Fri, July 19

Commentary: Yep, Lake Superior and the car dam really did exist

The results from the Camp Verde American Legion annual catfish contest are a good barometer about the health of the Verde River.

Certainly, it’s a good indicator of the health of the fish who call the Verde home. The top three finishers in the Legion’s catfish contest all topped the scales with fish weighing more than 10 pounds. Justin Petijohn won the top prize with a 25-pound, 1-ounce lunker.

While those are impressive catches, they pale in comparison to the fish pulled from the “Dirty Verde” 15 to 25 years ago.

Ironically, that was also an era in which environmentalists at the time claimed the river was being irreparably damaged by the mining industry and flow-management practices that shocked common sensibilities.

Such practices and industrial use of the river may have sent off environmental sirens, but they also created huge, deep and productive fishing holes between Cottonwood and Camp Verde. Verde fishermen regularly came by the newspaper office during those years to have their picture taken with the latest monster to be pulled from the Verde. A 30- to 40-pound catfish was common. A 13-pound largemouth bass also was caught from the Verde River during those years.

The most famous of the fishing holes from this era was the old Superior Materials pit, which earned the nickname among locals as “Lake Superior.” The pit was a pair of deep holes through which the river was re-channeled before being routed back to its original course. A few miles down-river was a similar river manipulation called the Tanner Pit.

Environmentalists and river advocates hated these pits, but fishermen loved them and the companies who created them were quite generous in allowing folks to fish there. During the summer months on weekend nights, you would see small camp fires circling all the way around “Lake Superior.” About once each hour, you would hear some guy yell, “I got one!”

I often took a 12-foot fishing boat with an electric trolling motor out on “Lake Superior.” It’s where my oldest son, Dylan, got hooked bass fishing. One of the most memorable days of bass fishing I ever experienced was with Dylan, my buddy Ken Kamps and his son Jacob. It was along a stretch of the Verde where the river exited the Superior pits. And one of the funniest things I ever saw was one night when Dylan hooked into what we thought was a healthy catfish lurking in the depths of Lake Superior. When he hauled it in, it was river turtle about two-feet long. Dylan got it ashore, and the turtle started running in circles while still hooked to his line. I cut the line just before that turtle had Dylan wound up like a top.

A common bank-stabilization practice from those years involved placing old car bodies along areas where the river was eating away at cliff-sides. It was a horrible site, but it did work. Again, it created deep pools of swirling water that were ideal habitat for smallmouth bass and roundtail chubs, AKA the venerable “Verde trout.”

Old car bodies also served another purpose along the Verde in those days. They were used to make dams. The most legendary of which was the “car dam” in Camp Verde. It was exactly what the name implies. One old car body after another was piled on top of each other from one side of the river to the other, backing up a deep pool of water behind the massive blockade.

When you saw the car dam, you knew it was just plain wrong and most likely illegal. It was good-old-boy river management at its worst.

But it created one heck of a deep fishing hole. You’d stop by Ralston’s Outdoor Sports in Camp Verde after work and buy a bucket-full of waterdogs, head over to the car dam and the odds were in your favor that you would catch a whopper catfish. I didn’t see the fish, but the local legend from those days was that a 48-pound flathead catfish was caught at the car dam.

The car dam and all those materials pits were washed away during the legendary Verde River flood in February 1993. As devastating as that flood was, it was also cleansing and something of a re-birth for the river. New rules concerning access, industrial use and bank stabilization were established and the river’s flow followed a more natural uninterrupted course.

The environmentalists will tell you that the river is better off today than it was during the years of materials pits and car dams.

Old-time Verde River fishermen will tell you otherwise.