From hatchery to hook, fish take a long, complicated path |

From hatchery to hook, fish take a long, complicated path

Lisa Huynh
(Montrose) Daily Press/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado
Rainbow trout swim in a concrete tank at the Rifle Hills Fish Hatchery Thursday morning. (William Woody / DAily Press)

MONTROSE, Colo. ” Thousands of rainbow trout 3- to 10- inches long dart across outdoor basins and raceways at the hatchery in Rifle. Their potential to fight emerges when the feeding truck rolls around, throwing countless fish pellets into the water and spurring a finned flurry that resembles popping corn kernels.

In a matter of months, these fish will end up in state waters, where they will grow to become the reason why anglers trek down long trails on hot days, why they glue themselves to seats beside the river to wait or why they drive dozens of miles to their favorite fishing holes.

The journey of these fish destined to be recreational stock may end in an instant with a hook but begins years before the actual catch, in an efficient state system producing millions annually. It’s a process not only about rearing fish but collecting data and analyzing a variety of factors in state waters.

Trout stocked in the Montrose area come from all over the state, including hatcheries at Rifle, Glenwood Springs, Durango, Roaring Judy and Crystal River, said Dan Kowalski, DOW area aquatic biologist for Montrose.

Though raising fish takes place all year, summer is the busiest time as hatchery staff haul thousands of fish all over the state.

On Thursday, the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery scooped buckets of trout into stocking trucks. The facility’s biggest truck hauls up to 4,000 pounds of fish, said David “Doc” Capwell, Rifle hatchery manager.

The fish are crowded into a corner before being netted into buckets in what looks like a “big rolling aquarium,” he said.

Raising fish from an egg to 10 inches takes about 10 months ” give or take a few months depending on the strain, Capwell said.

The facility receives eggs from all over the country and then hatch and rear them to 3 to 12 inches, based on stocking need. Each hatchery raises different fish; at Rifle, one of the largest disease-free trout production facilities in the state, a few different strains of rainbow, brown, brook, splake and cutthroats are raised, Capwell said.

Hatchery staff rest a little after trucking away the fish they raise but there isn’t truly a lull time. “You only get about two weeks of that feeling, then these raceways are full up with fish for all of next year,” he said.

Before requests come into the state’s hatcheries, aquatic biologists and district wildlife managers are sampling area lakes, streams and reservoirs and analyzing variables such as population limiting factors and growth rates of fish.

“We analyze the data and also sometimes collect environmental data about the lakes and streams, as far as their productivity and biological data,” Kowalski said. This data, together with a string of others, factor into whether fish stocking can meet a given fishery management objective.

“It’s a complicated process because raising fish, especially on the scale the state does is an amazingly hard job and we raise a lot of fish in this state,” he said.

A lot of planning goes into making a request, which are generally done a year or two in advance, he said. The hatcheries managers and their staff have to plan for that request within the confines of available space, water, species, eggs, Kowalski said.

In the last few years, especially the past two, Capwell said his operation is also being impacted by increasing diesel and fish feed prices. While the budget remains steady, these prices have struck new highs.

A cooperative effort working within these confines and requests makes stocking possible.

“Our hatchery managers and personnel in this state are absolutely world-class. They raise more fish and raise it more efficiently with more quality fish than could ever be expected,” Kowalski said.

The meticulously orchestrated process to raise millions of fish annually is funded by angling and hunting license revenues ” a point he said is key.

“Colorado has, in my view, a very progressive fish management policy and I think we provide a lot of recreation and a lot of diverse fishing recreation for a lot of people, both in state and out of state,” he said. “Not only are they (hunters and anglers) paying for the sport fish management, they are also paying for the management of our native species that no one else is paying for; things like boreal toads, lynx and other non-game animals that require conservation efforts.”

While fish stocking is a vital piece of the state’s fisheries management, Kowalski said it is a small piece of a bigger process.

“The whole picture involves not only water quality and land management decisions but angling recreation,” he said. “We can manage our fisheries not only through stocking but through appropriate regulations.”

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