They were the dream fish for many high-country anglers a decade or so ago: golden trout, Arctic grayling - cold-water species from faraway places that made more than a few, mostly well-known, backcountry lakes glitter with exotic promise.
Now these fish that beckoned like rare gems to a coterie of anglers seeking something out of the ordinary are slipping from sight in the backcountry. Native cutthroat trout restoration has taken over. The return of greenback, Colorado River and Rio Grande cutthroats to high lakes is a commendable change that comes with its own exotic appeal.
Take Kelly Lake at timberline in the Colorado State Forest. Once a premier destination for colorful golden trout, Kelly Lake now dazzles hike-in anglers with equally beautiful, gold and red greenback cutthroats up to 15 inches long. The golden trout are gone, victims of old age and an inability to reproduce.
In nearby Roosevelt National Forest, the grayling - famous for their purple metallic sheen and showy dorsal fins - likewise are gone from Zimmerman Lake, although their disappearance in 1996 was the result of rotenone and planning. The Arctic natives have been replaced by a thriving population of greenbacks, which provide eggs for future native fish stockings.
The days of high variety in the high country are mostly history. But anglers who covet the exotic species need not succumb to tears yet. Golden trout and grayling still reside in a few high-elevation sanctuaries. Remnant goldens might be more difficult to find than they were a decade ago and probably are on their way out in Colorado. But grayling actually have risen in anglers' sights since taking up roadside occupancy.
It started when a few grayling slipped downstream from Zimmerman Lake into Joe Wright Reservoir along Colorado 19 at Cameron Pass. The newcomer grayling reproduced in Joe Wright Creek until now they make up 95 percent of Joe Wright Reservoir's fish population but seldom grow longer than 11 inches.
"The problem at Joe Wright is that the grayling are like rabbits," said biologist Ken Kehmeier of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "They have taken over Joe Wright completely."
So, in 1999, Kehmeier started netting grayling and trucking them to Lower Big Creek Lake on North Park's west side. He reasoned that if grayling were as prolific in Big Creek as they had been at Joe Wright, they would feed Big Creek's tiger muskies and lake trout. In return, the big predators would control grayling numbers and prevent stunting. The result should be a trophy grayling fishery.
Apparently, it worked. Derik Drinnen of Fort Collins hoisted a grayling from Lower Big Creek Lake on May 26 that made anglers sit up and remember the species. His 17-inch-long grayling weighed 1 pound, 10 ounces, breaking a state record set 28 years earlier at Zimmerman Lake.
Kehmeier said no such intentional planning was involved in the disappearance of Kelly Lake's golden trout. "We set nets and couldn't catch a fish," he said. Because the division had no source of goldens certified free of whirling disease, he stocked greenbacks.
Another drive-up grayling lake, Crosho Lake, a few miles west of the town of Yampa, has been a grayling fishery since the 1970s, longer than most. A few days ago, Crosho was brimming with grayling that would chase and parry with flies but seldom take one. Biologist Kevin Rogers, who manages fisheries in the Yampa Valley and Middle Park, said he plans to highlight the 8,900-foot-elevation lake as a grayling and Colorado River cutthroat trout fishery.
Although they aren't trophy-sized, Crosho's grayling might help take some of the sting out of the disappearance of grayling at Pearl Lake north of Steamboat Springs. Once a premier grayling fishery, Pearl hasn't been stocked in several years because of whirling-disease concerns.
"So the fishery at Pearl kind of went down the toilet," Rogers said. "But Crosho's still in the picture."
Stocking reports show grayling and golden trout were stocked in several high lakes until 1990. But the list had narrowed by 1997, and all such stockings came to a halt in 1998. Biologists say some trophy-sized fish remain, but reproduction is so rare that most lakes haven't seen a grayling or golden trout in years.
There are exceptions. Division biologist Dan Brauch of the division's Gunnison office said golden trout were stocked in the late 1970s in the Ohio Creek drainage of the West Elk Wilderness, west of Crested Butte. There were no follow-up stockings, but reports persist of goldens reproducing in the drainage.
Golden trout weren't stocked in the upper Arkansas River Basin, said biologist Greg Policky of Salida. But grayling were, until 1990. Policky said he doubts high-lakes grayling are reproducing. But it's possible some might be, in lakes with feeder streams.
"If I were going to direct someone to a place for grayling, it would be Upper Pomeroy Lake," Policky said of a craggy lake above timberline at 12,300 feet near Mount Princeton. He said anglers bent on catching grayling in the Collegiate Peaks Range also might try Silver King Lake, Hartenstein Lake or North Fork Reservoir.
Don't be too disappointed if you don't find grayling: "They probably are on the way out," Policky said.
Which, of course, sounds like a challenge. The rarer the gem, the more precious its discovery.
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