Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Historic Firsts: Aerial Fish Stocking Of Adirondack Waters

DE HartnettAs the once seemingly endless supply of Adirondack brook trout declined from over-fishing in the late nineteenth century, sportsmen’s clubs turned to fish stocking in an attempt to keep fishing at accustomed levels. Seth Green established what is believed to be the first commercial fish hatchery in the western hemisphere at Caledonia near Rochester in 1864. Green was among those who strongly advocated for New York to engage in fishing regulation and fish stocking. The state established a stocking program in 1868. Green himself brought fish from his hatchery to the Fulton Chain in January 1872. This was probably the first recorded instance of Adirondack fish stocking and incidentally marked the introduction of smallmouth bass into Adirondack waters.

Thus began what a 1981 DEC report on fisheries called a “near maniacal” program of fish stocking in the Adirondacks. New York acquired Green’s hatchery in 1875, then began to construct hatcheries throughout the state. The Saranac hatchery was completed in 1885. The Cold Spring hatchery on Fourth Lake was constructed later the same year. In 1887 the Cold Spring hatchery was relocated to Old Forge just below the dam. At first native trout roe were collected and raised to fingerlings in the hatcheries. As time passed native fish were supplemented with brown and rainbow trout as well as a host of other non-native species.

Fish fingerlings were usually transported from hatchery to lake in five-gallon metal cans. The weight of these cans restricted where stocking could occur. Large-scale stocking could only take place in the reasonable vicinity of wagon roads or railroads. The state hatcheries provided fish fingerings for free but depended on private individuals, often sportsmen’s clubs, to do the actual fish planting.

Between 1887 and 1939 the Rap-Shaw Fishing Club was located north of the Beaver River Flow alternately at Witchhopple Lake then Beaverdam Pond near the Red Horse Trail. Club members fished the many lakes and ponds of this area. By the early 1920s even in this remote area fish stocks were in steep decline. Quite naturally Club members wanted to restock these waters but there was no road access. The trip to the Club involved a train ride to Beaver River Station, a wagon ride to the Beaver River, then a series of boat crossings and hikes spanning 8 miles to the camp.

In 1923 the Rap-Shaw Club board of directors sent a letter to the Conservation Commission requesting the State stock trout in Walker, Clear and Little Rock Lakes, all of which were on the Forest Preserve. The Conservation Commission did not act on the Club’s request so early that summer the Club did some minimal stocking of chub and sunfish in Clear Lake. For the next eight years the Club lobbied the Conservation Commission with no success. In the meantime the number of fish in their favorite lakes continued to decline.

Merille Phoenix and his early floatplane on Witchhopple Lake in 1932 with Hartnett on the pontoonIn 1931 Dennis E. Hartnett, a long-time Rap-Shaw Club member and fanatical fisherman, devised a solution to the fish transportation problem. He convinced fellow Club members to allocate $150 to cover the cost of hiring a floatplane to fly the heavy cans to the remote lakes. Hartnett then arranged for early Adirondack aviator Merill Phoenix to do the job. On August 8, 1932 Phoenix’s plane called at the state fish hatchery at Old Forge and picked up as many as twenty cans of fingerling trout at a time. Club members met the plane at the lakes near their camp and stood in the cold water up to their hips to temper the fingerlings before releasing them. Phoenix made seven flights that first year planting fish in lakes favored by Club fishermen including Big Crooked, Willie, Walker and Clear Lakes. Hartnett was on the plane for several of the trips. Legend has it that when flying over the camps at Beaver River Station Hartnett dropped notes and dollar bills to the kids below in empty tomato cans.

hartnett as his alter ego katishWord spread quickly that the Club had successfully used an airplane for fish stocking. Articles praising the idea appeared in newspapers throughout the state and in national sporting magazines. The next summer Clarence Chamberlin, the famous barnstormer and trans-Atlantic flyer, visited the Rap-Shaw Club at Hartnett’s invitation to recognize the Club’s contribution to aviation history.

Hartnett was by all accounts quite an eccentric. He lived in New York City where he sold musical instruments and taught mandolin, banjo and guitar at his Hartnett National Music Studio. He would often spend the entire summer season, about a month, at the Rap-Shaw Club. When at camp he insisted everyone call him “the Professor” or “Katish,” a colloquialism meaning stylish. Professor Hartnett felt any newcomer to the Rap-Shaw Club should have a memorable welcome. One of the simpler tricks he used to initiate new guests was to throw two buckets tied together up on the tin roof of the unsuspecting guest in the middle of the night and let them clatter to the ground. He organized musical entertainment at camp, even convincing staid upstate businessmen to dress in women’s clothes to dance.

The Rap-Shaw Club continued annually stocking fish by floatplane through 1938. They stopped because in the late 1930s the Conservation Commission finally started to use airplanes for fish stocking throughout the Adirondacks but instead of landing floatplanes, they simply dumped fingerling fish from the air. Aerial fish stocking of remote waters is now routinely used not only in the Adirondacks but also throughout the world. It all started in 1932 with those seven floatplane flights in the backwoods of the Beaver River country.

Photos from above: Dennis E Hartnett, Merill Phoenix and his early floatplane on Witchhopple Lake in 1932 with Hartnett on the pontoon, and Dennis E Hartnett as Katish, courtesy Rap-Shaw photography collection.

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Ed Pitts is a retired attorney and Administrative Law Judge who lives in Syracuse, NY. He is a past president of the Rap-Shaw Club, an Adirondack sportsman’s club founded in 1896, now located on an island in the Stillwater Reservoir. He has a life-long interest in local history especially of the Adirondacks and Central New York.

