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Giant trout carries ice fishing team to derby win

by Mark Davis

Powell Tribune

Sam Korhel was still visibly shaking as he headed to check-in his fish, four hours after pulling in what turned out to be the biggest fish of the 2022 Meeteetse Ice Fishing Derby. This wasn’t Korhel’s first tournament, and he knew the trout was special.

A large crowd gathered, parting for the Thermopolis resident as he carried the fish like a newborn to the check station.

“It was overwhelming,” Korhel said, adding that he isn’t used to being the center of attention.

Even before the 34-inch giant was scrutinized at the officials’ portable picnic table, everybody within ear-shot of the check station in a gravel parking lot overlooking Lower Sunshine Reservoir instantly knew it was a special catch. The number of times you heard the two-word phrase that starts with “holy” and ends with a synonym for excrement indicated it was one for the record books.

What Korhel didn’t know as he placed his trophy catch on the fish-slimed table was his trout was the largest ever pulled through the ice in the popular derby’s storied history.

Within minutes of revealing the behemoth, every team carrying healthy stringers and hoping for a place on the podium and a piece of the lucrative prize money knew the top spot was unobtainable. Even the lifeless fish in other contestants’ buckets probably knew they would barely get a nod as they heard those two words echoing through the Absarokas from their fishy afterworld.

When Korhel felt the tug, he knew he had a decent fish on his line; the trout nearly stripped the line off his reel two times.

“He ran 100 yards of line out on me twice,” he said, recounting the epic battle that lasted for more than 10 minutes. “He fought hard, man.”

The entire time Korhel battled the fish, he worried he wouldn’t be able to pull it through the hole; the 10-pound test was scraping the sharp edges of the bottom of the opening in the ice.

Below the record

It’s unknown if the fish is a lake trout, splake (which is a fertile hybrid of a male brook trout and a female lake trout) or a back-crossed hybrid of a lake trout and a splake. However, “most likely it’s a lake trout,” said Game and Fish Cody Region fisheries biologist Jason Burckhardt.

Determining the exact species of fish means cutting open the specimen and counting the pyloric caeca, which are lobes just after the gut in a trout’s digestive system that increase surface area to absorb energy from ingested food. Lake trout have more lobes than splake.

Korhel’s trout was not a state record, based on its 12.83 pounds when weighed at the Cody office. But the fish had already been out of the water for 22 hours by the time Korhel made it back to Cody when the offices were open; Burckhardt said a fish can lose up to 10% of its weight in that amount of time. Korhel was careful with his fish, but it was well under the 15 pounds he needed for it to be considered a challenger for the record.

Burckhardt said this is the third or fourth fish he’s seen come out of the reservoir near this size.

“It’s a great fish on any day, but especially on derby day,” he said.

Dry conditions

The reservoirs are at the lowest level in years as a result of the drought.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Game and Fish Game Warden Supervisor Scott Werbelow. “And it could get a lot worse before it gets better depending on the moisture we get the rest of the winter and into spring.”

Built in 1972, Lower Sunshine Reservoir is an off-channel reservoir in the Greybull River Basin. Water is fed from the Upper Sunshine Reservoir, which has a history of suffering from drought conditions. Lower Sunshine also has been subject to deep drawdowns for irrigation purposes.

The twin reservoirs are primarily used for irrigation water _ not necessarily for raising fish.

“We do try to hold a certain amount of water in each reservoir to keep the fish alive once they get low,” Werbelow said.

The last time Upper Sunshine fully drained was in 2006, Burckhardt said. “The way things are stacking up, it’s looking pretty grim.”

The drought caused fishing concerns throughout most of the state last year. In northwest Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park officials were the first to act. They closed the park’s rivers and streams to fishing in the afternoon and evening hours due to hot temperatures and low stream flows. Fishing was prohibited from 2 p.m. to sunrise and remained in effect until early fall.

Around the Big Horn Basin, water temperatures exceeded 68 degrees Fahrenheit _ not good for trout _ and flows on many rivers in the region approached historic lows.

“I’ve lived in Wyoming all my life and last year was the driest year I’ve ever seen,” Werbelow said.

It is easier to find the fish when the water is down, he said. But it didn’t help any of the other fishermen catch a lunker the size of Korhel’s brute.

The trout was bigger than any Werbelow could remember coming out of the reservoir; he recalled a 33-incher that came out of the reservoir, but not on derby day.

Sunday win

Korhel’s team placed third in the 2019 contest, which meant he had enough experience in tournament fishing to know nothing is certain until the fish was safely landed and measured.

Team 50 had already been through hell before the fish bit on the second day of the derby. Frigid gusts of wind picked up loose dirt from exposed banks and sandblasted anglers Saturday, cutting visibility to 100 yards, according to contestants working the upper reservoir. Even those with ice shelters weren’t safe; many watched their secured shelters ripped from the surface of the hard water, leaving nothing but stakes behind.

Those who endured the first day on Upper Sunshine Reservoir were rewarded with blue skies and warm sunlight on the Lower Sunshine.

“It’s SUNday,” exclaimed tournament volunteer Jordy Guthrie.

The team won the big fish trophy for the second day of the tournament and were the overall winners. In addition to Korhel, the team included father-and-son David and Wyatt Diede of Worland. It was their fourth year competing in Meeteetse. Team 50’s largest fish in 2020, when they finished in third place, was 28 inches _ a half-a-foot shorter than Korhel’s Sunday catch.

When asked if there would be any competitive anonymosity between David Diede and Korhel, who work together at Wyo-Ben, Diede said “I’ll hug him every day if we win the tournament.”

Team 50 finished at the top of the list with 121.750 inches _ almost 10 inches ahead of the nearest competition. Team 21 and captain Ryan Friedly of Gillette finished in second place with a total length of 111.875-inches. Powell’s Kevin Kincheloe and team 81 finished in third with 111.750 inches of fish. Also notable, Powell’s Wendy Loeper and team 3 finished just out of the top 10 with 107.875 inches of fish.

Although the tournament didn’t break the 2021 record of 122 adult teams, 117 teams participated and there were a record number of youth teams, called “small fry,” with 31 teams competing for prizes. In first place was Trey Erickson’s team, in second was Karter Kiser’s team, and third was Dakota Erickson’s team.

Tournament director Kristen Yoder said it was a great tournament, and one that’s extremely important to Meeteetse, being responsible for much of the visitor center’s revenue.

The town will host its 110th annual Labor Day Celebration in September.

 

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