WALHALLA — Every year, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources stocks a remote Upstate river with trout: rainbow, brown, and eastern brook.
But the Chattooga River, which comprises more than 20 miles of the northernmost border between South Carolina and Georgia, isn’t an easy place to reach. It was declared a “wild and scenic” river by the U.S. Forest Service decades ago and after that happened, several accesses to the waterway via old logging roads were closed.
That’s where helicopters come in.
Every year around this time, wildlife officials with the help of the Forest Service uses a chopper that’s typically a firefighting tool to get there.
Instead of dropping water to squelch a blaze, the craft lifts an orange basket filled with fish into the harder-to-reach stretches of the stream. The bottom of the “Bambi basket” is synched, and the pilot of the helicopter can release the line that keeps it closed so that fish and water spill into the stream below.
“It’s an amazing design with all the moving parts that it works as well as it does,” said Dan Rankin, DNR’s lead trout biologist.
One load in the basket might carry 300 to 400 larger fish, Rankin said. Loads of smaller fingerlings that are not yet adults might number as many as 1,000 per drop.
The trip requires a deft touch, as the pilot has to carefully maneuver the basket hanging several feet below the helicopter, over pines, hemlocks, and oaks, and finally atop the Chattooga. The annual drops support popular fly-fishing spots at Burrells Ford Campground and near Highway 28. Anglers who pick other spots on the river largely have to hike there.
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