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Monday, October 27, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Trout Troop Blazes Trail For Small Fry -- Lake Fishing Good? Thank These Guys

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

RIDGE LAKE, Snoqualmie Pass - On this Indian-summer day, a rare respite from the autumn rains, four men with a mission set a steady pace up the Pacific Crest Trail.

Henry Mills' pack is the heaviest, loaded down with a big jug of water teeming with tiny rainbow trout. In theory, their mission is a simple one: Pour the 90 fish fry into Ridge Lake where they will grow, multiply and eventually be caught by fishermen like Mills, lured to the Cascade wilderness by visions of alpine lakes loaded with rainbow trout.

In fact, the stocking is a much more complex recipe, combining science, sweat - and even a dose of secrecy.

Mills and his companions are part of an elite group called the Trail Blazers. For the past six decades, members have spent their summers hiking and even bushwhacking through miles of high forest to stock remote alpine lakes with such species as rainbow, cutthroat and golden trout.

In one recent year alone, the Trail Blazers put 26,000 trout into 115 alpine lakes.

"To have a bunch of hard-asses who go into these really difficult places, I've never heard of it before. And they've done it for 60-plus years," said Bob Pfeiffer, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

The Trail Blazers recently won the Fish and Wildlife Commission's "organization of the year" award for its work in enhancing alpine-lake fishing and promoting high mountain conservation.

"I love the mountains and the sound and the natural environment," said Mills, 64. "Everyone in the Trail Blazers loves the outdoors, the natural wilderness, peace." And, of course, fishing.

The Trail Blazers began in 1933, the brainchild of 11 men.

Now with 47 members, it remains an organization of men. There once was a female member, Mills noted, but she dropped out when she injured her back.

"The club has been around for 65 years," said Pfeiffer. "For a lot of those years they did much more in the mountains than the state agencies."

But even the Trail Blazers admit they've made mistakes, particularly in earlier years, when they stocked some lakes with Eastern Brook or cutthroat trout that multiplied excessively, damaging the natural habitat.

Pfeiffer said even the state was caught off-guard by the way the fish multiplied, in part because of a longer growing season in the mountains. "It blindsided us" he said. "We have a number of lakes with problem populations."

None of the Cascade lakes has had native fish since the last ice age. With the lakes carved from glaciers, there was no way for the fish to get in. While the state allows monitored planting of its barren lakes, the National Park Service no longer does.

Lakes in Mount Rainier National Park, for example, haven't been stocked since the early 1970s, and officials hope they eventually will be fished out, said Gary Ahlstrand, chief of the park's natural and cultural resources.

"Stocking fish into lakes that were originally fishless is like putting exotic fish in the lakes," he said. "A national park is a place where we try to perpetuate the natural processes as much as possible."

In the Cascades, all the larger lakes were stocked by the 1960s. By the 1970s and '80s, most of the smaller lakes were also planted - or overplanted, as biologists since discovered.

The Trail Blazers used to plant 1,000 or more fish an acre, but the group later found that was a mistake when the fish reproduced and reproduced.

"Any lake bigger than an acre had a fish put in it," said Trail Blazer historian Mike Swayne, a member for 40 years.

Now, state biologists design the annual allotments of fish and they meet each spring with the Trail Blazers, mapping which lakes to stock. The Trail Blazers also keep careful records of their stocking program, detailing a lake's altitude, geology, marine life and water temperature. They even drop a line in the lakes to see what bites.

The Trail Blazers now plant just 100 or fewer fish an acre, and the group is also testing a sterile trout that grows quickly, but won't reproduce and pollute the gene pool.

"We want the fish density low so we don't impact the native invertebrates," Pfeiffer said. "What we're striving to do is manage for quality, not quantity - not a fish on every cast."

The state and the Trail Blazers are very aware of the power they hold, knowing which lakes are planted with what kind of fish. That's why stocking lists aren't made public - and that's why the Trail Blazers require each new member to attend monthly meetings for a year before being allowed on a planting trip.

Pfeiffer called the group unique. "If you pick a conservationist, this may be number one, just for the sweat it goes through to protect that resource."

Susan Gilmore's phone message number is 206-464-2054. Her e-mail address is: sugi-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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