It’s raining catfish and dogfish
Flying fish are extremely rare in Colorado – especially when they’re trout. But this week, hundreds of tiny trout raced through the air before plunging into their new homes, in lakes nestled among the highest peaks in the state.
The fish were part of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s aerial stocking program, which provides whirling-disease-free fish to the highest lakes in Colorado.
Aerial stocking takes steady, precise piloting, coupled with meticulous planning. The end result is a fisherman’s ability to amble far into the wilderness to get away from it all and catch fish at the same time.
“Apparently they don’t winter kill,” DOW fish culturist Brian Scheer said of the lakes chosen to be stocked.
Before the program began around 35 years ago, DOW employees had to load the fish in backpacks and hike up to the lakes to stock them. But since aerial stocking began, hundreds of lakes can now be stocked in a relatively short time.
“They’re stocking all the `A’ waters,” Scheer said, referring to the state’s best and most survivable lakes for trout. “We are stocking 195,000 fish.”
In all, about 135 area lakes were stocked since Monday.
Colorado native cutthroat trout are being stocked on the Western Slope, while the east side of the Continental Divide will see greenback trout delivered.
Wednesday was the third and final day for high-altitude fish stocking in the northern half of the Western Slope. On Thursday, the planes will head to the San Juan Mountains to stock alpine lakes in that part of the state.
“When they get done today, they’ll be flying down to Durango,” Scheer said Wednesday.
The Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery at Mitchell Creek supplied most of the fish dropped during the first two days of the stocking program. On Wednesday, the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery took over, supplying fish for the Elk Mountains and beyond.
Glenwood hatchery supervisor Rich Kolecki applauded the Rifle hatchery Wednesday.
“Rifle is raising greenbacks and everything,” Kolecki said. “It’s a very important unit.”
“This is the first year for Rifle to do this,” Scheer added.
But Kolecki’s unit is very important, too. Around 85,000 fingerling trout from the hatchery were discharged from planes on Monday and Tuesday.
Around 6 a.m. Wednesday, before the sun rose above the eastern horizon, four of DOW’s single-engine Cessna 185 airplanes stood ready to be filled with gasoline, water, and thousands of tiny, but hearty, cutthroat trout. Each plane took off for its own set of six to nine lakes. Most are above 9,000 feet in elevation and difficult to reach by other means.
The pilots prefer to fly their routes early in the morning to beat the winds that blow each afternoon in the high elevations. But on Wednesday, DOW pilot Jim Olterman said that strategy didn’t work, reporting that the winds around Snowmass Mountain were quite gusty.
“But we’re tough, we can take it,” he said.
The planes are permanently rigged with nine large tubes behind the pilot and passenger that can be filled with water and fish. Each can be opened separately, dropping its contents into the nearly inaccessible lakes.
The 1.5- to 2-inch, 2 1/2-month-old trout are dropped from 50 to 100 feet above the water’s surface.
“It takes about two years for them to become an adult fish,” Scheer said.
And while the drought kept the DOW from stocking a few lakes because of their low levels, it did not substantially impact the overall project, Scheer said.
The number of fish dropped into each lake is set by the state’s fishery biologist.
“We determine how many fish there are per ounce, then we weigh them,” Scheer said.
The fish are dropped into a bucket, walked to the planes and transferred into the drop tubes.
“When they fly over the lake, they’ll open the hopper,” Scheer said.
In all, 22 flights originated from the Glenwood Springs Airport since Monday.
With everything factored in, stocking costs around $27 to $28 per lake, Kolecki said.
The local DOW crews borrowed wildlife technician Mitch Espinoza Wednesday from the Finger Rock Rearing Unit in Yampah. Espinoza, an avid fly-fisherman, said while the plane ride was rough, it was great to see such pristine lakes being seeded with trout.
Espinoza and veteran pilot Olterman stocked six lakes, including Siberia, Avalanche and four Pierre Lakes.
“There were actually some hikers up there on the side of the ridges,” he said. “They looked like really nice, healthy lakes.”
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Since Colorado’s not yet in the clear of the global pandemic, the Garfield School District Re-2 is heading into next year with a relatively frugal budget.