Fish talk: Early fish stocking in Colorado's history Article Published Feb. 15, 2013
Written by Ben Swigle Fish Talk Fisheries management in Colorado’s high mountain streams and lakes began about 1860, 16 years before Colorado became the 38th state. Early fish management in the high country generally focused on the production of self-sustaining, easily harvested populations of sport fish. In the minds of our ancestors, stocking brook trout filled this void. Brook trout, native to northeastern North America, were intentionally introduced into Colorado waters in 1872 by a gentleman who imported and hatched 10,000 brook trout eggs from Wisconsin at a rudimentary facility 10 miles south of Denver. Following the completion of the intercontinental railroad, rainbow trout, now the most abundantly stocked trout in Colorado, were imported from California. Early fish stocking was completed by carrying large milk cans filled with water and fish on the backs of horses and early settlers. The philosophy of early fish managers was simply to stock as many waters as possible and determine at a later time what worked or “stuck,” so to speak. Mentality slowly began to change in the 1970s as a movement toward species conservation and production of specific trophy trout fisheries gained momentum. Although natural reproduction continues to sustain a fair number of brook trout fisheries, stocking of this species essentially ceased in 1977. From 1978 through 1996, most high mountain lakes in northeast Colorado were almost exclusively stocked with Pike’s Peak cutthroat trout, a fast-growing subspecies of trout that closely resembled the greenback cutthroat trout. Greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, was considered extinct by the 1930s. However, a small number of populations were found in northeast Colorado in the 1950s. With few individuals available to propagate other waters, the Pike’s Peak trout were favored over the greenbacks. Finally in 1999, hatchery production allowed Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff to exclusively stock what was thought to be pure-strain greenback cutthroat trout on the Eastern Slope. Despite being a physical match to early 1900s museum specimens of greenback cutthroat, advances in genetic technology revealed the greenbacks were a genetic mix of greenback and Colorado River cutthroat trout. Ooops, it was certainly not one of CPW’s finest hours once the genetic analysis was revealed, but perseverance eventually paid off. A single population of greenback cutthroat trout that genetically matched the museum samples was recently located near Colorado Springs (Bear Creek). The story will continue to unravel as biologists determine what the next step will be regarding the Bear Creek fish. But where does that leave the angler who simply wants to catch a native cutthroat trout (I intentionally left out greenback) in Colorado? Fortunately, if you live near Fort Collins and plan to keep your genetic sampling kit separate from your tackle box, there are several locations to land a native cutthroat trout. These include Rawah Wilderness lakes, including Rawah Lakes Nos. 2 and 4, Timber and Twin Crater; the Indian Peaks Wilderness lakes of Blue, Coney, Heart and Skyscraper; Colorado State Forest State Park lakes Ruby Jewel, Kelly and Agnes; and Dream Lake, Ouzel Lake and Fall River in Rocky Mountain National Park. The native cutthroats stocked in these waters are the offspring of wild cutthroat collected from the East Slope of Colorado.
Go fish Colorado!
Ben Swigle is a Colorado Parks and Wildlife fish biologist stationed at the Fort Collins service center.
A native cutthroat trout caught at Skyscraper Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. / Courtesy of Ben Swigle