‘Your fishin’ is our mission’: Drought adds to challenges for hatchery, fish stocking | SteamboatToday.com

‘Your fishin’ is our mission’: Drought adds to challenges for hatchery, fish stocking

Finger Rock State Trout Hatchery and Rearing Unit Manager Mitch Espinoza pours 3-inch fingerling trout into a specialized cooler on the back of a hatchery truck on June 9, 2022.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The “daily catch limit” for Colorado Parks & Wildlife Technician Chris Ahlgrim can be as high as 25,000 rainbow trout in just one morning.

That’s because Ahlgrim is part of the three-man, on-site team in charge of nursing and growing some 750,000 rainbow and brown trout each year at Finger Rock State Trout Hatchery and Rearing Unit located three miles south of Yampa. The well-cared-for trout grow — protected from predators and disease — from eggs to catchable 10-inch fish in about 18 to 20 months, Hatchery Manager Mitch Espinoza said.

One morning in early June, technicians Ahlgrim and Tom Bowers carefully netted 20,000 3-inch fingerling rainbow trout from nurse basins to transport to Yamcolo Reservoir. Each pound of fish included about 100 tiny, wriggling trout that are some 7 months old.

Then, Ahlgrim used a crowding screen to slowly push larger, catchable fish into one end of a long, concrete, fish-rearing raceway. The technician netted and loaded about 5,000 10-inch trout into special tanks on a hatchery truck headed for Big Creek Reservoir near Walden.

CPW Technician Chris Ahlgrim gathers 10-inch catchable trout in a raceway at Finger Rock State Trout Hatchery and Rearing Unit on June 9, 2022.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

On the way, the technician stopped in Steamboat Springs to deposit 280 catchable fish at Casey’s Pond. The family-friendly fishing spots of Casey’s and Fetcher ponds are stocked about six times a year.

The hatchery complex was established in 1948 as one of 19 aquatic hatcheries in the CPW system. The local hatchery may be located in the most beautiful setting of all the hatcheries, said Espinoza, who has worked there since 2001.

Trout eggs collected and fertilized at CPW brood hatcheries arrive at Finger Rock where they are raised in troughs, tanks and raceways. The local hatchery raises subspecies of rainbow trout as well as German brown trout. Trout raised in hatcheries have an 85% to 95% survival rate compared to 5% to 10% survival rate in the wild, according to CPW.

The 3-inch trout fingerlings are about seven months old.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The trout raised at Finger Rock are healthy, yet the drought conditions in Northwest Colorado are creating additional challenges for hatchery practices. The staff stock lakes as early in the day and season as possible when the water is cold, starting by breaking reservoir ice in mid-March, Espinoza said.

In 2021, fish stocking started about one month earlier than usual. The deliveries always have a backup plan in case water conditions are not favorable for the fish when a truck arrives, Espinoza said.

The hatchery utilizes water from an uphill spring at a chilly 46 degrees, but drought has contributed to lower spring flows in south Routt County, water officials report. In order to mitigate for drought, the hatchery operation adds oxygen during lower water levels from winter into early spring. A second system is on order to add oxygen throughout the long raceways, the manager explained.

“With winter low flows and high fish densities, the oxygen demand increases,” Espinoza noted. “Within the last four years, it’s been a little more precarious seeing lower flows due to persistent drought.”

The Finger Rock hatchery staff work closely with CPW Aquatic Biologist Billy Atkinson, who submits stocking orders for water bodies in the region. CPW biologists are keeping a close eye on water levels, temperatures and PH levels in reservoirs as drought complicates fish stocking decisions, Atkinson said.

In drier years, reservoirs used for irrigation may vary widely in water levels that can influence stocking rates. The increase in fishing visitors during COVID-19 expanded stocking numbers in some tourist-heavy lakes, Atkinson said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Technician Tom Bowers scoops 3-inch trout fingerlings at the Finger Rock State Trout Hatchery and Rearing Unit on June 9, 2022.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“The water situation is a huge consideration for us recently, more so last year,” Espinoza said. “It’s a dynamic system, and every year is a little bit different. There is a lot of planning that goes into every aspect.”

The hatchery staff will continue to stock trout through early October, including releasing 187,000 catchable-sized fish this summer. Downstream of the nurse basins and raceways, a no-fishing settling pond is home to large trout that can be up to 15 years old, Espinoza said. The pond attracts visitors from schoolchildren to hawks and bald eagles.

CPW has operated fish hatcheries since 1881 and sports the motto “Your fishin’ is our mission.” The state staffers breed, hatch, rear and stock more than 90 million fish per year to enhance angling opportunities and to help in native fish species recovery efforts. If fish populations are not supported by hatchery releases, the population would be too low to support a fishable population, according to CPW.

“Although Colorado has a number of wild trout streams that support self-sustaining populations, the vast majority of the state’s waters are stocked with fish that were raised in hatcheries,” according to CPW.

The Finger Rock hatchery hosts numerous school groups each year and is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. For more information, CPW.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Hatcheries.aspx

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