A Flying Fish That Transformed the Sierra -- for Better and for Worse

Rainbow trout from an Eastern Sierra hatchery are planted in Convict Lake. (Lacy Jane Roberts/KQED)

There’s no road in California quite like Highway 395. For more than 200 miles, the Sierra Nevada rises up alongside the route, a towering granite wall bordering starkly beautiful desert valleys.

If you are driving 395, chances are you’ve come to fish for trout in one of the area’s alpine lakes. Fishing is synonymous with life in the communities that dot the highway, and it’s responsible for luring nearly half of all tourists to Inyo and Mono counties. But there’s almost nothing natural about trout in the Eastern Sierra.

“Most people who are fishing in the High Sierra don’t realize that the fish weren’t native,” says Roland Knapp, a biologist with the UC Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab. He says they also don’t know the fish were likely born in hatcheries and dropped into the lakes from airplanes.

We witness this firsthand on an early morning in July at a tiny airport outside Bishop, a four-hour drive north of L.A., a six-hour drive from San Francisco.

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An airplane idles on the tarmac, and employees from the nearby Fish Springs Hatchery transfer rainbow trout fingerlings from a pickup into special hoppers built into this King Air 200’s tiny interior.

A Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist checks on the accuracy of a trout drop high in the Sierra.
A Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist checks on the accuracy of a trout drop high in the Sierra. (Lacy Jane Roberts/KQED)

Soon the plane is flying uncomfortably close to snowy Sierra peaks, swooping in and out of lake basins. It feels like a video game, with the plane diving down to 200 feet above the surface of each lake, then slowing down. Water splashes when the pilots in the cockpit open the hoppers, releasing thousands of baby trout, and there’s an audible, high-pitched whine as the fish fly through the air. The pilots pull up from the lake, clear the valley wall on the other side of the basin, and look back to see if they hit their mark.

Aerial stocking got its start in the mid-1940s, when lots of skilled pilots came home from World War II.

“Our chief pilot was a B-24 Liberator pilot down in the South Pacific,” says fish biologist Phil Pister, who worked for the California Department of Fish and Game (now Department of Fish and Wildlife) for 40 years, managing 1,000 bodies of water in the Eastern Sierra.

Pister says that stocking fish by plane is much more efficient than loading them into containers and hauling them into the backcountry on horses and mules, which is how it used to be done. The first introduction of trout to the Eastern Sierra that he’s heard of came in 1876, thanks to the owner of a high-country sawmill.

“He brought 13 golden trout in a coffee pot on his horse,” says Pister. A dozen are said to have survived the trip and were planted in a nearby creek.

Miners and prospectors released trout in lakes and streams near their work sites for food. Mountaineers did, too, creating a food source for their future explorations.

Eventually, fishing became more and more associated with recreation.

In his book, "An Entirely Synthetic Fish," evolutionary biologist Anders Halverson says that, among well-to-do men living in East Coast industrialized cities, "the outdoor life became de rigeur.”

Doctors recommended more outdoor time, and tourists visited wilderness resorts or camped in remote places. It was thought, Halverson says, that “to really reconnect with their virility, men needed to capture and kill.”

Though far from urban centers, fishing became more connected to recreation in the Eastern Sierra, too.

“You had a group in Bishop called the Rainbow Club. Their sole mission was to introduce rainbow trout into the high country,” says Roland Knapp. “You had the Sierra Club doing a lot of the early fish stocking.”

Eventually, government agencies became the major player managing hatcheries and transportation, transforming a once fishless landscape into one brimming with trout.

U.S. 395 in the Eastern Sierra, just north of Mammoth Lakes
U.S. 395 in the Eastern Sierra, just north of Mammoth Lakes (Dan Brekke/KQED)

On a recent summer morning, Department of Fish and Wildlife technician Tony Ambriz drives a big truck up 395 toward Convict Lake, outside the town of Mammoth Lakes. It’s carrying tanks filled with water and 2,400 pounds of fish for stocking into roadside lakes.

“When we go out here, people are all excited and happy. You’re almost like rock stars,” says Ambriz.

As if on cue, a huge Suburban with two coolers strapped on the back pulls up alongside his truck. The two guys inside wave, and give Ambriz big smiles.

“When you were little, do you remember that truck with that funky clown music? ‘Ice cream! Ice cream!’ We’re like the big ice cream truck for adults,” says Ambriz.

