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Fish Tales: Stewart brothers, 81 and 73, try to redeem the maligned pikeminnow

Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2002

RANGELEY, Colo. (AP) -- Eighty-one-year-old Dale Stewart felt a familiar shiver run up his neck as he hooked a 5-pound Colorado pikeminnow in the White River near here.

''It was quite a thrill,'' said the Vernal resident after a brief fight to land the sleek endangered fish, formerly known as Colorado squawfish or whitefish. It is legal to catch these fish but they must be returned to the river to maintain the population.

Stewart is one of the few people alive who knows what it is like to hook into a large Colorado pikeminnow. In the 1930s he landed one that weighed 26 1/2 pounds near where Ashley Creek flows into the Green River near Vernal.

That is the largest pikeminnow biologists are certain was taken with a fishing rod. There are photos of larger fish strapped to mules and hanging from porches, but there is no record of how they were caught, said Frank Pfeifer, program manager for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. It was common to trap fish in nets in those days.

Dale Stewart and his 73-year-old brother, Max, who holds the record for the second largest pikeminnow -- 25 pounds, were invited to fish for the pikeminnow again Monday by federal biologists who hope to dispel the ''trash fish'' image that many rural Utah residents have of this species.

''These fish have had a bad rep for a long time,'' said Pfeifer. ''You talk to the Stewart brothers and some of the old settlers from the early days, and they used them for food and thought they were a great sport fish. I think if we can get more people catching them we can turn that around.''

The pikeminnow population is increasing slowly and Pfeifer is hopeful there will be enough within five to six years that fishers will be allowed to keep a few.

''Man, it would be fun to catch them weekly and take them home for dinner,'' said Max Stewart. He conceded it is hard to recall flavors from so many years ago, but recalled the taste of pikeminnow as ''somewhere between salmon and halibut.''

Fishers can find pikeminnow in the Green River from the several miles below Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell; in the Yampa River below Craig, Colo.; and in the White River below the Kenney Reservoir near Rangeley.

They are most easily taken with the type of large artificial lures used to catch walleyes and northern pike, said Pfeifer. They tend to run downriver when hooked and can put up a good fight. When tired out, they usually roll over and are easily landed.

Biologists have seen some pikeminnow as large as 30 pounds during recent studies of the river system, but no one has caught one yet with a fishing rod.

Modern fishermen would have an easier time landing one of these monsters than the Stewarts did in the '30s. Their fishing rods were flexible branches cut from a tamarisk tree with a strong piece of string tied to it. The hook was baited with a large insect found under rocks on the riverbank. When the hooked fish ran downstream, so did the Stewarts to keep the string from snapping.

''When I'd get a good one, I'd have a shiver,'' recalled Dale Stewart. ''It would run up the back of my neck, just zip!''

He said that same feeling returned Monday when he hooked into another pikeminnow. ''They're more fun to catch than a trout because they're bigger.''

The Colorado pikeminnow once was the largest predator in the Colorado River system, growing to six feet in length and weighing more than 80 pounds. They were reported to migrate more than 200 miles up the Green and Colorado rivers and their tributaries to spawn.

But the species was almost wiped out by the construction of dams that disrupted natural flows and blocked the migration routes to spawning sites, and by the introduction of more aggressive nonnative fish.

Biologists recently have seen an increase in the populations. Now they are working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to schedule water releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on a more natural cycle to see if more adults can be encouraged to breed and continue the growth.

''We're certainly optimistic that we can get them recovered to where they will be a very viable sport fishery here in the West,'' said Pfeifer.

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