Anglers in northern Colorado are hoping some tiny fish will mean the return of a popular catch at State Forest State Park. About 600 golden trout have been stocked into two high-elevation, backcountry lakes, in the park with the hopes that they’ll grow to catchable size in a few years.
Golden trout are the state fish of California and native to the Upper Kern River drainage near Mt. Whitney and Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Central California. They were believed extinct by the mid-20th century. The species was originally described by ichthyologist David Starr Jordan in 1892. History buffs will know that Jordan was the first Chancellor of Stanford University. After the golden trout was recovered in California, it was bred in hatcheries and was stocked in lakes within the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah beginning in the 1970s.
From the 1970s up until 1993, golden trout were stocked in Kelly Lake in State Forest State Park but that population – like most golden trout outside of historic stream spawning habitat – were unable to reproduce at self-sustaining levels. By 2000 the golden trout in Kelly Lake had mostly disappeared. Despite their short tenure in Kelly Lake, the reputation of golden trout being a fun-to-catch and brightly colored fish lives on in the memory of area anglers. While golden trout can be found in other lakes in Colorado, the state record golden trout – weighing in at 3.75 pounds and measuring 22 1/2 inches – was caught in Kelly Lake by Donald O’Leary in 1979.
About five years ago, park staff at State Forest and aquatic biologist Kyle Battige decided to take a look at a potential return of golden trout. Conversations with the public took place and habitat assessments were undertaken. Analysis showed that two lakes – Clear Lake and Jewel Lake – would make good homes for the species.
“This was a collaboration between the park, the biological staff, and the public,” said Park Manager Joe Brand. “It took time to make sure this is done properly. Now we’re moving forward and everyone is very excited for this unique backcountry fishing opportunity.”
In late fall of 2020 an airplane was used to stock Clear and Jewel with a mix of 1.5” golden trout and small Colorado cutthroats. Clear Lake was stocked with 375 fish and Jewel Lake received about 200 fish. Biologists believe the fish will take approximately three years to reach catchable size (>8”) and after a few more years some may get up to 14” in length.
“Because golden trout aren’t effective at spawning in lake environments, additional stockings will take place to create a multi-year class fishery,” explained CPW Aquatic Biologist Kyle Battige. “We’ll sample the fish every few years to assess their health and growth. It’s anticipated that golden trout will live six to eight years in those lakes.”
Anglers that may venture into these remote, high-mountain lakes are encouraged to give the fish a few years to grow. As a reminder, a state parks pass is required to access the lakes, which are anywhere from a three-mile hike (Jewel) to an eight-mile hike (Clear) with several thousand feet of elevation gain along the hike. The lakes themselves sit at approximately 11,000 feet above sea level.
Randy Hampton is the public information officer for CPW’s Northwest Region. Randy based in Grand Junction, Colorado.