- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo.

It was big, aggressive and strong. And even now, seven decades later, the image of its gaping mouth is seared in the memory of Max Stewart, 78.

In 1937, amid the Great Depression, he was fishing with his father on the Green River near the small town of Jensen, Utah, in the hope of bringing home some food.

The morning after they arrived, young Max was checking the fishing poles left by the river the night before.

One of them was bent out of shape, and the water next to it was churned into a froth by whatever had been hooked. The 8-year-old boy tugged on the line and could not believe his own eyes.

“There was this huge, big mouth that came at me. It easily could have swallowed both of my fists,” Mr. Stewart recalls, a note of fascination in his voice. “I fish regularly, but I’ve never seen anything like that before or after in my entire life.”

He pulled the line and the giant fish pulled back, knocking him off his feet, Mr. Stewart said. He got up and pulled harder.

He remembers the water near the riverbank “boiling” from the thrashing of the trapped creature.

The boy was knocked down at least twice before he succeeded at pulling out his catch. Even then, it was too big and scary for him to handle alone.

“I had to call my father,” Mr. Stewart said. “To tell the truth, I was scared to death because my mother told me, before we left, ‘Now, Max, don’t let a big fish catch you.’ ”

A picture of him with the catch made the local paper.

Little did Mr. Stewart suspect at the time that, 70 years later, environmental scientists would be poring over that photo in a desperate effort to prevent another species from becoming extinct.

The scary creature that Mr. Stewart landed in 1937 was called a Colorado squawfish.

As late as the 19th century, ecologists say, the Colorado River and its tributaries were teeming with squawfish that practically ruled the river basin.

“There were so many of them, people said they had been able to catch them with a pitchfork,” said Doug Osmundson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They could live up to 50 years, growing all that time.”

The largest specimen caught in recent years and officially entered into government books measured more than 4 feet in length. But skeletons discovered by paleontologists in the Colorado basin prove that before European settlers arrived in the area, the fish grew to 6 feet in length and could easily weigh more than 100 pounds.

If the world had ever known a freshwater shark, that was it — plowing the Colorado River system and devouring everything in sight.

There is no evidence of it ever attacking humans, but early settlers recalled seeing ducks being snatched from the water’s surface by the huge fish, researchers said.

Now, ducks can float down the Colorado all the way to Mexico without fearing for their lives.

Researchers say the entire Colorado River basin has fewer than 3,500 squawfish. Because of political correctness, the species has been renamed the Colorado pikeminnow.

“Their habitat has dramatically changed, which resulted in a drastic reduction of range,” Mr. Osmundson said. “Now our estimates are that there are probably 2,500 of them left in the Green River, about 800 in the upper reaches of the Colorado and about 50 in the Gunnison.”

Huge dams like Hoover and Glen Canyon were built across the Colorado in the 20th century, creating two artificial reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — that the Colorado pikeminnow did not like.

“It’s essentially a riverine fish that likes fast streams,” said Chuck McAda, a project manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The giant fish retreated northeast, to the undammed upper reaches of the Colorado and its tributaries, but that was not the end of its woes.

In a bid to promote tourism and sports fishing to anglers yearning for an easy catch, authorities introduced throughout the area fast-breeding, voracious and thus “customer-friendly” species like smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike and channel catfish.

The outside intruders proved a real scourge the Colorado pikeminnow, Mr. McAda said.

“They have lived in the Colorado River basin for millions of years and have adapted here well, but they have not adapted to dealing with nonnative predators,” he said.

The nonnative predators feed on young pikeminnows. As a result, the pikeminnows don’t live as long as necessary to gain their famed length and heft, biologists say.

The Colorado pikeminnow has been added to the endangered species list, but that has made little difference, researchers acknowledge, since humans are not the pikeminnow’s main enemy.

The main effort right now, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said, is to reduce to population of nonnative predators in the upper Colorado basin through a method called electro-fishing.

It involves a boat with two spheres submerged under the water, send out electric shocks that temporarily stun all the fish nearby.

This temporary stunning effect, which in most cases lasts less than a minute, gives biologists an opportunity to remove the bass, catfish and other nonnatives, making the habitat friendlier for the Colorado pikeminnow.

It’s a tough job, physically and politically. Sport fishing, now a $40-billion-a-year enterprise with political connections and lobbyists in Washington, looks askance at the destruction of its potential catch.

“There are some hard-core anglers who are very vocal, very upset about what we are doing,” Mr. Osmundson said.

But the work goes on, although the scientists acknowledge their goal right now is just not to lose any more pikeminnow.

Mr. Stewart, meanwhile, does not hold out much hope, although he continues to fish on the Green River regularly now that he is retired from the U.S. Postal Service and lives in Vernal, Utah, the same place where he was born.

“I don’t think it is possible to catch anything as big as I did 70 years ago,” he said. “I think the big ones are all gone.”

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