SHERIDAN — If you like the idea of recycling, you might appreciate the possibility that the Christmas tree you had in your living room a few months ago, stuffed with ornaments and lights, may shortly be having a second life under the waters of Lake DeSmet as fish habitat.
The Northern Wyoming Walleyes Unlimited organization is undertaking an ambitious project to sink approximately 350 former Christmas trees in Lake DeSmet. The trees will serve as fish habitat for a variety of species, creating a refuge for smaller fish, or fry, from the hungry mouths of larger fish.
“It just helps the juvenile fish mainly, lets them get more of a foothold in life to where they can go on and grow into big fish,” said Gary Mills, a club member who is organizing the project.
“All the hatchlings will benefit,” added Ken Gould, president of the club. “Perch will benefit, the trout, the walleyes, suckers. What you are trying to do is create a reef with the Christmas trees so that the babies have protection and hiding spots from the bigger fish.”
The project is planned to take place May 4 if the weather is suitable. Club members, students from Sheridan College and fish biologists from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will likely spend a full day getting the trees into place.
“Bob Sullivan, who has been my fishing buddy for years, my wife and I did most of the gathering,” explained Mills, about how the large number of trees was collected.
The trio collected leftover Christmas trees from Walmart, Quik Sak, the skating rink and also visited the landfill every other day to sort through and find the most suitable trees for the project.
Placing the trees in the lake is not simply a matter of dumping trees overboard and moving on. Instead, much thought and preparation has been put into how to secure the trees so they are not carried too far from their original location by water currents and also where they will do the most good.
Mills noted that there is a water intake and an outlet in the lake and it is important not to block those areas with debris. Therefore, the trees will be secured with concrete blocks to keep them anchored to their original position away from the intake and outlet.
To secure the trees, a hole will be drilled through each tree trunk and wire put through the holes and secured to a concrete block. Mills said three trees will be attached to one concrete block.
The trees will be loaded onto a large pontoon boat for the trip on the lake. The pontoon boat, which has a flat deck, belongs to the Game and Fish Department and is being brought up from Casper for the project. The trees will be dropped in two locations, near the monument and near Barkley’s Draw. The sites have been chosen because they are in about 25 feet of water.
The idea of repurposing Christmas trees for fish habitat has been used in other areas of the country for several years, but only rarely in our area.
“This has taken place in places around the country for a long time,” said WGFD Regional Fisheries Supervisor Paul Mavrakis. “It is a pretty common practice to try to improve fish habitat in the Midwest. I know we have done it on Kleenburn Ponds in the past and it is definitely something that has been done in other parts of Wyoming.”
Mavrakis said the project should both provide good fish habitat for successful growth of young fish as well as good fishing spots in the near future.
“It definitely provides some productivity to the lake,” he said. “Especially for species such as perch, walleye and crappie that like to orient toward structure. And a lot of our western lakes don’t have much for structure. I think it is neat to have one of these clubs get interested in doing something like this and if it gets them out fishing some more, that is a great deal.”
Northern Wyoming Walleyes Unlimited has approximately 25 members primarily from Sheridan County, but Johnson County residents are welcome to join the club as well. Gould thought that a similar project had been done 15 or 20 years ago, but this is the first time he knows of that the club has taken on a project like this.
“It is going to be a lot of work, really time consuming,” he said. “Just getting the trees out there is going to be rough. It is going to be a big project.”
In addition to club members, various community businesses and individuals have contributed to the effort. Jimmy Johns will be providing free sandwiches for volunteers on May 4 and employees of Sheridan Marine Service will be volunteering to help.
Also, Knecht Home Center, Varah Plumbing and Heating, Viking Builders and Wyoming Rents are donating use of flat bed trailers.
Sheridan resident Jim Volk offered to store the hundreds of trees on his property and the group received permission and support from the Johnson County Commissioners for the project.
“When we went and talked to the county commissioners at Johnson County, they were elated with the situation,” Mills said about the effort. “It is going to be a very good project.”
The group is in need of at least two more flatbed trailers to help get the trees transported to the lake in one trip. If you have a trailer that can be loaned on May 4, contact Ken Gould at 751-1317.