By Ernie Over, managing editor, county10.com
(Pavillion, Wyo.) – Several dozen volunteers spent Saturday morning bundling and weighting down discarded live Christmas trees on the ice at Ocean Lake for a fish habitat improvement project. The annual event, now about a quarter century old, began with a group of friends deciding they could do something to help fisheries in the lake, and they started with a few trees.
Over time, one of the men, Gary Gatenbein, passed away, and the project became a memorial in his name, and more and more trees were donated.
Tom Baysinger of Jackson said he used to come out and fish at Ocean Lake with his his late friend, and the two volunteered over the years to help with the habitat project. “I guess you can say I’m coming out to help in Gary’s memory,” he said. Baysinger maintains a travel trailer for ice fishing and he said he couldn’t think of any better way to spend a Saturday.
Last year, about 300 trees were donated, but this year the number totaled over 500 trees. Howard Johnson of Riverton, one of the original group of fishermen who started the project, estimated the total number of trees deposited in the lake totals near 9,000.
“We don’t have a definitive way determine how effective this effort is, except for reports from the fishermen on the lake, who always report good catches in this area,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Kevin Johnson, who was also out on the ice Saturday along with his two dogs Cirque and Sophie. “We do know it makes excellent habitat for small fry fish, especially crappie and perch, where they can avoid other predator fish.”
Again this year, the Fremont County Solid Waste Disposal District aided the effort by establishing Christmas tree collection areas at the Dubois and Lander landfills, and at the Riverton Bale Station. Wyoming Waste Systems also helped collect the trees, which were hauled to the lake on Friday.
As opposed to last year when the effort was hampered by thin ice and a strong wind, Saturday’s ice was strong and thick and there was barely a breeze. Volunteers were also provided with ice grips for their boots, helping improve traction on ice. The fish habitat volunteers were not the only ones on the ice Saturday, a dozen or more ice fishermen also set up their tip lines in the general area off of the north shore of Longs Point.
“It’s a beautiful day. This is my first time here,” said Jonathan Bower of Riverton. “I’ve worked with Howard and decided this was my year to come and help.”
The trees are hauled out into the lake by four wheelers and trailers, wired together in groups of ten, and anchored by five cinder blocks. The warmth from the dark trees helps melt the ice, and when they melt through, the weighted trees fall to the lake bottom.