Sunday, May 28, 2017

Golden trout in May?

I can't really blame you if you thought I was full of shit - it is early. But you can start getting to some lower elevation mountain lakes in May. Some folks are convinced that this idea is pure horse pucky, like the fly-shop guy in Twin Bridges.

"Where did you say you're going?" he asked yesterday morning (May 27).
"A lake in the Pioneers at about 7,800 feet," I replied.
"You ain't gonna get there."
"Oh, I don't know. I think you can get to 7,800 feet around Bozeman."
(shakes his head)
"Well, you might be right, but we're gonna go find out."

What I didn't mention to him, and I'm glad I didn't, was that we were actually going to target golden trout. There are a couple of  lakes in Montana's Pioneer Mountains below 8,000 feet where FWP has decided to stock golden trout every six years (only once, in 2014, so far). FWP managers want to increase opportunities for these special fish and decided to go with lakes where naturally reproduction was unlikely - they prefer to save lakes with spawning tribs for native fish like cutthroats.
So with high hopes, we embarked up the east slope of the East Pioneers. And we made it to the lake with aplomb. There were a few small shin-deep snowfields on the 3-mile hike, but nothing that slowed us down. The lake seemed to have been iced-off for a while.

This was the worst of the hike and it was short lived.
Obviously we failed to catch any golden trout (because golden trout are hard to catch). We only saw three trout - all decent sized for goldens (assuming they weren't hold-over cutts from the final 2012 stocking) but they merely got annoyed with our flies and casually swam to deeper water.

We found a couple trout circling and shimmying, suggesting they were interested in doing the horizontal mambo.
But this lake has a long history of no natural reproduction.

Of note about this lake - it was FULL of sculpins. Sculpins are rare at mountain lakes, and I'm sure we saw several hundred from 1 to 6 inches, all different colors and patterns. It's unclear how that affects the fishery - they actually didn't seem preyed upon as there were so many, and they weren't the least bit skittish. Such a forage base could have a major impact on trout growth rates, but their significance remains unclear.

We called this one "Grumpy Guy." Photo courtesy Liz Juers. 
One theory could be that the trout we saw are actually holdover westslope cutts which were last stocked in 2012, making these fish 5 years old. The size of the trout would corroborate this idea, and the fact that the sculpins didn't seem worried also makes some sense, as westslopes are often thought to be one of the least piscivorous trout species (some populations throughout history have actually almost gone extinct despite having forage fish available).

Regardless, I'm just glad it's mountain lake season again. And that the fly-shop guy was wrong.

For more like this, check out the Flyfisher's Guide to Southwest Montana's Mountain Lakes. 

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