Fish tales of yore

 

Before Glen Canyon Dam plugged up the Colorado River in 1963, locals in the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming reeled in fish so giant and so good to eat that they still tell stories about them. The fish they caught — squawfish, razorback suckers, humpback chubs and bonytail chubs — are all endangered today, though a raft of partners, including the three states, federal agencies and environmental groups, are trying to restore the species. As part of that effort, Fred Quartarone interviewed 111 old-timers about what it was like to catch native fish that few people nowadays have ever seen. Some of their recollections read like exploits in an edition of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” They also reveal what’s been lost.

Max Stewart, for example, was only 8 when he landed a 25-pound squawfish so determined to escape that it dragged the boy to the ground three times before he could pull it onto land. Terrified but also thrilled, the boy ran and got his father, who helped him lug it home. Anglers told Quartarone about baiting their hooks with mice and frogs to entice the fish, but the strangest account involved squads of squawfish that learned how to catch birds.

Chuck Mack of Craig, Colo., tells the story, recalling that it was during the early 1950s on the Green River near Lodore Canyon. He watched as baby cliff swallows — eager to leave their nests — flapped their wings hard but often flopped down into the water. “Every big squawfish in the Green River must have migrated to the canyon to feast on the swallows because we sure caught a lot of them,” Mack said. “We managed to land a lot of 10 to 20 pounders (and) everyone that we gutted out had a stomach plumb full of baby swallows!”

Quartarone’s 1995 publication, Historical Accounts of Upper Colorado River Basin Endangered Fish, includes great photos and has just been reissued. Call 303-969-7322 or check the Web site: ColoradoRiverRecovery.fws.gov.

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