Future of baitfish in AZ: problems and solutions

Does anyone use live baitfish anymore?

Well heavens, yes — especially if you’re fishing for big flathead catfish or crappie, right?

And when I say live baitfish, I mean just fish. Talking about other types of live bait such as worms, crayfish, waterdogs, and so on, would make the conversation much longer. And this is a blog. So let’s just talk fish.

The problem is the use of non-native baitfish: it’s great bait, but it out-muscles native fish and other aquatic species.

We’ll talk about some possible solutions.

But first, the problem of non-native livebait.

Non-native baits a management challenge

The speckled dace is a native fish to Arizona.The speckled dace is a native fish to Arizona

In recent decades, using live baitfish was the best way to catch your dinner.  But with more and more people  practicing catch and release, fishing with live bait has become less popular, almost to the point that if you do use live bait, you could be criticized.  This is because using live baits typically results in deep hook-sets that make releasing a fish back into the water unharmed a challenge.

The other challenge — from a management standpoint — is that all of the well-known and legal baitfish species are non-native to Arizona and can have detrimental effects on native fish and other aquatic species.

They are good for bait because they are easy to raise, and they survive on a hook.

For these same reasons, they are also ultra-competitive in  Arizona lakes and streams and out-muscle native species for food and space.

Also, these non-native species of fish come from fish suppliers outside of Arizona.  So water, plants, snails and all kinds of other non-native stuff can come along with them and end up in your bait bucket.

Why anglers should care:
money and fishing memories

Did you know some of your fishing license dollars are spent on mitigating the harmful effects of non-native species?

Yep, we are charged with providing quality sport-fishing opportunities — among many other things — while simultaneously ensuring our native aquatic species are protected and enhanced.

If fish, and other non-native aquatic species, just stayed put and didn’t move upstream or downstream, it would make it a lot easier.

But we all know water flows all over the place (downhill mostly), along with everything else  in the water.  So when people use live baitfish in one spot, and a few live ones are let loose, those fish and everything in your bait bucket will eventually be all over that watershed.

And that’s exactly what has happened during previous years. There are few wet spots in Arizona that don’t have some sort of non-native aquatic organism competing for food and space with something that has evolved in that spot.  More and more non-native aquatic invasive species are being discovered or identified every year.

So what to do?

Live baitfish solutions: some considerations

The Sonora sucker is another possible native baitfish that could be a solution to our state's nonnative baitfish problem.

The Sonora sucker is another native baitfish
that could be part a solution

  • Working towards raising enough native baitfish in our existing hatcheries. We believe it would help to raise species of baitfish native to our state in enough numbers that baitfish dealers wouldn’t have to import baitfish. Then all the non-native species that come along for the ride with the baitfish from other states would no longer hit our borders.It’s just one part of the puzzle, but it’s a start. If this works, it could help us spend more of your fishing license dollars on stocking, enhancing fish habitat and forage, and less on mitigating the harmful effects of non-native species.
  • Make sure enough native baitfish can be raised and maintained in the sizes anglers want. Native species need to be hardy enough to survive on a hook. It still won’t be OK to “dump your bait bucket” when you’re done fishing, but when a native minnow gets off your hook, it won’t endanger anything.

So that’s it. There’s still a lot to be done, and catching and using bait species at your favorite lake or stream wouldn’t change — even if it’s a non-native species. The only changes would be what’s available for purchase at a bait dealer and what species you could legally move from one spot to another.

So stay tuned!

Andy Clark is the AZGFD statewide sportfish management program supervisor

7 thoughts on “Future of baitfish in AZ: problems and solutions”

  1. Recently I caught 3 Tilapia in Roosevelt Lake. I inquired if I could use these fish as bait for Flathead at Roosevelt. I was told I could not, by the Az. Game and Fish. Why!! if they were caught in the same Lake?

  2. I think your concern and care of Arizona fisheries is spectacular! I live in Los Angeles and can only dream of wildlife management the way you do it. I recently fished Lake Havasu and would like to visit Roosevelt, Saguaro and Apache soon. Thank you.
    If the bass feed on native species and the bass population thrives on it, then why are we stocking with shad? There are two sub species of shad. Are either native to the southwest region?

    1. Hey Greg! Thanks for the compliments. Bass will feed on anything that is available, really (not just native fish). But we do not stock shad very often and threadfin shad were established in the 1970s. They reproduce successfully on their own in the central AZ reservoirs. No shad species are native to the Colorado River Basin. However, threadfin shad do the least amount of harm to native species. (They are very difficult to keep alive in a stocking truck.) We have two distinct species of shad — threadfin and gizzard shad (no sub-species). We always wish we could do more. And if you haven’t visited Roosevelt, Saguaro or Apache, you’re in for a treat!

      1. Great info not just for me but all the users of Arizona waters. Raising native baitfish and providing these baitfish to tackle shops near Arizona reservoirs sounds like the best way to mitigate non native species imported into reservoirs. Selling the idea that native baitfish work is another process that will bring the right fish into these reservoirs.

  3. I I like the idea, but I think its a disservice to label Sonora Sucker a mere bait fish. Of the few native fish we are still allowed to catch and keep, I think its one of our best.They get big, put up a good fight and prepped right, make a great meal. Beats out any Gila or Apache trout I ever caught.Plus, its doesn’t hurt that I don’t have to leave the Phoenix area to catch them. I’d hate to see the Salt river Sonora Sucker population decimated for bait stock.

    1. Hi, Dave! Thanks for the feedback. We certainly would make sure not harm the population of the Sonora sucker on the Salt River. We would simply be raising these fish in our existing hatcheries.

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