Fish arrive at remote lakes by air |

Fish arrive at remote lakes by air

Matt Zalaznick

A batch of high-precision Colorado pilots has given new meaning to the term “flying fish.”

Air crews working for the state’s Division of Wildlife have again this summer stocked remote mountain lakes with native fish, dropping fingerlings from the bottom of planes flown into some very tight spots.

“The radius around those lakes is very confined. They are surrounded by high peaks and cliffs,” says wildlife pilot David Younkin. “We do some tight turning and very abrupt descents. And we rarely have the optimum situation.

“You’ve got to be committed to those lakes,” he adds.

The pilots, flying Cessna 185s, stocked nearly 300 lakes – many above 10,000 feet – between Aug. 26 and Sept. 12, dropping greenback and Rio Grande cutthroat trout fingerlings into lakes in the Colorado, Rio Grande and North and South Platte river drainages. Nearly one million trout fingerlings were airlifted into high lakes along the eastern and western slopes, says Todd Malmsbury, the Division of Wildlife’s chief of information.

“The fish we’re stocking are the native fish and that provides a nice bonus for anglers who have worked hard and hiked up to high lakes,” Malmsbury says. “Some people consider it the finest fishing opportunity you’re going to find. You are in a fabulous setting and you are fishing for what’s clearly a native fish.”

No fear of flying

Reaching the ponds, many of which are in volcanic cirques surrounded by giant conifers, requires pilots to negotiate dicey flying and weather conditions. The pilots also have to fly in fast, but low enough not to harm the fish. More than 90 percent of the fish, which are suspended in liquid, survive the drops, Malmsbury says.

“Basically a cloud of water is what you see,” he says. “Most people, when they see it, are just so impressed that aircraft can go in with such precision and successfully drop these fish. It looks like a daredevil maneuver.”

The lakes that are stocked are too difficult to reach by land. Without the planes, the fish would have to be hauled in by mules or in backpacks, Malmsbury says.

Less fish would probably survive those trips and less lakes, if any, would be stocked, he says.

But pilots can stock about 70 lakes a day in good weather.

“In just a couple of short weeks, they’ve stocked what would have literally taken us months to do. And we likely wouldn’t get it all done,” says senior aquatic biologist Steve Puttmann. “That’s the advantage of using these aircraft.”

The planes are equipped with global positioning technology and aluminum fish tanks. The estimated cost of stocking each lake is a modest $25, Malmsbury says.

The greenback cutthroat trout is a state and federally listed threatened fish and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout is a species of “special concern,” says Doug Krieger, a Division of Wildlife senior aquatic biologist.

Fisheries and natural populations have been hit hard by whirling disease, and re-establishing disease-free hatcheries has been a prime goal of the Division of Wildlife, Malmsbury says.

Restocking resumed on a small scale in 2001 and on a major level in 2002, Malmsbury says.

Tragedy strikes

Younkin and fellow-pilot, Al Keith, lost one of their friends and co-workers on Sept. 4, 2002.

Jim Olterman, 57 – a veteran terrestrial biologist and pilot – died when the single-engine Cessna 185 he was piloting crashed onto a remote ridge in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, southeast of Salida. His passenger and co-worker, Brandon White, survived. The men were flying to a lake during a stocking mission. The stocking flights were halted temporarily after the accident and investigators believe strong crosswinds may have contributed to the crash. Puttmann said the pilots have perilous jobs.

“As we all saw last year when we lost Jim, this is extremely dangerous work,” he said. “And these guys have done this flawlessly this year.”

Younkin has flown 11,000 hours for the Division of Wildlife since 1986 and Keith has logged 1,700 hours in the last three years. Keith, who has also flown in Alaska, said he admires Colorado residents for not being afraid to venture into the backcountry.

“I love flying over fourteeners and seeing climbers up there,” Keith says. “I dip my wings to salute them. Colorado does not take a backseat to Alaska in that area. I think we’re in the forefront.”

The wildlife pilots and biologists, Malmsbury says, play a vital role in satisfying the demands of high-altitude anglers who trek up steep mountain trails to camp and fish.

“The pilots provide outstanding fishing in lakes that otherwise would have little if any fishing,” he says.

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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