‘Your fishing is our mission’: Drought adds to hatchery and stocking challenges

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

The “daily bag limit” for Colorado Parks and Wildlife Technician Chris Ahlgrim is up to 25,000 rainbow trout in a single morning.

That’s because Ahlgrim is part of the three-person on-site team responsible for caring for and rearing some 750,000 rainbow and brown trout each year at the hatchery and rearing unit. of Finger Rock State trout located three miles south of Yampa. 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, techs Ahlgrim and Tom Bowers carefully captured 20,000 3-inch fry rainbow trout in nurseries to transport them to Yamcolo Reservoir. Each pound of fish included about 100 tiny wriggling trout about 7 months old.



Next, Ahlgrim used a crowding screen to slowly push larger, catchable fish to one end of a long concrete fish-breeding cable tray. The technician caught and loaded approximately 5,000 10-inch trout in special tanks onto a hatchery truck heading to Big Creek Reservoir near Walden.

CPW Technician Chris Ahlgrim herds catchable 10-inch trout into a wireway at the Finger Rock State Trout Hatchery and Rearing Unit on June 9, 2022.
Suzie Romig / Steamboat Pilot and Today

Along the way, the tech stopped at Steamboat Springs to drop off 280 catchable fish at Casey’s Pond. Family fishing grounds at Casey’s and Fetcher’s Ponds are stocked approximately six times a year.



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

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

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

Trout raised at Finger Rock are healthy, but drought conditions in northwest Colorado create additional challenges for hatchery practices. Staff stock the lakes as early in the day and season as possible when the water is cold, starting by breaking ice from the reservoir in mid-March, Espinoza said.

In 2021, stocking started about a month earlier than usual. Deliveries always have a back-up plan in case water conditions aren’t favorable for fish when a truck arrives, Espinoza said.

The hatchery uses water from an upstream spring in 46-degree cold, but drought has helped reduce spring flows in southern Routt County, water officials’ report. In order to alleviate the drought, the hatchery adds oxygen when water levels are low, from winter to early spring. A second system is on order to add oxygen throughout long runs, the official explained.

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

Finger Rock Hatchery staff work closely with CPW Aquatic Biologist Billy Atkinson, who submits stocking orders for area water bodies. CPW biologists are closely monitoring water levels, temperatures and pH levels in the reservoirs as drought conditions complicate stocking decisions, Atkinson said.

In drier years, water levels in reservoirs used for irrigation can vary significantly, which can influence stocking rates. The increase in fishing visitors during COVID-19 has increased the number of stocks in some highly touristed lakes, Atkinson said.

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

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

Hatchery staff will continue to stock trout through early October, including releasing 187,000 fish of fishable size this summer. Downstream from the feeder ponds 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 ranging from schoolchildren to hawks and bald eagles.

CPW has been operating hatcheries since 1881 and carries the motto “Your Fishing is Our Mission”. State employees grow, hatch, rear and store more than 90 million fish annually to improve angling opportunities and aid in efforts to restore native fish species. If fish populations are not supported by hatchery discards, the population would be too low to sustain a fishable population, according to the CPW.

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

Finger Rock Hatchery hosts many 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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