I recently read the description for a signature fish dish at a trendy, upscale restaurant in New York City. This specialty was described as "pristine" and "heavenly." I’m not sure what that means in New York, but pristine and heavenly in Northern Idaho means fresh trout from one of our high mountain lakes.
Idaho has approximately 3,000 alpine lakes that range in size from small ponds to large lakes. The majority of Northern Idaho’s alpine lakes were formed about 10,000 years ago when glaciers that covered the state during the last ice age started to recede. Melting ice produced the ponds and lakes that speckle the high-elevation landscape throughout the state. Outlet streams tumble down steep slopes moving rock and vegetation and creating waterfalls that are beautiful but an impediment for fish trying to move upstream. Consequently, the steep incline and obstructions like waterfalls prevented colonization of this new habitat. Most of our alpine lakes did not harbor fish before the 1920s.
In the 1920s, Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG) initiated a stocking program to provide additional angling opportunities for the fishing public. Back then, small fingerling trout, about an inch long, were transported in milk cans on pack mules to the high mountain lakes. In the late 1930s, IDFG experimented with aerial stocking, and in 1941 the first lake stocking by plane took place in the Sawtooth Mountains. Helicopters were first used in 1958. Stocking practices changed with the advent of the Wilderness Act in 1964, and today lakes are primarily stocked using motor vehicles, bicycles, pack strings and by foot.
Last month my husband and I chaperoned a few thousand fingerlings to their new homes in Pyramid and Ball Lakes. The milk cans have been replaced by large plastic milk bags filled with air and cold water. Once we reach the designated lake, the bag is placed in the lake for about 15 minutes so the fingerlings can adjust to the local water temperature. Once acclimated, a hole is cut in the bag and the fish slip into their new home, quickly finding a comfortable hiding spot amongst the rocks, plants and wood cluttering the shoreline. After a few minutes getting oriented, they disappear into the lake. As the 1,500 rainbow fingerlings were settling into Pyramid Lake, we continued up the trail for a couple more miles to Ball Lake where we released 1,300 cutthroat trout fingerlings.
Approximately 1,355 lakes are stocked by IDFG on a rotating basis. In Northern Idaho, lakes are stocked every other year – Pyramid and Ball Lakes have been stocked about every other year since 1969. Stocking records can be found on the IDFG webpage.
It takes a few years in the cold, clear water for the fingerlings to grow to pan size, but in those few years the fingerlings mature into fish with a firm texture and delicious, rich flavor that many people say is similar to salmon. And not only do these high altitude fish taste great, they are nutritious too; a three-ounce serving has about 20 grams of protein and is chocked full of vitamins, minerals, and Omega-3 fatty acids.
Who needs a trendy, upscale restaurant when you can enjoy a little taste of heaven from the pristine waters of one of our high mountain lakes?