It all began when the Sonoran Desert started drying up, to become what it is today.
As the surface water slowly disappeared, the trout that lived in our rivers, and especially in the Santa Cruz, began to evolve in order to live in their new world. Their gills were replaced by lungs and their eyes grew on stalks, thus allowing them to both breathe and see in their new environment.
Swimming through the sands of the waterless rivers, they would scan the surface in order to catch the insects and small reptiles on which they fed. In the process, they also became one of North America’s most challenging game fish.
Consider the situation: the trout could see as well as any other surface-dwelling animal. Therefore it was useless to walk through the sand, casting your line. And because swimming through the hot sand in the daytime can be a painful experience, the sand trout would never move very far for its meal.
Finally, some unsung genius hit upon the Horny Toad Solution. One catches a horned toad, ties a leader around its belly just behind its front legs, and lets it loose to scamper down the river. The trout sees it coming, opens its mouth, and GLOMP! swallows the repile. A sharp jerk on the line sets the critter’s spikes in the fish’s mouth, and there you are!
Non-sporting (or very hungry) fishermen discovered that if you haul the trout in hand over hand, the friction of the sands will have it skinned and cooked by the time it reaches the shore.
Of course there’s a caveat here. Horny Toads are a protected species. However, there are no laws against taking them for little walks in the desert. It’s an argument for catch-and-release fishing, but in this case, you catch the fish and release the bait.
For those camp cooks who are reading this, here’s my favorite recipe. Mix a marinade of five parts tequila, three parts lime juice, one part chili powder (Santa Cruz brand, of course) and a tablespoon of salt. Soak the sand trout in the marinade for twelve hours, at the end of which you feed the fish to the dogs and drink the marinade.
Now, I’ve been writing this in the present tense, but the sad fact is that our population of sand trout has been seriously depleted. Most were drowned in the floods of 1983.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Like every teller of tall tales, I reserve the right to add my own details. In these cases and in these cases only I violate the Folklorist’s Rule by not telling it exactly the way I heard it.