Arriving at the foothills of the Absaroka Mountain Range before sunrise, four fishermen braved below-freezing temps to try their luck on the hard water. Working hard for every fish harvested, they stayed on the lake until a sunset storm pushed them on their way.
But the hard work started long before the group planned its Thursday trip to Upper and Lower Sunshine reservoirs. Because for every fish they pulled through holes in the 2-foot-thick ice, they had helped put tens if not hundreds of thousands of trout into the two popular fisheries west of Meeteetse.
Two of the anglers, Bart Burningham and Greg Lehr, work at the Wyoming Game and Fish department’s state-of-the-art Ten Sleep Fish Hatchery in the Bighorn Mountains. Hunter Burningham, Bart’s son, is a fish culturist at the Wigwam Rearing Station, a few miles down the road. All care for brood stock and oversee the spawning of species invaluable to the health of streams, rivers and lakes across the state. And all came to Lower Sunshine for a chance of catching one of four trout species they stocked there: Yellowstone cutthroat, lake, tiger (a sterile hybrid of brown and brook trout) and splake (a hybrid of brook and lake trout).
The three don’t commute to work; they live at their respective hatcheries to be on hand in case of emergencies. Spending long hours raising and delivering trout across the state, each year they deliver more than 100,000 trout to the twin Sunshine reservoirs alone. On Thursday, the crew came to southern Park County to say hello to a few of their old friends on their day off. They called up Carl Yorgason — a local landowner and entrepreneur with 65 years of business experience in Wyoming — to join them in the fun.
“We put a ton of fish in here over the years. For me it’s rewarding to come down here and fish for them,” said Bart Burningham. “You can catch a bunch of different kinds of trout on the lower reservoir. There’s not a lot of reservoirs around you can catch four different strains in the same day. There’s just something about it that I find real rewarding.”
One of the rewards for the patriarch is fishing with family. Bart raised both of his children at the hatchery, fishing nearby Leigh and Tensleep creeks often. It wasn’t a hard decision for Hunter to follow his father into the business.
“We’ve been pretty lucky with him teaching us hunting and fishing,” Hunter said of Bart. “We have a pretty good bond and spend most weekends doing something outdoors.”
Lehr, a fish culturist for the Game and Fish, moved to Wyoming after getting a degree in biology at the University of Colorado. He called sitting on the ice the “joy of the job.”
“It’s great being able to raise these fish and then to come out and see them perform really well,” he said. “Our job is to provide these angling opportunities and it’s good for us to come out and enjoy those opportunities as well.”
Lehr is the tech geek of the group. Breaking out a new secret weapon, he spent more for his fish finder than most guys spend on an engagement ring. Lehr was the first in the water on Thursday and the first to pull out trout — long before the sun raised high enough to light the east side of the lake, still hidden behind rolling hills.
Bart Burningham called fish finders essential equipment for catching fun.
“You can see them approach your lure, adding to the anticipation,” he said.
There are very few fishing spots in the state that aren’t scenic. But the Sunshine twins are special. Snow-capped peaks surround the reservoirs on the horizon and jagged rock formations add to the beauty near shore. Elk and antelope are frequent migrants to the lakes. White-tailed prairie dog towns pockmark the flats nearby — easily within range of their endangered mortal enemies, recently released black-footed ferrets.
In the summer, osprey and long-billed curlews thrill visitors with daily feeding and mobbing displays. Flocks of Wilson’s phalaropes and American white pelicans forage from the clear water — fresh snowmelt from the peaks above. But on this day, only a distant crow could be seen in the bright sun. And the fishermen had the lake to themselves for all but a couple hours.
Conversation was constant, due mostly to the nonstop questioning from a pesky journalist. Bart and Carl were content to fish the same two holes, pulling out the occasional fish between loud, honest laughs. At one point Bart set his hook in a heavy, broad-tailed trout. His ultralight rod and reel combo made a U-turn under the above-average weight. The jumbo fish got one look at the wide-eyed crew and the near-empty box of diner donuts and slipped the hook with a splash.
Bart reeled in disappointment, wanting to cement his title in the biggest fish competition. But it wasn’t to be.
“That’s going to bother me all day,” he said.
Bart likes to use an ultralight pull instead of an ice fishing setup for just such an occasion.
“The longer pole has a little more backbone,” he said.
The Burninghams and Yorgason used light-colored plastic jigs tipped with a small slab of fresh-cut sucker meat. Lehr used a green and yellow spoon along with the meat. Lehr led the day with the most caught, but the rest were close behind.
Only Hunter used tip-ups, which allow the angler to fish the ice and detect fish strikes without having to maintain constant contact with their fishing gear. He had the Jaw Jacker — an automated device that both jigs the bait and releases a trigger when a fish bites to set the hook. The trigger is very sensitive and can detect light bites. But fishing with two poles in his hands, Lehr seemed to be on the best holes and had the best luck.
The team of three hatchery employees also came to pre-fish the reservoir with the hopes of maybe joining up to compete in the 10th annual Meeteetse Ice Fishing Derby, scheduled for Feb. 9-10. It’s the only ice fishing tournament in the northwest corner of the Cowboy State.
“I bet we could finish in the top five,” Bart said in encouragement.
They’ll have to work hard to displace perennial favorites Terry and Brenda Mari, of Powell. The team of two has won the derby five of the last eight years. The tournament starts on the first day at Upper Sunshine, which is only stocked with Yellowstone cutthroat trout. It has a reputation of yielding more fish on a consistent basis, but with somewhat smaller catches.
Sunday, Feb. 10, the tournament moves to Lower Sunshine. The reservoir can be hard to figure out at times and has been slow fishing as of late, Yorgason said.
For more information or questions about the derby, contact the Meeteetse Visitors Center at 307-868-2454 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the definition of a splake.