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FEAR AND LOAFING: Boy Meets Gill (Fish stocker)

As a fish stocker, our reporter earns a sea-minus

 

Click on the images to enlarge them...




Yanking them out of water isn't the only fish job there is. In Nevada, people get paid to put them in, too. Every Friday, the Nevada Division of Wildlife stocks them in lakes and urban ponds across the valley for fishermen to catch.

We're at Willow Beach, Ariz., where a federal hatchery provides space for the state agency to raise rainbow trout. (The state raised them at the Lake Mead Hatchery until 2007, when the water became too low -- and, therefore, warm -- for the fish to continue partying.)

Like the humans who catch them, rainbow trout don't really belong in the desert. They can't reproduce here, the summers are way too hot, and the schools of fish here consistently rank worst in the nation. (Calm down, NDOW. That last part is just a joke.)

"Maybe you shouldn't grab so many at a time," says conservation technician Anthony Miller, one of three other fish hatchery employees working this haul.

After using a heavy wooden screen to herd 2,000 trout up to the approximate density of drunken spring-breakers in Lake Havasu, I have begun scooping them out of the pen, 40 at a time, into a tanker truck. The trout, about 1 year old, weigh about a pound each.

"Easy," Miller says, as a dozen fly out of my net, one or two flopping back into the wrong fish pens.

Miller, 48, is a former gold miner from Montana who moved to Las Vegas 10 years ago after his wife landed work with a gaming company. He earned a master's degree in water resource management from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and now earns about three-quarters of what he did mining. (New hires start between $10 to $15 an hour.)

"I have a real passion for the outdoors and wildlife," Miller says. "I grew up hunting, fishing and hiking."

After adjusting to the summers -- which he says at first made him think he "died and went to hell" -- Miller says he absolutely loves his job now. (This distinguishes Miller from me. I don't catch, eat or enjoy fish in any way. I don't even like the rock band Phish.)

A winding haul 12 miles north along the Colorado River brings us to Hemenway Harbor at Lake Mead. Forty fishermen wait here, like schoolkids for the ice-cream truck. Alerted to the stocking by the wildlife division's Web site, they apparently think that finding Nemo in this manner represents something significantly more sporting than shooting him in a barrel.

"Cool it," Miller says, explaining that "we need their permit money." (State wildlife officials raised more than $2 million from fishing licenses alone last year, providing most of the funding for its hatchery and stocking programs.)

Hatchery technician Rich Crandall releases a stream of trout, using the pressure exerted by gravity on 1,200 gallons of water, into what resembles a firehose. (If ever a blaze breaks out requiring fish to douse, this is the truck you want to have pull up.)

"Out further!" Crandall yells.

The fish are bunching up near the truck end of the hose, because I have not been able to walk it far enough into the water. The tube is now my safety line, as my entire strength is required not to fall into the silt at the bottom of the lake. (Later, Crandall offers some advice. Should I ever return, he says to bring "muscles and a stepladder.")

The kink in the hose is allowing dozens of the trout to follow their salmonlike instinct and swim back up the makeshift stream and into the truck.

"Little parts of it are challenging," Miller says. "But at the end of the day, you're sitting at the bar having a beer and people are like, 'What did you do today?' You can tell them you stocked 1,000 trout into Lake Mead."

Of course, people are probably asking Miller that question from across the bar. Fishy is not adequate to describe my stink right now. It's more like fish toilety.

"That's why we have showers at work," Miller replies.

In addition to my stink, I have turned distinctively orange from exposure. Fifty-five degrees may sound warm. But when it's water, it performs a consistent 43-degree suck of all the heat from human bodies submerged in it.

"Did you ever have an Oompah-Loompah on the payroll?" inquires R-J videographer Justin Yurkanin.

My co-workers finally clear the fish jam, and my end of the hose begins jumping like a burst pinata. The freed fish hang around for a second or two, a little stunned by the rough ride, then dart off.

Within seconds, nylon lines fly out of the water attached to flopping fins.

"Yes!" one fisherman screams.

The rainbow trout that don't get served with tartar sauce, by the way, get gobbled up within two weeks by striped bass. (The real sport fishermen of Lake Mead, these predators at least give their prey a running start -- like Freddie gives new teenagers entering REM sleep in "Nightmare on Elm Street.")

"You're not leaving, are you?" Miller asks.

This is only the day's first stocking. The boys also will replenish Boulder Beach and a place called Crawdad Cove. But not with me.

"Fine," Miller says, "miss all the fun!"

I did take something significant away from this experience, though: a sinus infection requiring antibiotics.

Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.

 
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