With water rushing through the Greybull Irrigation District canal, Upper Sunshine Reservoir is finally filling back up after being drained of 90% of its water this past summer to allow engineers to …
With water rushing through the Greybull Irrigation District canal, Upper Sunshine Reservoir is finally filling back up after being drained of 90% of its water this past summer to allow engineers to study the earthen Sunshine Dam.
On Nov. 5, divers armed with a remotely operated vehicle equipped with sonar worked at the base of the dam to study a conduit tube, looking for maintenance issues. The full process of making repair recommendations is expected to last well into 2025. In the meantime, the reservoir will be refilled, said irrigation district manager Melissa Leonhardt. Then, if repairs are recommended, the district will once again seek funding to drain the reservoir and fix any issues found.
“It’s a long process, especially when applying for water development funds,” Leonhardt said.
The project was funded by a grant from the Wyoming Water Development Commission.
The fishery in the diminished pool is still active, but it’s kind of a hike to water’s edge for anglers determined to hook a native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Yet, state and local officials say it will be ready for Meeteetse’s annual ice fishing tournament in February. Leonhardt said the reservoir should have enough water to accommodate the contestants expected to flock to town for the derby.
The event is the Meeteetse Visitor’s Center’s largest annual fundraising event and has been growing steadily over the past few years. The 2022 derby had a record 125 teams registered, according to Stephanie Faust, director of the center.
The tournament is a three-day event, scheduled for Feb. 2-4, with the first day of fishing typically spent on Upper Sunshine Reservoir and day two scheduled for Lower Sunshine.
“There’s still enough fish to maintain the fishery,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist Jason Burckhardt. “But [ice anglers] will be a little closer than they have been in the past,” he said of the upcoming derby.
In recent years the department had been requesting 80,000 Yellowstone cutthroat trout to stock Upper Sunshine Reservoir, but reduced the stocking rate when the irrigation district announced plans to draw back water levels to study the dam. Game and Fish stocked 15,000 Yellowstone cutthroat trout and 10,000 each of tiger trout and splake (a hybrid of two fish species resulting from the crossing of a male brook trout and a female lake trout) in Lower Sunshine Reservoir in 2022.
The process to repair the dam will eventually result in some of the best fishing in a long time at the reservoir, Burckhardt said. Yet, for the fishery to return to the “banner years” of the mid 2000s, it will require some patience from anglers.
There is much work left to do. Likely future repairs to the 84-year-old dam will require the reservoir be completely drained again in the next three to five years, said Leonhardt.
The primary function of this body of water — surrounded by stunning Absaroka Mountain Range peaks — is an integral part of irrigation in the Greybull Valley. The facility, which was opened in 1939, is privately owned by the irrigation district. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department manages the fishery and the land surrounding the reservoir and dam is Wyoming State Trust land.
Burckhardt said the long process will eventually improve the fishery by injecting the system with nutrients (due to the growth of vegetation on the exposed lake bed while the reservoir is drained) and the removal of long-nosed suckers, which have been proliferating and affecting trout growth in past years. The department, which schedules stocking rates two years in advance, was included in the planning process allowing them to adjust their schedules.
The fish are still biting, especially near the dam. Anglers were able to quickly harvest trout fishing the bottom of the pool using lures or worms last week, but it appears most area anglers are choosing to fish Lower Sunshine Reservoir instead of dealing with current conditions of a muddy lake bed, steep banks to the water and closed boat ramps.
While fishing won’t “be great in the short term,” Burckhardt said, he is excited by the prospects of an improved habitat which will eventually result in future “banner years” like those seen in the mid-2000s, just after the lake fully drained due to drought.