At the end of World War II, a collection of US military airplanes and pilots changed the way California’s remote mountain lakes were stocked with fish. It had always been a massive ground operation, but this is a story about ingenuity, and achieving results from the air.
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 12-hour day, typical of the early 19th century, had largely given way and eight-hour workdays had become standard. Thanks largely to the efforts of the labour unions, many Americans were even enjoying two-day weekends and paid holidays 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, fibreglass 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 demobilised 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 50 trout and some water into a five-gallon (19-litre) can and threw it out the window toward a hatchery pond about 350 feet (107m) below. They missed, and the can bounced along the rocks nearby instead. But when observers recovered the twisted metal debris, they found 16 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 (120km/h) 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 40 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 4-inch by 4-inch 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 (6m) 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 60m in the air and travelling at a speed of around 320km/h (typical of planting runs both then and today), the fingerlings would have hit the water with a vertical speed of about 48km/h. Decades after Reese and Faist first dropped their fish, I talked to a biologist who witnessed a similar event while snorkelling 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 1000 fish from an aeroplane, compared to about 20 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 aeroplanes 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.
Anders Halverson is an award-winning journalist with a Ph.D. in ecology from Yale University.