The July 4 weekend marks the unofficial start of fishing season in the Utah Highlands, as well as many other western states. Most high-altitude trails are cleared of snow at this point, allowing backcountry anglers looking for solitude and fishing to explore the hundreds of alpine lakes that are inaccessible most of the year. These remote water bodies may be teeming with fish, but many lack naturally reproducing trout populations and instead rely on state-funded stocking programs. This is where the planes of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resource come in.
Like miniature bombers carrying a different payload, DWR’s Cessna 185 Skywagons are equipped with hydrogen peroxide tanks that can carry up to 10,000 trout fry at a time. Cruising at 70 to 80 mph over the alpine lakes that dot the Wasatch and other mountain ranges, wildlife pilots can flip a switch in the cockpit and drop their payloads 100 feet or more above the water.
Seeing a cloud of cutthroat trout fall from the belly of an airplane is a sight to behold, even from behind a computer screen. But according to DWR Chief Pilot Craig Hunt, more than a few lucky anglers were able to witness the event in person.
“It’s amazing how many people fish in these lakes that are so remote,” Hunt said in a recent wild podcast. “Actually, I’ve hit them with fish before. We’ll come to a corner, you know, and I’m looking at the terrain trying to set up how I approach the drop – and the next thing you know, they’re there.
Hunt, who has worked as a wildlife pilot for the division for the past 22 years, says Utah typically runs its aerial restocking program from late June through the third week of July. He says they have stocked lakes this way for his entire career. And looking at the history of the program, the Utah DWR has been dropping trout bombs in remote mountain lakes for even longer than that.
The History and Science Behind Aerial Trout Stocking in Utah
Fish stocking from airplanes has been a common practice throughout the Mountain West for more than half a century, and Utah began experimenting with aerial stocking as early as 1956, according to the DWR. Prior to this, state agencies relied exclusively on mules and backpackers to transport trout fry into the backcountry.
These programs still exist in some states, where hardcore hikers are willing to ride oxygen tanks on miles of trail and climb way above the tree line to deliver the goods. But over time, agencies have learned that this strategy, while rewarding for some, isn’t as time or cost efficient as using planes to get the job done.
“We can airlift 40 to 60 lakes in a single day,” says DWR on its website. “So even if we could access all of these lakes by road, aerial seeding would still be a more cost effective alternative.”
People viewing these aerial stockings for the first time often wonder why the fish are not injured or killed when dropped from such a high altitude. But when you drop a one to three inch fish 100 to 200 feet in the air, the laws of physics are actually on your side.
Each of these fry are virtually weightless – weighing 0.07 pounds or less – and the air slows their fall enough that they land relatively softly on the surface of the lake. To prove this, DWR biologists conducted surveys within minutes of the airdrops, and they determined that survival rates are high.
The Division stocks several different species of trout in these high mountain lakes, including native cutthroats and introduced species like brookies, rainbows and goldens. Stockings take place every summer in some lakes, while others follow a rotation of three to five years.
In total, the agency uses aircraft to stock at least 300 different lakes across Utah on an annual basis. This is a hugely successful program that offers a wealth of opportunities for top anglers, and the DWR doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“We’ve had pretty good success with what we do and that’s why we still do it,” Hunt said. “You don’t fix something that isn’t broken.”