Mother Nature gets a hand stocking trout in high lakes | AspenTimes.com

Mother Nature gets a hand stocking trout in high lakes

I don’t fish, so it was quite unusual for me to pick my way one cloudy September day across a 12,000-foot peak with 200 Colorado cutthroat fingerlings stuffed into my backpack.

Then again, it’s unusual for anyone ? angler or not ? to be scrambling across scree and up granite chutes with a bunch of baby fish on their back.

I volunteered to make the trip with wildlife officer Kevin Wright of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Wright takes his job of promoting fishing and hunting in the Aspen district seriously, as proven by his willingness to personally lug 30-pound bags of fingerlings to hard-to-reach spots.

The wildlife division resumed efforts to stock high-altitude lakes and reservoirs in Colorado this year. The program was suspended in the mid-1990s when whirling disease became so bad that the state agency couldn’t guarantee it could stock pure fish.

Stocking resumed on a small scale during the fall of 2001. The wildlife division was confident enough that its hatcheries had been adequately purged of diseased fish.

Stocking was going full bore this late summer and early fall when wildlife division biologist and pilot Jim Olterman’s airplane crashed while working south of Salida.

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The goal had been to stock roughly 500 bodies of water, according to wildlife division spokesman Todd Malmsbury. About half were stocked ? most by airplane ? when Olterman’s tragic crash occurred in early September.

Lakes that were surrounded by tight terrain were scheduled to be stocked by backpackers or people on horseback. I volunteered to tag along with Wright because it would be a good chance to see new terrain and it’s an interesting program, even if I don’t fish.

Our destination was Jack Lake, an obscure pool barely bigger than a healthy puddle. It is tucked into a little niche of Truro Peak, up the Lincoln Creek drainage off Independence Pass.

Wright picked up four bags of cutthroat fingerlings at the Rifle Falls Hatchery early on a Wednesday morning and rushed them through Aspen and up Independence Pass. There is a window of opportunity of only a few hours before the fish exhaust their oxygen supply.

Wright mercifully enlisted the help of an outfitter to tackle the first leg of the trip. Once at the trailhead between Grizzly Reservoir and the ghost town of Ruby, the four bags of fingerlings were packed into the saddle bags of Beaver, a mule owned by Travis, the member of a family that has a long history of guiding hunters in the valley.

We trudged up the feint remains of an old pack trail off the side of Truro Creek. Deadfall hadn’t been cleared for years, making the steep trail even more challenging. We climbed about 1,000 vertical feet in less than a mile, with Travis and Beaver leading the way. The mule leapt over fallen trees and to slanting slopes without a bray of protest or moment of delay.

Once up to a bench, Travis and Beaver kept two bags of fingerlings and continued up the feint trail to Truro Lake. Wright and I loaded one water-filled bag of fish each into our backpacks and bushwhacked up the side of Truro Peak to the elusive Jack Lake.

While it wasn’t a matter of life or death with every step, we crossed terrain that I would never tackle without assurances there was a lake somewhere ahead. We picked our way through scree fields and up chutes between mammoth chunks of scree.

We climbed about 500 more feet above the bench where we had split from the mule. Once at the lake, Wright and I slipped our bags into the edge and let the water temperatures equalize. After about 10 minutes we ripped the clasps off and dumped the fish.

The cargo seemed stunned for a few moments after acquiring their freedom. They swam in place until a leader or two found an opening in the rocks and they dashed off for the deeper depths.

With luck they will find enough food and receive enough oxygen to survive the winter, then start packing on weight in the warm-weather months.

Each bag carried roughly 200 fish, Wright estimated. The bags taken to Truro had about 350 fingerlings each.

Truro had some fish remaining from previous stocking but they were a doomed population, according to Wright. “Eventually they will just die out,” Wright said.

They had died out in Jack Lake. Neither of those two high lakes supports natural reproduction of the fish populations, probably due to poor spawning grounds.

So why stock them? To enhance sportsmanship and because they are capable of supporting populations even if they cannot support reproduction, Wright said.

“We’re just trying to take the place of Mother Nature’s natural reproduction,” Wright said.

And some lucky anglers will benefit from the bounty. It certainly won’t be me, but anyone who makes the trip to Truro and especially Jack Lake in a few years will earn their catch.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]