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Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife via AP
Environment

One Fish’s First-Fin Account of Being Dumped Out of an Airplane

Each year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife pilots drop loads of cutthroat trouts into alpine lakes. We look at the process from one survivor’s perspective.

It’s the sort of scene you might expect in a bizarre lucid dream: A Cessna 185 airplane emerges from behind a mountain peak and swoops low, gliding just a few hundred feet over a lake. A trapdoor on the bottom of the plane swings open, and… fish pour out?

But if you’ve been on the internet lately, you know it’s no hallucination. We, too, saw the videos of airplanes restocking alpine lakes with cutthroat trout.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) facilitates the late-summer practice each year to keep native cutthroat populations robust. “Typically, in our high lakes, we don’t have a lot of successful spawning going on,” says John Alves, a senior aquatic biologist with CPW. “Fish need certain temperatures in order to reproduce, and water up there often gets too cold, too fast.”

Conservation of the cutthroat, which play an important role as predators in Colorado’s waterways, is a major goal of the restocking, but so is ensuring anglers casting a line at high elevation actually have something to catch. So, one could argue, the fish are innocent pawns in a human-centric endeavor. Imagine—one day, you’re swimming in a hatchery trough, and the next, you’re sailing through the air like a scaly skydiver minus a parachute.

It got us wondering what the process might be like from the cutthroat trout’s perspective. While we can’t get inside the mind of a fish (hopefully this is obvious), we did ask the professionals involved to walk us through the aerial restocking process. What follows is a series of fish-eye view reports.

August 8

Sometimes I miss being an egg. Things were so simple then in a circular fiberglass tank, nestled comfortably with my siblings … all 24,999 of them. The tank was nearly four feet in diameter with room to spare. (Come at me, MTV Cribs.) And before you ask, yes, I know all their names. Tommy 143 and Lucy 22 and Arnold 87 and Felicity …

OK, maybe I forgot a few of their names. But a lot has happened since then! Once we hatched, we were poured into a bigger fiberglass trough, where we sat at the bottom, receiving nutrition from the little yolk sacs attached to our bodies at birth. Eventually, though, we absorbed the sacs, and were strong enough to swim to the surface.

That was when things got really fun because these big, tall, fleshy things outside of the trough gave us food! My sister Sharon 300 said they are called “people.” I don’t know how she knows that, but she’s older (she hatched a whole day before me), so I believe her.

Field Note: Ink in the hand finwritten report appears to be smudged, but Jason Wentz, manager of the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery, was able to fill in the blanks. Wentz says most fish eggs go to a hatch house and are moved to outdoor nurse ponds and raceways on the premises, but the cutthroat that will one day swim in high alpine lakes go to a special isolation building to ensure they don’t catch diseases.

August 9

THEY TOOK SHARON 300. It was crazy. Some people scooped her and 59 of my siblings out of the trough. I didn’t see where they went, but I bet it’s somewhere fun.

Field Note: It was not somewhere fun. Before restocking begins, scientists with the Aquatic Animal Health Lab, a facility in Brush, Colorado, take some of the cutthroats and test them for illnesses like whirling disease to ensure they don’t spread parasites to the pristine alpine lakes. Unfortunately for Sharon, testing involves chopping up the young fish, called fingerlings.

September 7

6:00 a.m. Something weird is happening. I was minding my own business when suddenly the people came in and (pardon the expression) fished us out of the trough with nets! I tried my best to avoid them, but I couldn’t escape. The people dumped me in a bucket with water and a bunch of my siblings in it, then put us on this weird metal platform with numbers on it. I heard the people call it a “scale.”

6:30 a.m. We just got loaded into white tanks on the back of a big metal-looking thing. I can’t see what’s going on outside, but it feels like we’re moving fast. It’s so bumpy—is this what it feels like to get seasick?

7:02 a.m. Everything grew still, and everyone in the tank bubbled a sigh of relief. Until one of the people moved us to an even bigger metal machine. There’s nothing in there other than a big tank with nine different compartments. They filled the compartment with water and then poured us in. I think about 500 of my siblings are in this one chamber with me.

Field Note: The aptly named Steve Waters has been a pilot with CPW for years, so he was able to explain some of what this trout was experiencing. When it’s time to restock fish, he says, all the seats in the back of the plane are removed to make room for a big tank that he guesses is roughly three feet across. Meanwhile, O2 steadily feeds into the tank to keep the water oxygenated.

7:15 a.m. The loudest noise I’ve ever heard begins, and we start sloshing around in our compartments. I feel greener around the gills than usual.

7:34 a.m. The compartment next to mine suddenly drains into a chamber under our tank.

7:36 a.m. I see the light! It’s as though the ground has fallen from beneath— THE F*CKING BOTTOM OPENED UP! All the water and fish in the lower chamber disappeared. I tried to see where they went, but I only saw a green blur through the hole before the trapdoor closed.

Photo courtesy of Jason Clay/Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Field Note: Waters says he empties the fish and water in each compartment into a hopper at the bottom of the plane, where they stay until he’s in position. CPW aquatic biologists, like Alves, decide which alpine lakes need fish and draw a map for the pilots, who fly low over the bodies of water. When they’re in position, Waters hits a button on his steering controller that opens the bomb bay’s doors and deposits the fingerlings.

7:50 a.m. My group just drained into the chamber. I fear today is the day I go belly up.

7:51 a.m. What have I done to deserve this? I’ve tried to be a good trout, always willing to lend a helping fin. As I face my doom, my life swims before my eyes. Could I have done more? Lived more joyfully? Before the doors open, I just wish—AHHHHHH HELP HELP $#&@ ^$#@*! ^#*%$*%^ NOOO HELP HELP &!$# HELLLLLP NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Field Note: Alves has never been onsite to see the fingerlings splash down, so he can’t say for certain what happens next. “They’re small enough, 1.6 inches long on average, that most can survive the impact,” Alves says.

7:52 a.m. I land in water, but it’s different than any water I’ve ever been in. There’s so much of it! I’ve never been in a tank this big. And the bottom has all these big rocks with green things growing from them. I look up at the surface, and everything looks blue. I wonder what that’s about.

8:09 a.m. I just ate my first bug, an al dente fly. I think I am going to like it here.

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