Trout from above
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Fish are creatures of the water.
But once a year, they go airborne.
In the early morning hours this week, trout rained from the sky, dropping into alpine lakes in the Vail backcountry.
This is the strange journey of the fish you catch in the Holy Cross Wilderness and the Flat Tops.
Most pilots avoid flying into dead-end canyons.
“That’s stuff I taught people for years to stay the heck out of,” pilot Steve Waters said.
Sitting in the plush lobby of the Vail Valley Jet Center in Gypsum, Fellow pilot Al Keith agreed.
“And we do it for a living,” he said. “But it’s fun, to a degree.”
With many of the lakes in the Colorado backcountry impossible to reach by car and tough to access on foot, the Colorado Division of Wildlife enlists its pilots to stock them. This past week, four pilots stocked about 200 lakes within a 70-mile radius of the Gypsum airport. In total, the pilot stock about 800 alpine lakes in Colorado, with each lake getting stocked every other year.
It’s a difficult job, one that requires gliding low into the canyons that surround most lakes.
“You have different wind conditions every single day,” Waters said.
The winds swirl over the mountains, making for tricky flying in a single-engine Cessna.
“It’s just like riding a rapid, only the rapids are invisible,” pilot Larry Gepfert said.
To deliver the fish, pilots circle down into the mountains until they reach about 400 feet above the lake. They switch into a glide, hang a U-turn inside the canyon and drop in about 100 feet over the water. As they cruise over the lake, the pilots push a button, opening a door in the plane’s underbelly.
Then the fish splash out into their new home.
It’s about 6:30 a.m. at the Vail Valley Jet Center in Gypsum. Two trucks from the Rifle Falls Hatchery are parked on the runway, unloading their squirming cargo.
Hatchery technician Walter Johnston uses a strainer to scoop up shiny fish from a 700-gallon tank on one of the trucks.
He pours the fish, which are only about 1 1/2 inches long, into a glass container on a scale (he keeps doing this until the container squirms with 1,000 fish).
Another worker hustles over to what looks like a model airplane on steroids.
The pilot receives the glass container and pours the fish into nine tube-shaped tanks in the back seat of the plane. Oxygen feeds the tanks during the flight to help the fish stay alive. About 90 percent survive.
Today 90,000 trout will take flight on four planes.
One by one, the Cessnas motor down the runway and take off with their aquatic passengers. Today, they’re headed for lakes in the Flat Tops, Battle Mesa and Zirkels.
Throughout the rest of the week, the pilots tackle the high lakes in the Holy Cross Wilderness southwest of Vail. Fish arrived this week in popular hiking destinations like the Missouri Lakes.
The Division of Wildlife stocks the lakes mainly so sport fisherman will have something to catch.
While most of the lakes have natural Colorado trout populations, they need to be stocked because some get fished pretty hard. Other lakes lack good spawning habitat, Gepfert said.
“I think if we didn’t stock them, a lot of the lakes would be fished out,” Waters added.
Gepfert learned to fly in Alaskan bush, where he served as a fishing guide.
“It was just something fun at the time,” he said. “It was more of a way to get around.”
Brian Smith started working for his family’s crop-dusting business. He perfected flying low over fields in Wyoming and Colorado.
Waters spent some time shuttling around doctors, oil company executives and a New Mexico state senator on a private plane.
Keith honed his flying in Washington state’s mountains before he, too, spent time splashing into lakes in the Alaskan bush.
“I always wanted to fly since I was a kid,” he said.
Clearly, the pilots weren’t looking for a regular job when they signed up to stock lakes for the Division of Wildlife.
“My office has a much better view,” Gepfert said.
The pilots are a diverse group who were drawn to the challenge.
“I guess I wanted to be associated with an elite group of pilots who had skill levels above average,” Smith said.
Stocking lakes takes up a few weeks at the end of each summer. The rest of the year, the pilots, who live in various towns throughout Colorado, spend their time doing things like flying over herds of animals and counting them with radio signals. Some of the pilots have been stocking the lakes for 10 years.
They all have stories about their first, white-knuckled flights over the water.
“To me, I loved it,” Keith said. “Did I get scared a few times? Yeah. To me that’s right up my alley.”
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