...to promote and regulate the use of the…national parks…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.This sound simple enough, but as we were soon to see first hand the mission itself is much like the Grand Canyon: There is more to see than the first glance.

My mother and I had planned this hike months ago. Both of us are native Arizonians who had never hiked The Canyon and figured it was time to correct this. We made reservations at Phantom Ranch for three nights. I also had ulterior motives. For several years I had heard of the great fishing in Bright Angel Creek and wanted to sample it.

The day arrived and after a long hike we arrived at the bottom of The Canyon and checked in at Phantom Ranch. We were both tired, so we settled in the dorms and after a quick dinner called it a day.

Phanton Ranch Cabin

Cabin at Phantom Ranch

The next morning we were able to secure a cabin for the next two nights so we stashed our packs at the front door and I rigged my rod. Heading up Bright Angel Creek, I was surprised to see a legion of other anglers. None of them were fly fishing. In fact, all but a couple were fishing worms and doing quite well.

It took a while to get  upstream of all of them, but it was not a problem. The problem was I was so enchanted with the scenery, I always wanted to get around the next corner to see what lie ahead.

Finally, I diverted my attention to the trout. The trout of Bright Angel Creek are non-native Browns and Rainbows. Most of these are thought to be decedents of plantings back in the 1930’s. I have not been able to find evidence there were native trout to these cool, clear waters  which at first seems surprising. Most of the high country of the Colorado Plateau contains one variety of trout or another. About 20 million years ago the Plateau was pushed up as a single piece and sits higher than adjoining basin and range. Since the Grand Canyon itself is commonly though to be carved out less than 10 million years ago, it is possible that cold water stream which spring from The Canyon walls  and now sustain trout did not exist at the time. I don’t know.

Grand Canyon, Arizona Rainbow Trout

Bright Angel Bow

What I do know is that it is a phenomenal fishery. At first I used a large stimulator pattern to drop a midge off it. It did not take long to find a taker on the midge.  Shortly afterward a brown attacked the high floating stimi. Fishing continued to be good as I worked my way along the creek eventually switching to a short leader and a simi seal leech which is a far more durable pattern. The first day really slipped away from me and before I knew it the sun had sunk below the rim. I hustled back to Phantom Ranch passing many of the anglers I has seen earlier in the day. Like me, they had done well. Unlike me, they were toting large stringers of fish.

The next day I had some more exploring to do. In the morning, I wanted to check out the Bright Angel tributary of Phantom Creek. It was a spectacular little watershed with multiple waterfalls, but I found the fishing to be quite poor. Later in the day, I mentioned this to one of the other anglers and they said they had “hammered” them up there the day before. Since they were keeping every fish they caught, I took the expression to mean they removed a large portion of the population which explained the mediocre fishing.

Water Fall in the Grand Canyon, Phanton Creek, Arizona

Phantom Fall

In the afternoon, I headed down Bright Angel Creek towards the confluence with the Colorado River. This is where the first signs of trouble began. The National Park Service has implemented a trout reduction plan in the Grand Canyon. Part of this plan is the installation of a weir across Bright Angel Creek during the trout’s spawning season.

Weir Across Bright Angel Creek


I spotted it below the first bridge. The objective of the weir is to prevent spawners from moving upstream. Some mechanical removal takes place as well. The removal is an effort to protect the native humpback chub. To at least some degree, the trout consume and compete with the native species although the extent of this is undefined.

For many years, the population of the native fish in the river were fine and the trout were doing quite well in the creek. This all changed in the early 1960’s with the completion of Glen Canyon Dam about 20 miles upstream of the current park boundary. The flows after the dam became some 30 degrees cooler during the summer. Also, the sediment now collects in Lake Powell rather than continue downstream and lending the Colorado River the meaning of its name. The daily average sediment load, estimated at as much as 12,000 dumps trucks a day,  also built critical bar, beach, and backwater habitat for the native fishes as well as provided cover from airborne predators such as eagles and osprey. This change in aquatic habitat has proved disastrous for the chub and other native fish. On the converse,  the trout now flourish in the river. At this time, the entire population of the endangered chub in the Grand Canyon lives near the confluence of the warmer and more sediment-laden Little Colorado River a few miles up the river from Bright Angel.

The future looks grim for the chub. In order to restore the habitat, Glen Canyon Dam would need to be removed and the impacts of this would be felt by millions of people in the Lower Colorado River Basin in both water storage and power generation. There have been some alternatives suggested like modifying the draw of the dam to release warmer water from the top of the water column and building a delivery system to transport the sediment from the top of the lake back into the river below the dam. However, these projects are estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. All of the above would also wipe the economies now built on the Lee’s Ferry fisher. Even more, with warm-water species living in the river below the park, another exotic species invasion could begin to consume and compete with the chub.

So for now, the Park Service concentrates on trout removal in the immediate area of the chubs last stand. Considering the habitat changes it seems more akin to treating a symptom rather than a cause, but the alternatives are not good either.

The Silver Bridge over the Colorado River

Silver Bridge

After fishing in the river for a while, I worked my way back up the stream  from the confluence towards the weir. At one point I ran into one of the bait fishers lining a hole with worms. He did not catch anything while I watched. After he passed his way down and around the corner, I thew a few fly casts into the same pool landing and releasing three brightly colored rainbows. By their coloration, it was apparent they were fresh out of the river, pushing upstream for nature’s call. Knowing they were destined for death in a weir, I could not help but wonder if all the trout I had released the past couple days were less fortunate that the ones bonked over the head and strung up by the bait fishers.

And that is a damn shame. Maybe President Roosevelt was right  – it seems our efforts of improvement can only mar.

Grand Canyon

Garden and Pipe Creek Divide