Article for outlet: Fisheries Research. Abstract: Quantifying temporal and spatial trends in abundance or relative abundance is required to evaluate effects of harvest and changes in habitat for exploited and endangered fish populations. In many cases, the proportion of the population or stock that is captured (catchability or capture probability) is unknown but is often assumed to be constant over space and time. We used data from a large-scale mark-recapture study to evaluate the extent of spatial and temporal variation, and the effects of fish density, fish size, and environmental covariates, on the capture probability of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the Colorado River, AZ. Estimates of capture probability for boat electrofishing varied 5-fold across five reaches, 2.8-fold across the range of fish densities that were encountered, 2.1-fold over 19 trips, and 1.6-fold over five fish size classes. Shoreline angle and turbidity were the best covariates explaining variation in capture probability across reaches and trips. Patterns in capture probability were driven by changes in gear efficiency and spatial aggregation, but the latter was more important. Failure to account for effects of fish density on capture probability when translating a historical catch per unit effort time series into a time series of abundance, led to 2.5-fold underestimation of the maximum extent of variation in abundance over the period of record, and resulted in unreliable estimates of relative change in critical years. Catch per unit effort surveys have utility for monitoring long-term trends in relative abundance, but are too imprecise and potentially biased to evaluate population response to habitat changes or to modest changes in fishing effort.