The scene resembles something out of a B-movie science fiction thriller: In a remote location in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Department of Natural Resources personnel transfer live brook trout into five-gallon buckets and load them onto a helicopter. The fish are flown to their destination, the pilot hovers just above the surface of the lake and a DNR employee quickly drops the fish into their new home.
The program began in 1976 when nine lakes were stocked using a small private plane. Then, during the early 1980s, DNR fisheries staff took a more “low-tech” approach and carried fish into these remote lakes using Styrofoam coolers mounted on backpack frames.
But the backpack program required a substantial time commitment, so the DNR began looking for alternative stocking methods.
In 1987 and 1989, the U.S. Coast Guard assisted the DNR with aerial stocking of brook trout in several walk-in trout lakes. This partnership worked well, but, because of budget restraints, Coast Guard involvement with the project ceased after 1989.
The stocking program nearly came to a tragic end in 1990. As DNR staff were conducting a test run to determine the feasibility of stocking fish with a DNR spotter plane, the plane struck the top of a white pine tree at the water’s edge. Although the wing suffered significant structural damage, the pilot was able to safely land the plane at the nearest\ airport. As a result of this incident, the DNR abandoned the use of fixed wing aircraft for fish stocking operations.
“Since then, we have hired a private helicopter service to assist with the aerial fish stocking program,” said George Madison, western Upper Peninsula fisheries supervisor.
Because of the higher costs associated with private helicopter rental services, Madison said the walk-in lake stocking program has been limited by the ups and downs of the DNR’s budget.
“Thanks to annual financial assistance from the local Fred Waara Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the aerial stocking program in Marquette County is still in operation,” Madison said.
Every year, spring fingerling brook trout are stocked in four Marquette County lakes. These fish average approximately three inches in length at the time of stocking.
“Our fisheries surveys and reports from anglers and conservation officers indicate the stocking program has been successful,” said Brian Gunderman, a fisheries biologist at Plainwell who was part of the crew that surveyed these lakes last fall. “The challenge of hiking into these lakes, the aesthetic beauty of the surrounding landscapes, and the opportunity to catch larger-than-average trout make a trip to one of Michigan’s walk-in trout lakes a truly memorable experience.”
These walk in brook trout lakes are situated on state forest land or on private lands enrolled in the Commercial Forest Reserve Program (CFR). Under this program the landowner allows public access to the CFR land in exchange for property tax relief.
Access to these lakes is over land, by foot from the nearest road system. Vehicular access (by ORVs, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, etc.) by those other than the landowner is prohibited. There are no designated trails to these lakes.
Typically, anglers who wish to visit these waters will use a GPS or a map and compass to navigate to these lakes.
“Since the right to use these lands is granted by the landowner, we request that citizens respect these properties and do not litter or destroy the vegetation,” said Madison.
The Type D trout fishing regulations on the walk in lakes are designed to allow the brook trout to grow to an attractive size. These special regulations also are intended to prevent the unintentional transfer of exotic pests into these lakes.
For these reasons, the fishing rules for these lakes require that anglers fish with artificial lures only; no live, preserved, or dead bait of any kind may be used or possessed on the water or on shore. The minimum size limit for brook trout is 15 inches and the possession limit is one fish. The open fishing season on these lakes extends from the last Saturday in April through Sept. 30.
The DNR hopes to continue to provide walk-in trout fishing opportunities for Michigan anglers, but recent developments have again threatened to eliminate or reduce the scope of these remote stocking efforts.
“Rising fuel prices will no doubt increase the costs of the helicopter rental and many tracts of corporate land in the Upper Peninsula are being subdivided and removed from CFR status,” Madison said.
In these tough economic times, the future of the aerial stocking program appears to be “up in the air.”