Trail riding and lake fishing go together like, well, fresh-caught trout cooked over a campfire with lemon and butter. So the first time I returned a living trout to a mountain lake, my inner-hunter asked, “What’s the point?” while my stomach grumbled, “There goes dinner.” Fishing regulations allowed me to keep the trout, but I’d noticed over the years that my favorite lake had fewer and fewer fish. So, I released my catch to swim another day.
It turns out, diminishing fish populations are an issue facing mountain lakes across the American West. In the past year, major backcountry areas in California and Washington have cut back their fish stocking programs. Why are they picking a fight with fish?
The crux of the matter is that most high-mountain lakes didn’t have trout to begin with. The fins arrived in the late 1800s, when pack mules were used to deliver hatchery-raised trout. The fish survived at altitude thanks to an abundant food supply, few predators, and deep water that didn’t freeze solid during the winter. In some lakes, trout even spawned in small creeks, creating self-sustaining populations.
But where they couldn’t reproduce, federal and state agencies restocked them, by mule at first, and later by airplane and helicopter.
Recently, however, the century-old practice has been called into question because of environmental impact studies. It turns out that introduced trout wreak havoc on native organisms, impacting everything from frogs to salamanders to insects — some nearly to the point of extinction. As a result, Washington’s North Cascades National Park discontinued fish stocking in 26 high-mountain lakes, and implemented a plan to restore nine lakes to a fishless state. In California, fish stocking in the alpine lakes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains has been put on hold, pending further review. Summer 2010 will be the first year A.F. (after fish), and trout populations will dwindle to zero over the next decade.
As fish-bearing high-mountain lakes disappear, it’s time for backcountry horsemen to adopt catch-and-release fishing as a principle of Leave No Trace. To be clear, LNT’s current stance on fishing is vague because there are times when catch-and-kill is beneficial. Yellowstone National Park, for example, encourages fishermen to kill all Lake Trout (a species of trout) caught in Yellowstone Lake. This non-native species was introduced as a sport fish because of its enormous size. The problem is, Lake Trout eat the native Cutthroat Trout, so Yellowstone’s catch-and-kill policy aims to restore the native population.
Catch-and-kill is also appropriate for lakes with overcrowded trout populations, as culling trout makes the aquatic environment healthier and actually grows bigger fish.
Alternately, backcountry horsemen need to learn to identify the lakes where catch-and-release fishing is appropriate. For example, if a lake has few, but large, trout, this indicates that either the lakes’ stocking program was canceled or that the managing land agency hasn’t made it back to restock in a while.
Michael Vaughn, a fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, reports that their lakes are stocked on a two-, four-, and even eight-year rotation. By the end of a lake’s stocking cycle, it can be so depleted of fish that it’s nearly barren.
Sadly, it won’t be long before some high-mountain lakes no longer carry fish. So the question isn’t “why would you catch-and-release a fish?” It’s “why ever would you not?”
C&R for Horsemen
If you’ve never caught-and-released a fish before, follow these five points:
- Keep your distance. Horses have a tremendous impact on high-mountain lake environments. Make camp 200 feet from shore. That’s the distance it takes the soil to filter horse waste (urine and manure) before it enters the water table. Also, avoid riding around a lake’s shoreline. Crumbling trails erode the shore, and there’s the risk of putting manure and urine into the water.
- Keep it wet. A fish out of water will not only suffocate, it will dry out. When releasing a fish, handle it in the water as much as possible, even while you remove the hook. A fish might pass out from oxygen deprivation, so hold it steady underwater until it regains consciousness and swims away. If it goes belly up — caused by air in the stomach — right the fish and hold it until it releases the air bubbles.
- Protect the slime. Fish have a slime coating to protect them against parasites in the water. Dry hands are like sandpaper on that coating, so wet them before handling a fish. Also, avoid dragging a fish across rocks, gravel, or anything else that might scratch off the slime.
- Unhook it. Use artificial lures and flies made with barbless hooks. They allow you to remove the hook from a fish’s mouth with a minimum of damage. If a hook has a barb, use pliers or a Leatherman tool to smash it down before the first cast.
- Fight fair. It’s challenging to reel in a fish on a barbless hook, and catch-and-release fishermen think of it as the challenge of their sport. Odds are higher that the fish will spit the hook out, so do your best to reel the fish in quickly so as not to exhaust it to death.