Population check: A scaly guide to fish stocking through the ages

19118296_S (1)If you’ve wet a line in a serious way anytime in the past 100-plus years, you’ve almost definitely encountered some stocked fish.

Fisheries have been providing fish for stocking in the U.S. since the late 1800s, and the practice has been ongoing since then. In the beginning, stocking was a relatively crude process — early efforts saw workers carrying fish to their new homes in milk cans or buckets, and it could take weeks or months to stock remote bodies of water. There was also little regard paid to what was getting stocked where. One of the earliest stocking exercises was the introduction of European brown trout into eastern U.S. waterways. While that gave local anglers a bigger, stronger fish to chase, it also displaced the native brook trout species in a major way.

Cut forward to the modern day, and things have changed dramatically — even as they’ve stayed the same. Stocking programs managed by most states can deposit hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fish each year, and the actual labor of getting fresh stock into the water has revolutionized with the rest of modern technology. High-altitude lakes in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are routinely stocked by helicopter drops of massive payloads of fry. Elsewhere in the country, including across the mountain west, that aerial method has been tweaked to include streaming young fish out of low-flying planes in a kind of crop-dusting (or maybe lake-dusting?) maneuver. A more conventional, low-altitude strategy involves a truck tank equipped to shoot fish into the water.

Even as the methods of getting fish to their destination have changed, so too have the fish themselves. Conservationists have long encouraged a return to native species, which has led to deliberate kill-offs and replacements of introduced trout with their original counterparts. In Utah, wildlife officials are now preparing an attempt to reestablish Bonneville cutthroat trout with those very methods. And while some areas are going for a natural throwback, other are embracing a kind of fishy modernity. Elsewhere in Utah, at Scofield Reservoir in Carbon County, the state Division of Wildlife took public opinion for nearly a year before releasing populations of sterile “Wiper,” a bass hybrid, as well as tiger muskie and triploid walleye.

Much like our sport, the methods by which we stock sport fish have changed considerably with the times — but also like our sport, they’ve kept the original spirit alive!

A steely outlook in Idaho? Ongoing steelhead run is disappointing, but other fish looking strong

24397658_SEvery year, Idaho anglers await the forecast for the summer run of steelhead. These fish are big, beloved ocean-going rainbow trout, and those in the Gem State know full well how fun they are to get on the line. Unfortunately, this year’s run has, so far, presented anglers with a bit of a dry spell.

The run as a whole is divided in two between A-run and B-run fish, a divide made up respectively of those steelhead that have spent only a year in the ocean versus those that spent two years in salt water. The A-run fish mostly came in throughout the past month and was largely disappointing for many anglers. The ongoing forecast of A-run fish returning to their homewaters is the lowest since 1998; the prediction for B-run is even worse, with some speculating a weak run could prompt fishing restrictions as the fish come in through about the next month. That isn’t without precedent this summer. In mid-August, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game set a catch-and-release only rule for steelhead.

So what’s the deal? Wildlife experts chalk up the low numbers to a host of factors that affected the fish on their way out to sea, during their time in the big water, and on their return trip home. A little more specifically, the small fish encountered low water-levels on their voyage out, and once they made it to the ocean, they encountered unusually warm waters that killed off their preferred food source.

That’s not to say the fishing has dried up in Idaho. Chinook salmon are reportedly looking healthy going into their own fall run, and for those looking for a little less salt in their rainbow, Fish and Game is releasing more than 12,000 hatchery trout during the month of September. With all those fish in the water, there’s no excuse to not get out there!