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Horsemen help release high lakes trout

07/29/15 -- Every two years the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife goes to the air to release more than 350,000 fingerling trout into more than 500 lakes throughout the Oregon Cascades mountain range.

This summer, ODFW added a low-tech twist to its high lakes trout stocking program: horses and mules.

The Horsemen transporting young fish to stock high lakes, photo courtesy of ODFW
Members of the Territorial Riders chapter of Backcountry Horsemen of Oregon head up the trail on Mt. Hood with a load of trout that will be release in Shellrock Lake. Photo courtesy of ODFW

Every two years, ODFW stocks the high lakes with fish, mostly from helicopters because they are fast, cover a lot of ground and can carry a big payload.

This year, in addition to helicopter stocking, two Northwest Oregon high lakes were stocked with fish carried in on horses and mules provided by the Territorial Riders Chapter of Backcountry Horsemen of Oregon.

On July 11, the volunteer riders delivered 200 “legal-sized” 8-inch trout to in Shellrock Lake, located in the High Rock Lakes area 38 mile southeast of Portland. A month earlier, the horsemen helped Walczak deliver 1,200 trout fingerlings to Cast Lake near Government Camp on Mt. Hood.

“Having dedicated volunteers who generously donate their time and resources made this project a success,” said Ben Walczak, ODFW fish biologist.

Johnathen Link (left) and Clayton Morgan (right), ODFW interns from Mt. Hood Community College, transfer fish from a tank truck to small plastic bags full of fish that are about to be loaded onto mules for transport to Shellrock Lake.
Johnathen Link (left) and Clayton Morgan (right), ODFW interns from Mt. Hood Community College, transfer fish from a tank truck to small plastic bags full of fish that are about to be loaded onto mules for transport to Shellrock Lake. Photo courtesy of ODFW

ODFW has used horses to stock high lakes for decades but gradually turned away from that practice in favor of helicopters because of their ability to cover so much more ground.

Still, horses have advantages over helicopters including on the ground reports of lake conditions, high survival rates of fish stocked, and the ability to stock larger fish, according to Walczak.

“We can’t stock legals from a helicopter,” he said.

Helicopter time is also extremely expensive, which is why ODFW uses them to stock high lakes only during odd numbered years.

The horsemen helped ODFW staff load 40 trout into plastic bags filled with oxygen-enriched water and ice into paniers onto five mules for the 30-minute walk from the loading area into Shellrock Lake. Walczak said fish loaded this way in cool, oxygenated water will probably survive for up to two hours. Only three fish died on the ride into Shellrock Lake.

Walczak said that based on this year’s successful release, he is looking to expand the horse-stocking operation to as many as six or eight release sites next year. Not every location is a good candidate. Horse-stocking release sites need to be within two hours ride over a horse-compatible trail.

“This gives us some more options as far as releasing trout and creating additional fishing opportunity in the high lakes during those years when we can’t afford to use helicopters,” Walczak said, noting that ultimately the success of the project depends on the participation of volunteer horsemen.

There is a lot of interest in fishing Oregon’s high mountain lakes, especially this year when many other locations have been impacted by drought conditions. Oregon’s high lakes consistently get top ratings in ODFW angler surveys. ODFW encourages anglers to consider the high lakes in their summer fishing plans.

“Fishing Oregon’s high lakes can be a really good experience,” said Mike Gauvin, manager of ODFW’s Recreational Fisheries Management Program. “The crowds are usually smaller, you don’t have competing activities, and it’s generally more relaxing, not to mention some exceptional scenery.”

For more information about high lakes stocking, please visit the Trout Stocking Schedules page on ODFW’s Website.

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