15 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Very interesting. In the 19th century the world human population finally breached the 1 billion mark. Now we are approaching 8 billion. At some point, Mankind will realize they are not the supreme species, but the most destructive species. NYS fish stocking is just supplying cannon fodder in an attempt to make us feel fisheries are under ‘control’. We must heed the canaries in the coal mine that are dying daily.

    • Ed Pitts says:

      There is no doubt that 19th century sportsmen did not appreciated the limits on natural resources. A lot has changed for the better since then. Conservation efforts do make a big difference. I guess I’m just not a pessimist when it comes to the future of the Adirondack wilderness.

    • Paul says:

      Get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? Not sure what this fish stocking story has to do with the other parts of the world where the human population is growing. Here where we do all this stocking there is very little if really any population growth. I assume that you think that all wildlife management or even things like agriculture are examples of our terrible supremacy.

      • Boreas says:

        More people = more resources needed. This includes recreational fishing. Doesn’t matter where you live – it’s where people from around the country go to fish. I stopped fishing because the streams I can still wade in the Park became too crowded.

        “I assume that you think that all wildlife management or even things like agriculture are examples of our terrible supremacy.”

        Not all, no. But we have to live within our means. We are not currently doing that.

        • Paul says:

          The St. Regis ponds where I do lots of my fishing are pretty quiet. I think I see fewer people fishing there than I have in the past. My guess is most kids are playing video games rather than getting out doors to fish. Same goes for hunting – seems like a dying breed. Too bad. These are the folks that learn to appreciate what we have outdoors and are interested in protecting it for the next generation. Sportsmen and women are responsible for lots of the protected lands we have now.

        • Paul says:

          Where you see the exploitation I see the potential for preservation. I guess I just see the glass as half full?

        • Paul says:

          Also, your more people = more resources is a far to simple equation. We have things like technology that allow us to do things like grow more food with less land. In the case of modern agriculture we grow far more food with far fewer resources than in the past. The push with organic farming and such is a bit of a step backward but people that are rich like we are in the west are willing to use more resources to get our food a certain way even if it costs the planet more. I buy only local grass fed beef. I am sure it is raised in a way that is pretty taxing to the planet compared to other beef. I’ll admit I am selfish that way!

  2. Jim S says:

    A fintastic piece of fishstory!

  3. Tim-Brunswick says:


    It was “Sportsmen-women” in the early 1900’s that first recognized the depletion of our wildlife resources, including fur, fin and feather. People like Teddy Roosevelt and many other notables clamored for closed seasons and limited takes. They fully understood they were partially and even primarily responsible for extinction of some species (e.g. Passenger Pigeon), took the blame on the chin and stepped up to the plate to correct it. They were, without question, the first true “Conservationists”.

    The Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, which returns “Millions” of dollars annually to States to be used for wildlife resources is only one example of their efforts. In 2012 alone $14,198,793 was funneled into the State of New York > (

    The aforesaid article we are discussing fails to mention that nowadays when our streams are stocked by NYS DEC “fish trucks” it is met at various locations by conservation-minded NYS residents & sportsmen clubs who literally carry the fish from the truck by buckets in many cases to the streams and ponds. I wonder…how many of you have actually “helped” stock trout/fish?

    Many Hikers, Paddlers, Bikers and Rock Climbers enjoy parking space in the ADKs that were at one time obtained as easements by the State of New York through revenue obtained from the sale of hunting/fishing licenses. Perhaps we should have a “Resource Permit” with funds funneled into the maintenance of hiking trails, portage routes, etc., etc.

    Thank you

    • John Warren says:

      “It was “Sportsmen-women” in the early 1900’s that first recognized the depletion of our wildlife resources, including fur, fin and feather.”

      No, they were not. This is an old canard, easily dis-proven with a quick search for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (1889) or zoologist Alfred Newton, who was advocating for the protection of species – not just his favorite game – in the 1850s.

      • Paul says:

        NYS had its first restrictions on the number of deer a hunter could harvest in 1788.

    • Boreas says:


      No, I have never hand-stocked fish – primarily because I have never kept fish. Can’t stand the taste! I stopped using bait as a kid because I was inadvertently killing fish. Later, when I started fishing on the Delaware and W. Branch of the Ausable, it was common to catch about as many STREAM BRED brookies as stocked browns and rainbows – in different sections of the river of course. But in later years, brookies, whether wild or stocked, became few and far between. They basically got chased farther up the tributaries by the browns and the fishing pressure. In the ADKs I primarily fished for brookies, but over time lost my mobility to fight my way up tribs.

      But this is about the same time I began to question our trout stocking program, particularly within the Park. If I were King of NY, within the Blue Line, only heritage strain brookies would be stocked in streams, and all would have to be released. The only species that could be taken from streams would be browns and rainbows. I doubt the browns will ever be fished out even without stocking. I also realize the ADKs would never likely return to its former glory as a brook trout heaven. Let the rest of the state/country continue to stock browns if they wish, but I would like the ADK Park to be special with a more robust brook trout fishery. Portions of the Smoky Mtn. NP are managed this way and have built a very nice brook trout fishery. I wish DEC would look at this option within the Park.

    • Boreas says:

      “Perhaps we should have a “Resource Permit” with funds funneled into the maintenance of hiking trails, portage routes, etc., etc.”

      I agree. But in the meantime anyone can buy Habitat/Access stamps.

  4. Charlie S says:

    “Mankind will realize they are not the supreme species..”

    Dream on Boreas!

    • Boreas says:


      I didn’t say it would be any time soon… First we have to agree on the difference between fact & fiction.