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Bonkers for big brookies? Colorful trout may be restocked in Henry's Lake

Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2002

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) -- They are the floozies of the fish world.

Clad in a gaudy hash of green, orange and blue -- not to mention their clashing spots and stripes -- they tease anglers with aggressive hookups and acrobatic hoochie-coochie dances.

Left to their own devices, they rudely crowd out their genteel sisters, the native cutthroat trout.

Biologists police them aggressively, promoting their capture on most waters with a 25-fish limit.

Conservation groups eye them with disdain as exotic invaders with no place in our pristine waters.

They are brook trout, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game wants to stock them back in Henry's Lake after a five-year hiatus.

Department biologists are in the first stages of rounding up public support to renew a brook trout stocking program on the 5,800-acre lake near the Idaho-Montana border.

All summer, Fish and Game personnel will ask anglers about brook trout. If the public supports the stocking of the nonnative fish, biologists will capture brood stock this fall and will plant sterile finglerlings as early as next summer.

Environmental and fishing groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Trout Unlimited are against the move, but anglers welcome the return of the brookies, which can grow upward of 7 pounds and 25 inches in the famous, fertile lake.

''Generally brook trout are the most popular fish in the lake,'' said fisheries biologist Dan Garren. ''We asked a question: 'If you only caught one fish today, would you prefer it to be a brook trout, cutthroat or hybrid?' and brook trout shook out as the No. 1 or No. 2 choice.''

That is disappointing news to environmentalists who have been lobbying to keep brook trout out of the lake for fear they are hurting Yellowstone cutthroat, which some people consider threatened.

Brookies and browns were introduced throughout the United States in the early 1900s when the railroads brought people and their favorite fish west. Biologists over the last 15 years have placed greater species management because species such as brookies can overwhelm species like cutthroat and bull trout.

''We think brook trout belong in Labrador not in Henry's Lake,'' said Scott Bosse, fisheries biologist for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. ''We think Fish and Game should err on the side of conservation on this type of issue and not resume any stocking until we understand the ecological impacts of that.''

Bosse worries that brook trout will eat cutthroat or compete with them for space and food in spawning tributaries.

Biologists disagree, saying there is a 100-year history of brook trout and cutthroat living side by side in the lake. They believe it is a question for the public.

''Biologically we're comfortable this isn't a risk to cutthroat, but if there is no public interest in brook trout, we won't do it,'' said Jim Fredericks, fisheries manager in Idaho Falls.

Biologists annually stocked between 100,000 and 200,000 brook trout fingerlings in Henry's for decades, growing some of the best brookies in the West. Idaho Falls' angler DeVere Stratton caught the state record from Henry's with a worm in 1978. It weighed 7 pounds, 1 ounce, and was 23 inches long and 15 inches around.

But in 1998, former fisheries manager Mark Gamblin decided to stop the stocking program, citing budget cuts and his belief that brookies could reproduce naturally in the lake's small tributaries.

It didn't happen.

Creel surveys show the remaining brook trout in the lake are mostly hatchery fish. The brookie population will soon die out if no new fish are planted, Fredericks said. Natural reproduction is hurt by the fact that brook trout are a fall spawner and water is normally thin Henry's Lake tributaries in September and October.

Fredericks decided to explore restarting the stocking program with the philosophy that Henry's Lake could provide both a refuge for cutthroat trout and trophy brookies.

''We wouldn't even consider this if we believed there was a significant threat to the native Yellowstone cutthroat,'' Fredericks said.

To make his case, Fredericks points out brookies and cutthroat have lived compatibly for decades.

''That tells us that brook trout aren't going to overrun cutthroat,'' he said. ''In some systems, no question brook trout are a problem for cutthroat. That isn't the case here.''

While brook trout and cutthroat will compete for space in the spawning tributaries, Fredericks said the problem is insignificant because most cutthroat fry migrate back to the lake quickly.

''There would be a lot more risk of competition or predation if cutthroat spent one or two years in the tributaries,'' Fredericks said.

Not so fast, said Bosse.

He said there may be a significant impact on cutthroat spawning, but it may be masked by the fact that Fish and Game is stocking 1 million cutthroat a year. The department also stocks 200,000 rainbow-cutthroat hybrids.

''The native wild cutthroat population could be struggling because of brook trout but you would never know it because of the stocking,'' he said.

Scott Yates of Trout Unlimited agrees.

''This is a classic example where we haven't studied it enough to know,'' he said.

To address the concerns about competition between the two species, Fish and Game will stock sterile brook trout, giving the department the ability to control brook trout numbers if a problem arises.

''Sterile fish would look at making it absolutely certain that if we wanted to stop it we could stop it,'' Fredericks said. ''When we turned it off in 1998, we basically lost all the small brook trout. There is no more recruitment.''

Biologists also will continue to trap fry in the tributaries to judge natural reproduction, Fredericks said. That will tell them if brook trout are becoming a problem.

''Henry's is one of the most important Yellowstone cutthroat strongholds in their historic range and we wouldn't put it at risk,'' he said. ''By the same token, this isn't a dime-a-dozen brook trout fishery. It's one of the best in the West. The bottom line is that if we can keep it going without jeopardizing Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and there is demand to do so, then why not?''

One angler is thrilled.

Bob Lamm, a guide at Henry's Fork Angler, said his clients love brook trout.

So does he.

''People come from all over the country to fish for those-sized fish,'' he said. ''I think I can speak for most of the out-of-state clients on that. They love to fish for big brook trout.''

Bring on the floozies, and hope they play nice with their staid sisters.

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