The Rainbow Trout is one of the most popular (and widespread) game fish in North America. An Entirely Synthetic Fish illustrates how a once minor Northern California species took over the continent.
In the years that followed World War II, America experienced a period of economic growth and prosperity unlike any that had occurred before. Wealth spread to a broad spectrum of Americans who, at the same time, were enjoying an unprecedented amount of leisure time. The twelve-hour day, typical of the early nineteenth century, had largely given way and eight-hour workdays had become standard. Thanks largely to the efforts of the labor unions, many Americans were even enjoying two-day weekends and paid vacations for the first time. And thanks to the technology and manufacturing abilities developed during the war, Americans could cheaply purchase the easiest and most efficient fishing gear ever developed. Spinning reels, fiberglass rods, and long strands of monofilament made it easy even for novices to catch fish. Americans responded by making fishing one of the most popular sports in the country. One person in five, about 21 million people, went fishing in 1955, together spending 400 million days trying to catch fish, a huge increase over the prewar years.
Almost as important, the end of World War II also yielded an abundance of surplus military airplanes as well as a large number of demobilized pilots. Forty-year-old Al Reese was the first to join the California Department of Fish and Game. A former barnstormer and crop duster, Reese spent the war years training army cadets to fly. When that gig was over, Reese turned his can-do mind to another problem, stocking California's abundant and often remote mountain lakes. He was sure he could do it from the air.
First, Reese tried freezing the fish in ice blocks and parachuting them in ice cream containers. Both of these techniques, though, proved dangerous and difficult. And so, one day, Reese and his assistants tried a simpler technique. They put fifty trout and some water into a five-gallon can and threw it out the window toward a hatchery pond about 350 feet below. They missed, and the can bounced along the rocks nearby instead. But when observers recovered the twisted metal debris, they found sixteen fish still swimming in the small amount of water that remained. It was a stunning result for fishery managers who had long been telling anglers not to throw fish back, but to gently place them back in the water.
Assured by this mishap that the fish could survive the impact, Reese set out to discover whether they could make the tripwithout the protection of tin and water. Reese and his partner grabbed some more fish, hopped in a vehicle, and hit the gas until they were moving seventy-five miles per hour down the hatchery road. At that point, the men grabbed fish, one by one, and held them out the window for two minutes, at which point they pulled them back in and dropped them back into the water. And once again, the fish survived.
These and other experiments were enough to convince Reese and his superiors that his plan could work. Reese persuaded the department to purchase a military surplus C-45 transport plane and also hired another pilot named Carrol Faist, a man who had flown forty missions on B-24 Liberator bombers in the Pacific. One July day in 1949, Reese and Faist set off with a plane full of trout for their first drop into an actual alpine lake. While one of them flew the plane (history does not record who had which job), the other went into the back, loaded up a hopper full of fish, and peered through a four-inch-by-fourinch hole cut in the bottom of the plane. As soon as the lake was visible through the hole, the bombardier released the fish. The sudden reduction in weight caused the plane to bounce twenty feet higher, making it a tricky and dangerous job for the man in back. Nevertheless, the drop was a success.
Observers on the ground described a cloud of mist that suddenly appeared behind the plane, full of the barely distinguishable dark shapes of small fish. After hanging still for a moment, or so it seemed, the fish tumbled through the air in a spray of water and splashed like raindrops in the middle of the lake. Many of them, according to the observers, survived.
That's not to say it was a pleasant experience for the fish. Dropping out of a plane that was about two hundred feet in the air and traveling at a speed of around two hundred miles per hour (typical of planting runs both then and today), the fingerlings would have hit the water with a vertical speed of about thirty miles per hour. Decades after Reese and Faist first dropped their fish, I talked to a biologist who witnessed a similar event while snorkeling in one of the lakes of the Sierra Nevada. Many of the fish were ripped in half on impact, he told me, and many others were so stunned they immediately sank to the bottom, never to recover.
Nevertheless, Reese and Faist considered their experiment a success, and they became even more confident with each run. Except when the bombardier missed (yes, it's happened) and the fish landed in the trees, they found that fish dropped from planes actually survived better than fish that had to make the trip bouncing around for hours in a can on the back of a mule. It was cheaper too. It only cost about four dollars to stock one thousand fish from an airplane, compared to about twenty dollars by other methods.
For the record, California wasn't the first to drop fish from the air. Other innovators in Quebec and New York had experimented and even employed the technique on a small scale before and during the war. But within a year, California had eclipsed their efforts and shown the world what the future of fish stocking would look like. They even tried other animals as well.
They dropped beaver outfitted with special parachutes, as well as turkeys and partridges. On occasion they dropped shrimp and aquatic plants into the lakes they had just stocked to provide food and cover for the trout. But fish were by far the most common species to make the trip. By the end of the 1950s, California and many other states were routinely using airplanes and helicopters to stock the backcountry. Thousands of previously fishless lakes were soon full of trout. It was a boon, no doubt, for the millions of recreational anglers who emerged after World War II. But even more, it was a boon for the trout.
[top art courtesy of Muppets Wiki]
Anders Halverson is an award-winning journalist with a Ph.D. in ecology from Yale University.