Historical Account: The Heritage of rare native fishes in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
In the early 1900s, landing a Colorado pikeminnow (formerly Colorado squawfish) estimated at 20 to 80 pounds gave some anglers the thrill of a lifetime, according to a research document published by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program entitled,
“I pitched that green frog out there and this (Colorado pikeminnow) hit it, just about straight across, and he ran down that fast water, riffles, and took out about 200 feet of line before I turned him around,” the report quotes Maybell, Colo., resident Gene Bittler as saying. “It was one of the most thrilling fish I ever caught if you want to know the truth.”
The report, “Historical Accounts of Upper Colorado River Basin Endangered Fish,” is based on more than 100 interviews conducted with senior citizens in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The document includes historic photos of the fish as well as residents’ firsthand accounts of catching, cooking, and eating the now-endangered Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail and razorback sucker.
Anglers reported catching voracious Colorado pikeminnow on everything from swallows and mice to earthworms and chunks of chicken or rabbit.
Tim Merchant of Green River, Wyo., said his grandfather caught Colorado pikeminnow using chicken parts to bait multiple hooks on a clothesline. His grandfather tied the line to the bumper of his truck and waited.
“When (the line) went tight, they’d just back the truck up and drag those fish out on the bank,” Merchant said. “They were as big as a junior high school kid, 90 pounds. That’s a big fish.”
Anglers told of Colorado pikeminnow that were up to 5 feet long and 80 or more pounds; most recalled Colorado pikeminnow in the range of 20 to 40 pounds. Many of the seniors said they used Colorado pikeminnow for food, especially during the Depression. Humpback chub, bonytail, and razorback sucker also were consumed, but reportedly were bonier.
“I know those bonetails (referring to all chubs) aren’t edible because I tried to eat one when I was a kid, and they’re absolutely sickening,” Merchant said. “There’s about 2 million bones in each of them.”
But Tom Hastings of Green River, Utah, recalled a trapper who regularly ate razorback sucker.
“He’d catch those suckers and eat them. I don’t know how they fixed them, but they thought they were better than catfish,” Hastings said.
Several seniors compared the taste of Colorado pikeminnow to salmon. Lyndon Granat of Palisade, Colo., said, “Gut them and chunk them and put them in quart jars, pressure cook them. Damn, they made salmon taste bad.”
Anglers used several different names for each fish, sometimes making identification difficult. For example, Colorado pikeminnow commonly were called “whitefish,” as well as “white salmon,” “Colorado River salmon” and “landlocked salmon.”
Looking at a razorback sucker photo, Bill Allen of Vernal, Utah, showed how confusing the identification process was back then. “Now that was the humpback,” he said. “We’d still call them roundtail, but we called them humpback roundtails … squawfish … kind of a humpback squawfish sucker.”
Seniors recounted both positive and negative attitudes toward the fish. As Don Hatch of Vernal, Utah, explained, “When you grow up and all your life you’ve been told they are just trash fish, it’s hard to get over that feeling.
“Of course they’re valuable, of course they’re endangered so that’s the reason you should take care of them. We know now.”
Also, Colorado pikeminnow are said to have been prized by Native Americans. Tribal members reportedly speared the fish with pitchforks, shot them with bows and arrows or simply collected them from the river during low flows. And from around 1925 to 1950, a commercial fisherman in Delta, Colo., is reported to have captured and sold Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker to local mink farms.
In addition, an account by explorers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb in the August 1914 National Geographic told of the then-common bonytail: “On the opposite side of the pool, the fins and tails of numerous fish could be seen above the water. The striking of their tails had caused the noise we had heard. The ‘bony tail’ (sic) were spawning. We had hooks and lines in our packs, and caught all we cared to use that evening.”
Scientists also have confirmed the historical prevalence of these fish. For example, university scholars have estimated that the razorback sucker evolved around 4 million years ago and the Colorado pikeminnow about
3 million years ago, when the wooly mammoth and American mastodon walked the earth.
In more recent times, bones thought to be from Colorado pikeminnow were found in archaeological sites on the Gila River in southern Arizona. Scientists estimated the relics were from around 500 B.C. to 1400 A.D. Presumably, the bones were from fish consumed by the Hohokam civilization.
Other scientists have reported finding Colorado pikeminnow bones from around 1300 to 1400 A.D. on a Pueblo Indian site in Arizona at the headwaters of the Verde River, a tributary to the Salt and Gila rivers.
Also, razorback sucker bones found at Catclaw Cave, a site now inundated by Lake Mohave, and at other archaeological sites, attest to Native American’s historic use of the fish for food. In addition, Mohave Indians are reported to have taken razorback sucker from the Colorado River near the California-Nevada state line.