Rainbow trout keep anglers happy and draw tourism dollars, but debate continues over whether the fish are the right choice for every stream in Oklahoma.

A plan to stock and study rainbow trout in a northeastern Oklahoma stream has opened an old wound for some Oklahoma conservationists, but the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation says it wants answers, and a fishing lodge owner says putting trout in this particular stream is far from something new.

The state Wildlife Department and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission have contracted with the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to conduct a five-year study on Spavinaw Creek, known as a great trout fishery in Arkansas and home to a native Neosho smallmouth bass fishery in Oklahoma.

For Spring Creek Coalition board members, however, the idea brings back some bad memories and some future concerns. In 2006, the coalition of property owners along what is known as Oklahoma’s last pristine creek won a hard-fought lawsuit against the state, which had allowed a group of fly fishermen to stock the stream with trout.

The issue then was that there was no public process in the decision to introduce the trout, and there was worry that the non-native fish would damage the stream by harming native fish and impacting aquatic ecosystems in ways that had not yet been studied or fully understood.

Board members expressed similar worry over the new Spavinaw Creek study and what might be the fate for similar creeks if a new five-year research project determines the practice is without harm.

Board member Jennifer Owen said a five-year study is not enough to learn long-term effects.

“This is the introduction of a non-native predatory species that is farm-raised, which increases its potential for carrying disease that could be introduced into a pure system, just to see what kind of effects it will have. It makes no sense,” she said.

In December, the board told the Wildlife Department in a letter that any kind of permit to stock trout in Spavinaw should be denied.

“We should do whatever we can to protect these waters; we should not do anything that puts them at risk,” the board wrote. “Once they are changed, it can be impossible to go back.”

Board member David Martinez emphasized that only the Spring Creek board has raised objections at this point and that the membership as a whole has not taken up the issue. It was first introduced to the full group as a potential problem at its annual meeting early in January.

State Fisheries Chief Barry Bolton said he asked a similar question before embarking on the Spavinaw study, which will cost the department about $130,000 for the life of the study. Arkansas is spending closer to $250,000 with more possibilities of stocked trout living on and naturally reproducing there, he said.

“The first thing I said is, ‘We’re not even going to go down this road if we’re going to see long-lasting impacts to native fish populations or anything we can’t live with,’” Bolton said. “The question I asked everyone is: ‘Do you believe we can go in if we need to and remove the trout and the stream will recover, and they all said, ‘yes, we can do that and the stream would recover.’ ”

Study on the creek began this winter, with OSU gathering base data on fish and fauna in the waters through physical surveys and sampling. Trout will be stocked for three years beginning in 2018. A final year is set aside for analysis, Bolton said.

Oklahoma already stocks trout year-round in two rivers — the Lower Illinois River and the Lower Mountain Fork — and four other waters, such as Robbers Cave and Blue River, that are winter-only or so-called put-and-take waters. Private landowners stock about a dozen other small streams and lakes by permit, Bolton said.

“The two year-round fisheries are tail-waters below dams, and in the winter fisheries it’s far too warm for the trout to over-summer,” Bolton said. “It’s a totally different critter when you talk about putting them in a spring-fed stream and there is a chance the rainbows can live year-round.”

Of chief concern on Spavinaw Creek is the Neosho smallmouth bass, a native species that is plentiful in the clear-water stream, he said.

Spavinaw Creek flows downstream from areas near Gravette, Arkansas, to cross the Oklahoma state line about 12 miles north of Siloam Springs. It was dammed in the 1920s to create a water source for Tulsa, resulting in Lake Spavinaw and, in the 1950s, Lake Eucha.

“It’s one of the best Neosho smallmouth streams in Oklahoma, and we don’t have a lot of good smallmouth streams, so the idea is we want to be pretty careful with what we have,” Bolton said.

Adam Maris, owner of Spring Valley Anglers Rod and Gun Club, is requesting the permit to stock the trout. His company owns fishing areas along the creek in Arkansas and just across the Oklahoma border. He will pay for the trout stocked during the study, and the plan is to have anglers fishing for the trout after they are stocked just as they would normally. Sections of the stream will be stocked and others left alone so biologists can study movement and distribution of the fish in relation to habitat, as well.

Trout have been stocked on the Arkansas side of the stream for at least 100 years, Maris said. Arkansas Game and Fish stocked the stream for many years, it was once home to a trout hatchery, and through the years many private landowners have done their own stockings even before the practice was regulated. But in recent years, Arkansas Game and Fish stopped permitting stocking of trout.

“There are a lot of trout on the Arkansas side of the stream and have been for a long time,” Maris said. “Everyone knows they naturally reproduce. They are essentially wild trout.”

Putting trout in the stream is nothing new, but answering questions about any potential impact introducing trout may have on native fish species or the ecology of the stream as a whole is an important question, Maris said.

“I’ve been looking into it for years and talking with the wildlife departments, and it will be nice to have something definitive to point to,” he said. “Let’s find out about this once and for all. This could be the definitive study.”

While the Arkansas side of the stream has trout year-round, the Oklahoma side naturally holds fewer trout — with common exceptions of them drifting downstream during a mild summer or moving downstream during a winter with high water, he said. The smallmouth, on the other hand, move upstream less commonly.

“We don’t have a lot of smallmouth on the Arkansas side because the water is quite a bit cooler,” he said. “As it flows into Oklahoma it gets a little slower and warmer, and that’s where the smallmouths live.”

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Kelly Bostian

918-581-8357

kelly.bostian@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @KellyBostian

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