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Another fight rages on the river for irrigation and drinking water. Almost every inch of the Colorado has been the scene of tooth-and-pail battles by the thirsty states on its banks. Once the sovereign State of Arizona dispatched warriors equipped with machine guns to force California to stop work on Parker Dam, which was built as a diversionary dam to tip water toward Los Angeles, 225 miles away. The legal squabbling has filled volumes of jurisprudence, but for the moment Arizona appears to have won greater satisfaction in the high courts than California.
Meanwhile, the game wardens of both states, aloof to such minor matters, have been busily working together to improve the fishing and hunting. The most dramatic step came in 1954, when a prolific forage fish from Tennessee, the threadfin shad, was introduced to the river. Almost immediately the game fishing improved; bass became fatter and trout grew faster. The thread-fins have now become the staple diet of the river. Says an Arizona wildlife manager: ' "Some mornings the lake is covered with 'em. Drillions of 'em. Looks like wind on the water. Then you'll see those big rainbows cruising through the schools, stuffing themselves. Once I caught a rainbow with 36 shad in his stomach, some of 'em still kicking."
There is a minnow in the river that will never be eaten by trout or bass. The squawfish, sometimes mistakenly called California salmon, is a native of the Colorado. He is the largest of the minnows, up to 60 pounds, a predatory fish with a head like a pike and a toothless mouth. In the 19th century the squawfish was an important food fish on the Colorado; now his numbers have dwindled. But every now and then one will turn up, to the puzzlement of the fisherman. California Warden Larry Redfern recalls a few months ago when a fisherman took a 34-pound squawfish and became convinced that he had broken the world's record for largemouth bass. "He had our department in an uproar," Redfern says, "until we finally went out and identified it."
The wardens also are called upon now and then to identify a striped bass, a few of which remain from experimental plantings made several years ago. The stripers do not seem to have caught hold, but fish up to 20 pounds have been taken from the original plants. As if this finny cornucopia were not enough, there are also strange specimens like the greaser blackfish, the hardhead, humpback suckers and humpback chubs, bonytails and the breamlike tilapia, imported from Africa, as well as the more familiar fish, bluegills, crappies and smallmouth bass.
And there is the soft-shelled turtle. It weighs up to 30 pounds and can be turned into a seven-course dinner by an expert with the carving knife. Depending on what part of the soft-shell turtle you are eating, it tastes like veal, pork, beef, turkey and several other flavors. The only problem is that the soft-shell turtle has a vicious bite, a rapierlike neck and the distinct impression that the human being is also a tasty morsel.
Nor will the terrestrial animals of the lower Colorado River basin win any awards for normalcy either. Jester has fished almost a whole morning accompanied by a lynx, usually one of the shyest of animals. "Wherever I went, he went," Jester says. "He followed me along the bank just as if I was another lynx." Wild burros, descended from the faithful old companions of prospectors, roam the desert in packs all the way down to the mouth of the river, finding sustenance where man would perish in a few days. They prefer the back country, away from the broad highway of the river, because they have become as frightened of their old friend and employer as the wildest coyote. But now and then a pack of 20 or 30 will be seen at the river's edge, refueling. One jack burro, usually the biggest, will take his stance at an observation point, and at the first sign of human encroachment he will let out a snort, and the whole pack will vanish up a draw. When a crew of burros takes over a water hole, no other animals need apply; the stubborn little animals will drive them away.
All along the cliffs and buttes of the river, Desert Bighorn sheep stand watch. They are America's rarest big-game trophy, and the extent to which they are protected may be seen in the legal bag limit: "one per lifetime." There are a couple of dozen breeds of rattlesnakes, including the sidewinder, which has to wriggle sideways to get a purchase in its sandy home. And there is the Gila monster, glamour boy of the American lizards. The thing to remember about the poisonous Gila monster is that he is protected by law from you, but you are not protected by law from him. He is more interesting to watch than to be bitten by.
Almost all the larger animals and birds of the Colorado basin owe their existence to the ability of small creatures like lizards and desert rats to eke out an existence where nature is less than bounteous. They are staples of diet for the coyote and the lynx, for the roadrunner and the hawk. The kangaroo rat needs no water at all. It feeds on dry seeds, and if domesticated and provided with water, will ignore the refreshment. The kangaroo rat's body makes the small amount of fluid it needs by metabolic conversion of carbohydrates.
Long aware of its prime position on the bills of fare of snakes and hawks, the kangaroo rat tries to make its life last as long as possible. Its long tail acts as a spring, and when an enemy comes near the kangaroo rat is likely to fly into the air in one prodigious six-foot leap. The chuck-walla, a large lizard also popular with the desert diners, takes a different tack. Chased, he wedges himself into a crevice, then inhales deeply, jamming himself into every cranny with his tough skin. The Indians solve this problem with a sharp stick. The gridiron-tailed lizard stays alive—sometimes—by sheer speed. When it sees an enemy, its barred tail waves in the air, and then it is gone, traveling across the desert at speeds up to 15 mph, which doesn't sound like much until you try to figure out which way it went. Natives call the gridiron-tailed lizard "the desert racehorse."
One fishes in company with these creatures all the way down from Black Canyon through lakes Mohave and Havasu, to the warm-water bass lakes, Martinez and Ferguson. Then one steps through the looking glass into Mexico and as inhospitable a stretch of water as is to be found in North America. In many ways, this is the most fascinating part of the Colorado River, but only in the sense that the fangs are the most fascinating part of a rattler.