MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — "You're down and armed," co-pilot Kevin McBride tells pilot Ron VanBenthuysen, who banks the plane over a ridge and dives into his run.
The bomb-bay doors open, VanBenthuysen levels off, thumbs a button on his wheel and-- whoosh-- the plane drops its load.
Trout planting doesn't get any more sophisticated than this. It's a sharp contrast to the way the golden trout fingerlings started their cycle in the spring as tiny eggs packed part-way on mules from the remote Cottonwood Lakes down to the Hot Creek Hatchery for spawning.
The golden trout--\o7 Salmo aguabonita--\f7 are a special project of the California Department of Fish and Game, which uses its twin-engined, modified Beechcraft King Air to plant about 350,000 two-inch babies in High Sierra lakes each year. That once was done from muleback, too, until the operation became airborne after World War II, about the time the California legislature designated the golden trout as the state fish in 1947.
And the golden trout tale begins long before that--long before the turn of the century, when the DFG started transplanting goldens around the Sierra; long before 1876, when Col. Sherman Stevens put 13 goldens in a coffee pot to take them from Mulkey Creek on the Kern Plateau to Cottonwood Creek so he would have some fishing near his sawmill.
The eastern slope of the Sierras had no native trout, but the goldens of the Kern have been traced back to the Pleistocene Epoch of more than 20,000 years ago, perhaps the region's only native fish to survive the Ice Age. Zoologist David Starr Jordan described the golden--its sides either brassy or truly golden--as "the most beautiful of our Western trout."
Today they live in about 300 cool, high-country lakes and some 700 miles of streams along the Sierra crest and John Muir Trail, their purity of strain protected by edict of the State Fish and Game Commission.
Goldens don't compete well with other fish. Brown trout eat them. Brook trout eat their food. Rainbows crossbreed with them. But left alone in a closed lake without inlets or outlets for spawning, they won't breed at all--nor will they breed in a hatchery without Alpine conditions.
So since 1918 the DFG has maintained a spawning program at the Cottonwood Lakes near the southern end of the Sierra. During the spring, there are always two biologists living there in a small, 1930s sheet-metal cabin, without running water. They remove the eggs from the brooders and pack them down to the hatchery. In late summer, the fingerlings are returned to the lakes, including the Cottonwoods.
Phil Pister, a DFG fishery biologist based in Bishop for 36 years, may know more than anyone about High Sierra trout in general and goldens in particular, and he doesn't like what he knows.
"The golden trout is kind of a glamour fish," Pister says. "People love to catch 'em."
A golden will fight like a rainbow, but some anglers may be disappointed in its size. Many are not only short but skinny.
"A big golden trout would be 12 inches." Pister said. "In a stream, six or seven inches."
In the early years of the program, California was generous in allowing the goldens to be transplanted to other Western states, and New York, England and Brazil, among other places. The largest ever caught in California was 9 pounds 8 ounces, taken from Virginia Lake in Fresno County in 1952. But the world-record golden, 11 pounds, was caught in '48 on Cooks Lake--in \o7 Wyoming.\f7
If the legislature hadn't banned further exportation of goldens in 1939, they probably would have then.
"This was upsetting to many of our politicians," Pister said.
And because goldens are the state fish, one must wonder if the program hasn't been shaded by politics. Pister has long believed--as he said in a talk in 1976--that they were victims of a "lack of rhyme or reason in the early distribution of fish throughout the High Sierra."
Chris Boone, manager of the Hot Creek Hatchery, said: "You're talking about some expensive fish. The golden trout program is a real expensive operation."
But flying low over several dozen back-country lakes during the air plant, an observer didn't see one angler fishing--not even a hiker.
Asked if the project was worth it, Pister said: "That's a good question. In retrospect, I wonder if we really did the right thing."
Moving them into the High Sierra didn't really save them, he said. "They would have stayed pure in the Upper Kern (River)."
And they haven't exactly thrived in their 20th-Century habitat. Pister said that the DFG tagged and planted 1,750 brook trout in one such lake in 1951, then found some in the '70s that had grown very little.
"A lot of those high-mountain lakes are so pure they aren't really adaptable to trout," he said. "There are no nutrients. You're dealing with water that's more pure than steam iron water. They eat up all the food and just sit there in near starvation for the next quarter-century.