At the lake, Ambriz backs up and releases 3,600 fish in a long gush of water. They swim around wildly once they hit the surface. Gayle Odell and her family, visiting from Orange County, watch and clap. For them, she says, fishing offers “fun, good conversations, getting away from the problems of the world. Just enjoying the beauty that God created. And rainbow trout is delicious. It’s good eating.”

Department of Fish and Wildlife technician Tony Ambriz during a trout-planting trip to Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra.
Department of Fish and Wildlife technician Tony Ambriz during a trout-planting trip to Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra.
(Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

An hour south, Seth Blackamore steers a boat to the quiet end of South Lake, where trout are biting. He runs the dock at South Lake for Parchers, a century-old resort that caters to anglers. He says the fishing attracts all kinds of people: honeymooners, retirees and families.

“I get three generations worth of father, son, and son coming up, just passing down those memories, showing them what their fathers showed them,” he says.

Anglers are vital to the local economy. Fishing is such an important source of jobs and income that communities pay extra to make sure nearby lakes are stocked for recreational fishing. The Chamber of Commerce in Bishop pays to have the Pleasant Valley Reservoir and Lower Owens River stocked year-round, and Mono County spends over $100,000 annually to stock 21 bodies of water.

The introduction of trout into Eastern Sierra waters hasn’t worked out as well for native species, says biologist Knapp. He and a team spent much of the 1990s surveying 7,000 Sierra lakes, ponds and puddles, looking at the trout’s impact on native species like the mountain yellow-legged frog. They found that lakes with trout had no more native frogs or invertebrates.

“Trout basically eat themselves out of house and home. They will eat anything they can wrap their jaws around, understandably,” Knapp says. “They’re predators.”

Drawing attention to the damage that trout were causing made Knapp pretty unpopular among fishermen.

“There were certainly people who didn’t want to hear the data we were providing. I remember being called the Trout Anti-Christ in one public meeting,” he says. “And I totally understand why somebody might get upset about some scientist saying, ‘Hey, these fish are having negative effects,’ and they’re talking about your favorite lake to go fishing in.”

Retired state fish biologist Phil Pister at Fish Slough in the Owens Valley.
Retired state fish biologist Phil Pister at Fish Slough in the Owens Valley. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Phil Pister made a similar discovery in the early 1960s, when he was a new employee at the Department of Fish and Game. Two visiting fish biologists asked him to lead them on an excursion to Fish Slough, a desert wetlands outside Bishop. Their thinking was that water diversions and the introduction of trout had killed off all native fish, including one called the Owens pupfish, but they wanted to make sure. They started mucking around in the marsh and discovered a small remnant population of the small native fish. From that moment, Pister became committed to pushing for more balance between maintaining recreational fisheries and stewarding fragile native species.

“[Owens pupfish] are important because they’re part of the biota that evolved here since the beginning of time,” says Pister. “We showed up later.”

So, how to find a balance between native species and recreation? “There’s no doubt in my mind that fish and fishing provides a very direct connection between people and the land,” says biologist Knapp, “and sometimes you have to trade off what’s best for native species and what’s best for that more challenging thing to define which is: How we relate to this landscape.”

The DFW is still committed to recreational fishing, and their employees plant nearly 1.7 million fish a year in the Eastern Sierra, but nearby national parks stopped planting trout in the '90s, and the state has significantly scaled back aerial stocking.

Researchers like Knapp have advised agencies that eradicating trout from some lakes -- mostly using gill nets and electroshockers (and, occasionally, Rotenone, a chemical pesticide) -- allows for the recovery of native frogs and other species.

“[The native frog] populations will increase exponentially really quickly,” says Jim Erdman, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist. “It’s amazing sometimes how well that works, just to remove some fish.”

The native frogs face another major challenge: chytrid fungus. “It’s gotten more complicated since the mid-1990s, when we thought that fish were the [only] major contributor to frog declines,” says Knapp. “So we’re just trying to now find again another balance between all these different stressors.”

One result of balancing the desire for recreation with the needs of native species is the Owens Valley Native Fish Sanctuary, in Fish Slough. It’s one of a handful of spots where the Owens pupfish still live, now protected, in the middle of a region where millions of trout are planted every year.

Support for this story comes from the Fund for Environmental Journalism and California Humanities. Vicky Ly did additional research for this piece.

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