Post date: Monday, August 26, 2013 - 16:41
Updated date: 1/12/18
Colorado Pikeminnow Ptychocheilus lucius

The Colorado Pikeminnow is a fish of legend. Once common in the great rivers of the desert southwest, this noble beast has become increasingly rare in recent years because of the dewatering, damming, and pernicious alteration of the Colorado River watershed. Historically, the Colorado Pikeminnow grew up to six feet long and attained weights upwards of 90 pounds. This species is an aggressive, predatory bruiser that was undoubtedly the most thrilling game fish ever to swim the great western rivers. 

Other Names: Squawfish, Colorado Squawfish, Whitefish, Bigmouth Whitefish, White Salmon, Colorado River Salmon



Prior to European settlement, the Colorado Pikeminnow was common in the mainstream Colorado River and all of its major tributaries (including the Gunnison, White, Yampa, Dolores, San Juan, Uncompahgre, Animas, Verde, Salt, and Green rivers). Its range stretched from Baja California in Mexico to the foothills of the Wind River Range in Wyoming. This included portions of the US states of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, California, and Wyoming. It was a key food source for the native peoples who originally populated the area, and was used and enjoyed by the settlers who followed, as well.



As more and more people flooded into the Western states, the need for a reliable source of water became acute. Much of this land is barren desert. The only way to grow crops on it is through irrigation. As more and more people crowded into this dry, barren land, the springs, seeps, creeks, and rivers could not support the population. Finally, in 1928, US president Calvin Coolidge authorized the building of a gigantic concrete dam. The project cost $700 million in modern-day dollars and took the lives of 154 workers. But Hoover Dam was only the first; it was followed up by the Imperial Dam, Parker Dam, and Davis Dam. Then, the dam-building moved to the upper river - where Glen Canyon dam cut the river in half. Flaming Gorge dam stoppered the Green River, largest tributary of the upper Colorado, and turned its waters cold, stable, and inhospitable to pikeminnows. More dams on the San Juan, Gila, Verde, and Salt river compounded the devastation. The Colorado Pikeminnow had nowhere to hide. In addition to the damage wrought by the dams, the native fishes of the Colorado were further devastated by intentional poisonings and non-native species introductions. It was put on the Endangered Species List in 1967. 



The Colorado Pikeminnow is a unique fish. Imagine a creek chub about six feet long and pushing 90 pounds, with a wide, flat head, an extra-huge mouth, eyes like a snake, and a powerful forked tail. There's really not another fish like it on earth. It is perfectly adapted to devour any creature it can catch in the muddy, flood-prone canyons of the American West. Coloration is a muddy reddish gray, like the canyon walls they call home.


Two Colorado Pikeminnows Hanging off the side of a Goddamn Burro fer Chrissakes

Here's a couple of 5-foot long Colorado Pikeminnows hanging off the side of a burro.


Colorado Pikeminnows as Food

Like all the pikeminnows, Colorado Pikeminnows are good eating. Since they were so large and readily caught, Colorado Pikeminnows were highly valued food fishes for both the native peoples of the desert southwest and the European settlers who came later.

“You can see how you cut steaks off that thing,” he said. “I remember a fish like that really was a harvest, and it produced not just one meal, but quite a few meals for the family.” - Dale Stewart of Vernal, Utah, after catching a 25-pound Colorado pikeminnow in 1937.

Of course, today they are far too rare and imperiled to be a food source for anyone.





An aggressive, bucket-mouthed predator, the Colorado Pikeminnow can be caught on spin, fly, or casting tackle. Stout gear is always a necessary precaution, since the fish can grow large enough to break even the strongest lines, and the rocky, swift river is almost as much of a hazard as the giant fish.  According to many of the now-elderly anglers who fished the Colorado River in its prime, the Pikeminnow was unmatched as a game fish:

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. It was one of the most thrilling fish I ever caught if you want to know the truth.

- Gene Bittler of Maybell, CO


Colorado Pikeminnows are known to eat everything from fish and frogs to birds and rabbits. Spoons were very popular for catching them, especially the classic red-and-white daredevil and the five of diamonds. Other fishermen fished them with baits, including chunks of chub meat and the severed heads of freshly-killed cottontail rabbits. Some early fishermen even capitalized on the peculiar "swallow hatch" on certain canyons of the upper Colorado:


We would go down into Lodore Canyon until we came to the first rapids.  That's as far as we dared to go because we had to turn around and go back upstream.  There were hundreds of swallows who had their nests built of mud on the canyon walls. This one time when we were fishing, the baby swallows were just leaving the nest.  A lot of them fell into the river ... Every big squawfish in the Green River must have migrated to the canyon to feast on the swallows because we sure caught a lot of them, or let's say, we had a lot of them hooked.  The tackle we were using was a little light for a 50-pound fish.  We managed to land a lot of 10 to 20 pounders.  Every one that we gutted out had a stomach plumb full of baby swallows!

- Chuck Mack of Craig, CO


Hell yes. If anyone can think of something more entertaining than chucking topwater lures that imitate baby birds at rampaging 90-pound pikeminnows in a vast, wild, whitewater canyon, I'd like to hear about it. In my mind, that right there is worth knocking out a few dams to restore this amazing fish to its former glory. You can grow your strawberries somewhere else.


The Future

Can the Great Colorado Pikeminnow survive? The future of this incredible fish is uncertain. Even now, nefarious Colorado water managers are greedily eyeing the waters of the Yampa River, one of its last spawning areas. Thirsty urbanites obsessed with sprawling acres of turfgrass shriek for more lawns and golf courses. But I know there are a lot of other anglers out there who fervently hope that someday, a restored pikeminnow fishery will allow them to match wits with this master of the great desert rivers again. If more people could see them, experience them, and learn to appreciate them, maybe something might change someday. Maybe the great western rivers can be restored, and the great White Salmon of the Colorado can be returned to its throne as the ultimate game fish of Western North America.




Range Map

Photo Credits:

US Fish and Wildlife Service, Dale Stewart, Wendell Minkley

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