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Interview with a Mugwai Hunter
Discovery of the Conchos Trout
by Eric Wonhof

The Conchos Trout

Truchas Mexicanas, a binational group dedicated to the study of native Mexican trouts, found something. Something amazing, something thought to be lost, something unexpected, something that's on the cusp of being lost again.

In 1997, focused on taxonomy, systematics, ecology and conservation status of these exotic Mexican species, primarily exotic rainbow trout, Truchas Mexicanas began collecting these trouts in order to better understand both their evolutionary history and ecology. Recently, they've re-discovered the Conchos Trout, the only known Mexican trout endemic to the Atlantic drainage, in the Rio Conchos basin of Mexico. Ralph Cutter is a noted fly fisher from the Sierra Nevada mountains in the West US and was a member of this team.

I asked Ralph about being a mugwai hunter. Here's what he had to say!

Eric: So now that you've found it, what is a Conchos trout?

Ralph: At this very preliminary stage of the game we have as many questions as answers. What we do know is that a Conchos Trout shares many similar genetic traits with the rainbow trout, yet is quite a distinctively different fish. Some scientists might argue that it is simply a subspecies of rainbow trout, but others can just as convincingly argue that the rainbow is a sub species of the Conchos! The bottom line is that no one really knows and it is certainly a unique trout bothgenetically and the way it looks. There are some differences only of interest to a scientist, but all of the trout caught last year and this share a unique and quite distinctive pattern of spots that run across the front of the nose.

Ralph: The Conchos inhabits the headwaters of a river system that used toconnect with waters that flowed into the Pacific. Who knows how many tens of thousands of years ago this water became captured in the Atlantic drainage. The fish evolved on their own to become a distinctly new animal. We also found a bizarre sucker, which apparently has a shared history, that is possibly an entirely unknown genus.

Eric: They sound like they're in some real jeopardy, and if you'd been there just a year later they'd have been gone.

Ralph: Yeah, Truchas Mexicanas found a tiny population of Conchos in 2005. When we returned this year, it was gone. Wiped off the map. The locals make a fish poison by pounding a certain kind of root. They nuked the stream where we made the original Conchos find. It would be almost as easy (and totally legal) to hose the current and only known population on earth.

Eric: How do you know these fish exist in the first place and where do you start to search? Do you just find unknown water and see what's turns up? How do you know that you've even found something special?

Ralph: Joe Tomelleri gets 100% of the credit. He stumbled across an article from the 1800's where a silver assayer exploring the Sierra Madre made a single paragraph regarding a "spotted trout" (the common name for cutthroat trout). Flying in the face of accepted dogma Joe researched the shit out of this rumor - he even taught himself Spanish so he could scour the old Mexican newspapers for any clue that might lead to an Atlantic side trout. He finally got experts worked up by the possibility this trout might exist and using a computer simulation model, they provided a map showing the most likely places the fish might be. Since 2002 the team Truchas Mexicanas has systematically worked across the Sierra Madre sampling suspect habitat.

Eric: When you collect these fish, do you fly fish for them? Or is it by electro-shocking and netting?

Ralph: Both. Joe caught the very first Conchos trout with a worm on a hook dangled deep into a pool under a waterfall that couldn't be accessed with electro fishing gear. He was rather stoked. Flyfishing is actually a very effective way to sample a stream. It is about as effective a means as we know for moving quickly and shotgunning a lot of habitat. Its also more fun. The population of Conchos we discovered this year were in such awesome looking habitat that we left the shockers on the beach and (successfully) hit it with flies. The fish were stupid and easy to catch - but that didn't make it an any less exciting discovery. Of course the electro crew followed behind the two of us fly fishers and dry cleaned the creek.

Eric: Are you going to keep searching these mountains in Mexico? What'snext?

Ralph: We have pretty well covered the potential sites where the Conchos might dwell. Next year we are moving the team further south toward Durango to explore some extremely remote stuff that very possibly might support other, undocumented, trout species.

Eric: One last question. What do you think about using mud or fullers earth to sink your tippet?

Ralph: I use alcohol. Take a shot of tequila, run the tippet through your mouth, and it will sink like a rock. It tastes much better than mud or fullers earth.

Eric: Thanks Ralph!

Canyon in the Sierra Madre

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