Raining fish: Thousands of juvenile fish dropped from plane into lakes

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(ABC4) – While the state continues to be in the middle of a historic drought, a few pockets of Utah enjoyed some unusual rainfall over the last week.

Fish. It was literally raining fish in Utah.

The ichthyological downpour wasn’t a natural occurrence (that would be incredible), the falling of fish from the sky was a deliberate and rational event that is conducted each year by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Aerial fish stocking, as it’s known, while bizarre in appearance, is actually a measured and historically successful method of placing fish into high-elevation bodies of water.

They’ve been using airplanes to drop fish into the water since the 1950s, and it’s estimated that over 95% of the fish survive and thrive after their plunge from the air.

“Using this method, so it’s actually really efficient and it is, believe it or not, less stressful on the fish because we can get them into that higher, you know oxygenated water sooner,” Utah DWR outreach manager Phil Tuttle explains to ABC4.com, adding that a single flight can drop up to 35,000 fish into a natural habitat.

Courtesy of Utah DWR

Back in the day, wildlife resource officials used to stock lakes and ponds by carrying large milk jugs filled with water and fish on the back of a pick-up truck to their destination. Before that, they would pack fish and water-filled bags on mules or packhorses to replenish the water systems. Both processes, however, could take hours to complete, causing immense stress on the fish, as they clanked around in a milk jug on a bumpy road to their new home.

Giving the fish a one-way flight to the lake has turned out to be much more effective, efficient, and safe for the scaly creatures.

Little is known how the idea to use airplanes to place fish was conceived, but it worked, and the process has since been refined over time.

“You can assume that at one point, it was like ‘Let’s go for this,’” Tuttle laughs when asked about the origin of aerial stocking.

The fearless flying fish (Maybe, who knows? No fish were available to speak on the record.) begin their journey in a fish hatchery. Once they reach a certain size, Tuttle notes it’s important not to wait until they get too big as the smaller fish “flutter” down to the water more slowly and therefore, safer, the fish are loaded and brought to a nearby airstrip, where they are weighed and funneled into the release valve of a small Cessna plane. From there, the drops are made at lakes and ponds that aren’t easily accessible otherwise.

A single trip with a load of fish can fill seven or eight lakes, Tuttle remarks. In a single day, officials can supply between 40 to 60 lakes with the aerial stocking method.

“It’s a great opportunity to put fish in some of these places that are a little bit harder to get to,” Tuttle says. “It’s a hot year, it’s great for anglers to be able to go get up into these higher elevation places, find some seclusion and be able to catch fish at those lakes.”

While the record-setting drought conditions have affected many of the ways Utah anglers are bringing in their hauls, DWR Sportfish Coordinator Randy Oplinger says that most of the troubling issue is found in the irrigation water supply areas. In the higher elevation areas, the water temperatures are still relatively cool, making the fish drop zones ideal for the gill-breathers.

Video courtesy of Utah DWR

“We’re not putting fish into areas where we know the fish are probably going to die,” Oplinger states. “We have a large number of waters that we feel really comfortable with, and based on temperature water levels, they’re going to be just fine through the summer.”

And if they could talk, the fish would have one heck of a story to tell about how they arrived in their home.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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