Rifle hatchery: ‘Our mission is your fishin’ "
Aspen, CO Colorado
RIFLE, Colo. ” Just past the threshold of the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery office a sign reads, “Our mission is your fishin’.”
And they’re not kidding.
The state’s largest trout-producing hatchery is located about 15 miles north of Rifle at the end of Highway 325 in the heart of Rifle Falls State Park. It produces roughly 1 million catchable trout and an additional 2.5 million sub-catchable trout each year.
It’s all hatchery manager Dave Capwell can do to keep up with the anglers pulling fish out of nearby lakes and streams nearly as fast as he and his crew of eight full-time Division of Wildlife employees can stock them.
“We raise and stock fish so people can get their limit and get on their way,” Capwell said.
Plain and simple. Just like fishing.
They stock waters from Ouray to the Wyoming state line, and from the Utah state line over to the Front Range.
Like the motto reads, their mission is to keep you fishin’.
Mornings at Rifle State Park are fantastic. The sun creeps upward over the mountains to the east, illuminating the grand hills surrounding the hatchery and the waters that run through some of the 40 “raceways” (large concrete troughs), as the fish jump and swim about.
The scene offers a perfect postcard example of why people come to Colorado: great scenery and awesome fishing.
By 8 a.m. the fish have already had their first of four feedings for the day. Capwell and his crew of fish culturists meet to establish the day’s stocking schedules. Shortly after, “catchable” rainbow trout are gathered from the raceways and placed into a 1,200-pound-payload tanker truck. Catchable trout are 10 inches in length or more; anything under is categorized as sub-catchable, Capwell said.
The loaded truck is driven to its destination for stocking. The fish are released into the lakes and streams through a large valve at the base of the tank. The valve is opened and a mixture of fish and water flows from the tank through a pipe roughly a foot in diameter and about eight feet long.
“December and January are really the only months that we aren’t stocking,” Capwell said. “June and July are just hectic for us because everything is thawed out and people are out fishing.”
Streams and lakes unreachable by vehicle are stocked by plane with “fingerlings” usually measuring less than 5 inches in length. Sometimes hatchery workers stock limited access, high altitude lakes by horseback or all-terrain vehicles.
“The fish are pretty durable,” Capwell said. “We’ll pack them up just like gold fish in a plastic sack from Wal-Mart.”
If you ask Dave Capwell if he likes trout fishing he’s likely to tell you a story about a butcher.
“You think a butcher wants to go home and have a steak for dinner?” Capwell asked. “I will still fish for trout, but I like warm-water fishing better.”
Capwell’s been at the Rifle hatchery for 17 years and now, as manager, is required to live in onsite housing. Raising trout has taken the fun out of it for him.
According to Capwell, 75 percent of the hatchery’s duty is to produce catchable rainbow trout.
“Rainbows are stocked in high-use lakes and recreation areas all over the Western Slope,” Capwell said. “We have to keep them stocked because of the high use.”
The other 25 percent of their duty is species restoration, like returning cutthroat trout (Colorado’s native trout) to much of Colorado’s western waters. A Division of Wildlife biologist in Fort Collins contacts Capwell and directs him on where, when and how many trout to stock.
The biologists use information gathered from the Creel Census, which surveys anglers on what they caught and how many. This information gives the DOW an accurate way to measure how many fish are still in the lake. It also indicates how many fish should be stocked.
The Rifle Falls hatchery produces several different strains of trout species, from rainbows to Colorado cutthroat.
“Raising rainbow trout is a lot like raising cattle,” Capwell said.
They hatch, feed and raise them for approximately 10 months, during which time most will grow to be the 10-inch catchable variety.
Capwell said the cutthroat trout was the only native fish to Colorado before settlers inhabited the state. During the early 1900s, settlers stressed fish populations so severely, fish had to be shipped from the Eastern United States, and as far away as England. The streams, ponds and lakes were stocked with other more abundant species such as browns and brook trout. However, this practice offset the natural balance and population of the native cutthroat, Capwell said.
“A lot of what we do is species restoration,” he said. “Trying to repair the damage that has been done over the years.”
In some instances, Capwell said, they’ve reintroduced cutthroat to drainages that were empty of fish for several years.
“Without hatcheries a lot of waters would be barren today,” Capwell said.
The hatchery was built during 1953 and started stocking fish in 1954. Water was directly irrigated from Rifle Creek through the facility at a rate of 40 cubic feet per second when all 24 nursing ponds and 25 raceways were being used.
Today, the facility uses just 12 of the 24 nursing ponds at a time, using only 15 cubic feet per second from a natural spring to lessen the chance of spreading diseases from fish populations in Rifle Creek waters, Capwell said. Using the natural spring water cut the supply by nearly two-thirds but ensured the water was disease-free and made the hatchery more efficient in the process.
“We are still producing about the same amount of fish on one-third of the water by double cropping everything,” Capwell said. “That’s all that’s changed, just the amount of water we use.”
The spring water is a constant 59 degrees Fahrenheit, an optimal temperature for raising trout, according to Capwell.
“If it were in the low 60s it would be even better,” he said. “But this is a good temperature that allows us to raise fish year-round.”
Fingerlings are sometimes stocked in the high altitude lakes because, as Capwell said, “Mother Nature can grow them faster than we can.”
Even so, they give her a pretty good run for her money. All so anglers can still have a limit to catch.
As the motto says, “Our mission is your fishin’.”
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Longtime Aspenite Mark Howard’s new memoir, “A Rewiring Life,” chronicles a life of change across five decades in Aspen.