Alpine airdrop: Hike-in fishing unique opportunity for Bighorn adventure

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In continued efforts to support alpine lake fishing, state officials take to the sky each summer in a unique restocking program.

For decades, the alpine lake stocking program has used helicopters to deliver tens of thousands of trout to picturesque lakes — many only accessible by foot or horseback — across Wyoming. The Bighorn and Beartooth mountain ranges are stocked on alternating years. On even years, it’s the Bighorns’ turn.

The alpine stocking window is small. Many of the lakes have a short period of time they can be stocked due to ice and snow cover. Late July and early August are ideal: It’s late enough to avoid ice and too early to interfere with hunting seasons.

“There’s a lot of anglers that go backpacking here and the fish grow really well in these lakes. It’s a unique opportunity for fishing,” said Kris Holmes, statewide spawning coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “You’re at one with nature, enjoying the wide open spaces without a lot of people around. And it’s always fun to catch a fish.”

Interest in alpine lake fishing is growing, partially due to the fast growth rate of fish, which provides anglers with a chance to catch trophy fish at many of the lakes, Holmes said. The number of anglers heading to the Bighorn Mountains lakes is high — partially due to the lack of grizzlies to consider when striking out into the wilderness, said Sam Hochhalter, Cody region fisheries supervisor for the Game and Fish.

“The Bighorns are user-friendly mountains. We don’t have any big toothy critters that are overly intimidating,” he said. “People just want to have the peace of mind knowing there’s no grizzly bears around. It makes for a little more of a relaxing trip.”

While many of the hikes aren’t easy, there are more than 60 fishable lakes in the Bighorns.

“Most of the trailheads here you’re starting at close to 9,000 feet,” Hochhalter said. “You’re going to cover some ground, but you’re only going to gain about 1,000 feet of elevation, so it’s not an overly exhausting hike.”

There are another 30 lakes in the Beartooth Mountain Range that are stocked and nearly 300 lakes in the Wind River Range.

Rules in designated wilderness areas typically prevent altering the natural landscape, but stocking programs have been grandfathered in. That allows the state to keep fish in many lakes where trout are unable to sustain populations by natural reproduction; many of the lakes lack suitable spawning habitat for trout.

Only about 70 lakes per year are stocked, a small percentage of natural alpine lakes in the state. Many of the lakes not currently stocked were stocked decades ago and still have thriving trout populations, Hochhalter said.

In late July, Hochhalter and several fish culturalists and aquatic habitat personnel hiked into the Bighorns to do a fish survey. They hike 10-14 miles to get into the backcountry, then go about 6 miles per day to travel between lakes. With a heavy load of fish survey equipment — including rafts, gill nets and a week’s worth of provisions — they rent llamas for the multi-day trips.

“It’s nice to have pack animals to carry the bulk of the equipment and a week’s worth of food,” Hochhalter said. “Once you commit to going into that country, it’s nice to stay for an extended period to maximize how much work you can get done.”

Stocking programs used to be done in a similar manner, but in the time it would take to stock one lake by hiking, a helicopter can do 70 lakes with less impact to the environment and less stress on the fish.

Most of the high altitude lakes in the state are only accessible by foot or horseback. But some allow travel by all-terrain vehicles. Lily Lake, 15 miles north of U.S. Highway 16 on Forest Service Road 24 is a combination of the best case scenario for a quick hike; it’s ATV-accessible and teaming with fish.

The hike to Lily Lake in the shadow of Elk Peak, is a mere 30-45 minutes, including time for wildlife viewing. Moose browse the meadows, songbirds fill the forest and squirrels chastise visitors for invading their peaceful homes high in the pines. Those willing to trek are also rewarded with awe-inspiring views of peaks unavailable from the highway.

While no backcountry trip in Wyoming is without adventure, Lily Lake is uniquely accessible to families with children and mature anglers unable to do long trips.

Generally speaking, destination lakes further out receive less pressure and have better fishing. But all of the lakes are teaming with trout that rarely see artificial bait. The stocking program in the Bighorns airdrop includes golden, tiger and Yellowstone cutthroat trout and splake.

The stocked fish aren’t eating size. Using a helicopter for stocking requires a delicate balancing act of size versus numbers, said Jared Smith, senior fish culturalist at Ten Sleep hatchery.

“It’s a balancing act. Any smaller [than about 3 inches and] survival is compromised and any bigger you can’t get enough on the helicopter,” Smith said.

The helicopters carry a custom-made tank with eight chambers, each carrying the fish for a specific lake. The pilot is given maps and a set of toggle switches. Once over a lake, the pilot hits the switch and drops the fish from about 10 feet. Oxygen is fed to the tanks to keep the fish healthy in flight, ice keeps them at a desired temperature and the water in each tank breaks their fall.

The helicopters are subcontracted through Sky Aviation, which also does wildlife surveys for the Game and Fish. It takes about 45 minutes to stock several lakes, with the helicopter interrupting the peace at each lake for about one minute every few years, depending on the particular lake.

The hikes are popular with visitors and Wyoming residents, Hochhalter said.

“People congregate here. You go to the West Tensleep trailhead on any given weekend in July or August and you’re going to find 50-60 vehicles there. There’s a lot of plates from the Midwest and a lot of plates from Wyoming, too,” he said.

Alpine lakes are a case of beauty over brawn. Not catching a fish at an isolated alpine lake is still filled with more soul-mending peace and inspiring views than those easily accessed by car.

“The payoff is enjoying wide open spaces with nobody around. And there’s nothing better than the taste of fresh fish while you’re hiking,” Holmes said.

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