Chop-stocked lakes


Photo courtesy of Brandon Taro

At a staging station, a WGFD crew helps load fingerling trout into the cannisters hanging beneath the agency's Jet Ranger helicopter July 25. Multiple failsafes help ensure that the right lakes get stocked

Earlier this summer, over 10,000 trout got helicopter rides to their new homes in Snowy Range Mountain lakes. According to a press release from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), the agency stocked several alpine lakes in Medicine Bow National Forest this way for the benefit of back country anglers.

"Helicopter stocking is normally conducted in even numbered years," the release read. It noted that the helicopters conduct their fish drops early in the morning to take advantage of a.m. updrafts, and to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.

The helicopter typically does its drop flights during a brief window in late July and early August when ice on the lakes is sufficiently melted, said WGFD information specialist Robin Kepple.

According to Kepple, the fly-ins have been conducted since the early 1970s and cost about $300 per lake stocked (not counting WGFD employee salaries). If fish are brought in on horseback or hiked in, stocking can take much longer and cost up to five times as much per lake, a WGFD memo stated.

This year, lakes stocked in the Snowies include Albany South Twin Lake, South Gap Lake, East Glacier Lake, Golden Lake, Bear Lake, Shelf Lake #1 and Shelf Lake #2. The lakes were stocked over the course of two flights conducted the morning of July 25, Kepple said.

A crew of three WGFD employees and one helicopter pilot usually conduct the stocking flights, the memo said. A pickup truck, a three-tank trailer and small stocking trucks are generally needed to support the operation by transporting supplies to the helicopter staging area.

The helicopter used is a Bell 206 Jet Ranger, and according to the memo it can lift a 500-pound payload. That payload comes in the form of eight cylindrical tanks attached to the helicopter by a cable. The tanks are aerated with supplemental oxygen, and ice added to the water keeps the fishes' metabolism low, decreasing the stress they experience during relocation and increasing their survival rate.

Each tank holds five to eight gallons of water and 10-25 pounds of fingerling fish. These smaller one-to-six-inch-long fish are used because more can be packed into each canister that way, according to the press release.

With so many lakes dotting the alpine landscape in the Snowies, WGFD officials take several precautions to make sure pilots are stocking the right lakes with the right fish. In addition to using a GPS waypoint to mark each drop site, pilots are given aerial photographs of each lake to be stocked. As a further failsafe, only one species of fish is taken up per flight whenever possible, minimizing the risk of dropping the wrong species.

Once over a target lake, the pilot pulls a trigger that opens one of the eight cylindrical tanks. From a height of 50 to 100 feet above the lake's surface, the fish and the ice water they've been suspended in fall into the lake. Because the choppers don't have to land, the whole operation takes only a few minutes and is minimally disruptive to the area.

This year's fish selection for Snowy Range lakes included 2,500 eagle lake rainbow trout, 3,500 golden trout and 4,800 bear river cutthroat trout for a total of 10,800 fish. The eagle lake rainbows all went into South Gap Lake, the goldens were divided between (fittingly) Golden Lake and the two Shelf Lakes, and the bear river cut throats went to East Glacier Lake, South Gap Lake and Albany South Twin Lake.

Kepple said the fish selections are made by WGFD Laramie Region Fish Supervisor Bobby Compton. Because lakes in the Snowies have no native trout populations when making stocking decisions, fish managers like Compton can concentrate on providing what anglers want without worrying about competition with other species, Kepple said.

With the popularity of back-country angling growing every year, it would appear that the flying fish of South Central Wyoming will be here to stay for some time


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