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!

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