Pathogens and predators -- these are the primary threats to the thousands and thousands of fingerlings that are raised at the Hotchkiss National Fish Hatchery.
Craig Eaton has managed the facility since last August. It's his eighth hatchery since joining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He previously worked in Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington and Arkansas.
Located about three miles south of Hotchkiss and a half mile east of Lazear, the hatchery was established in 1967 as part of the Colorado River Storage Project Act. The hatchery's cold, clean water supply comes from the adjacent Tommy Dowell Spring, created in the 1930s by an earthquake near Salt Lake City, whose tremors also affected the Hotchkiss area. The spring has a constant water temperature of 56°F and flows from 2,200 to 5,000 gallons per minute, providing the ideal conditions for trout production.
The hatchery rears rainbow trout for stocking Colorado and New Mexico reservoirs and federal water developments.
Viable, disease-free rainbow trout eggs are obtained through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Broodstock Program. The eggs are placed in one of the hatchery's 24 nursery tanks. After the eggs hatch, the young fish are placed into concrete tanks in the hatchery building and fed special trout diets. Feeding is first done manually, then automatic feeders take over. When the fish are 1 1/2 to 2 inches in length, they are moved to outside raceways where they grow to the proper size for stocking.
Delivery of the eggs to stocking of the fish takes about a year. Optimally, Eaton said, the fish will grow an inch a month.
In addition to helping restore native aquatic populations and enhancing recreational fishing, the hatchery allows anglers to access the North Fork of the Gunnison River to fish along the shore bordering the hatchery. Picnicking and bird watching are other popular activities at the hatchery. Blue heron, eagles and ravens patiently wait for an opportune moment to snatch up a snack from the raceways, despite protective netting installed as a deterrent.
The hatchery is located on 58 acres of forest surrounding the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The river itself is not incorporated into the operation of the hatchery, primarily because trout are sight feeders. During spring runoff, when the water is muddy, Eaton said the fingerlings would not be able to see the food tossed in their direction, so they're confined to the raceways until they're ready for stocking.
Two years before actual stocking, fish management biologists advise the Hotchkiss manager of the size and number of rainbow trout that are needed to stock each reservoir. Several factors are used to determine these needs: time of year, size of the reservoir, anticipated angler use and available food supplies. The manager then develops a program for raising fish to stock in each reservoir.
When the fish are ready for stocking, they are pumped by mechanical loader into a distribution truck. The water in the truck's tank when kept cool and well supplied with oxygen can hold large numbers of trout for many hours.
The hatchery has two large capacity fish transportation trucks that are primarily used to distribute trout to their destination. These two trucks are capable of holding 15,000 to 20,000 8- to 10-inch trout each. Eaton said he always uses the word "about" when referring to the number of fish stocked in any reservoir. Because it is impossible to count the constantly darting fish, weight and water displacement are used to quantify distribution numbers.
Annually, the hatchery distributes over 700,000 trout through its fleet, which also includes a smaller stocking truck.
Blue Mesa, Crawford, Ridgway and Silver Jack are among the lakes stocked with trout from Hotchkiss. For Outdoor Heritage Day, a thousand 10-inch trout were placed in Confluence Lake in Delta.
When asked about the possibility of bringing back Huck Finn Days Fishing Derby, Eaton said that's not a project his staff is able to take on without volunteer assistance. Perhaps a "Friends of the Hotchkiss National Fish Hatchery" group could be formed for that purpose, he said.
It takes volunteers and many partners to keep the fish hatchery operating. Eaton works closely with state and federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which monitors the water flowing from the raceways into the North Fork of the Gunnison River. A series of abatement ponds are employed to allow the nitrogen-rich fish waste to settle. The resulting fertilizer is available to the public; call 872-3170 to inquire about availability.
Visitors are invited to stop by the fish hatchery for a close-up view of the fish production process. The visitor center is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Educational programs/tours are provided for the public and school groups during business hours when scheduled in advance. A short, wheelchair-accessible, self-guided tour is available at the hatchery as well.