As 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.
In 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.
Word 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.