Behind Opening Day: Spawning trout at Roaring River
February 24, 2016
Next Tuesday marks arguably one of the most important days of the year for the community: Opening Day of trout season. An occasion so monumental that school is out, because let’s be honest, so many kids would be absent, it wouldn’t be much of a school day anyway.
For a Barry County transplant, Opening Day is a foreign experience that can’t quite be understood. That is, until you actually wake up before dawn, suit up with multiple layers of clothes and head down to the park to hear the opening gun shot as anglers cast their lines into the frigid waters at the park. It’s unforgettable.
This year, I was offered the opportunity to get to experience what is involved behind the scenes of Opening Day, and I jumped on it. Paul Spurgeon, Roaring River Hatchery manager, asked me last fall if I wanted to come down and help them spawn trout when the time came. So I asked myself, do I want to don waders, shove my hands into the icy waters of the breeder pool at the park, and grab big slimy fish to help make the fish that people reel in each year? The answer to that question should be painfully obvious to anyone who knows me.
So, a couple weeks ago, I met Brad Farwell, assistant hatchery manager, at the park to get the full experience. I was joining a team of four: Brad, Roaring River staff Caleb Beuterbaugh and Jake Sizemore, and Brandon Grass, from Bennett Springs’ hatchery.
But before I go any further, let me share some details that many people don’t realize. The planning that goes into the trout you see being reeled in on Opening Day starts two years before that whistle and ceremonial shot go off.
Each year, the hatchery produces anywhere from 150,000 to 400,000 fry that will either be raised at Roaring River or other trout parks throughout the state. Paul said that the parks all work together to make sure each one has what they need for their park, and that trading happens. That was exactly the case with the day I got to help. Brandon was there from Bennett Springs so that he could gain some experience but also to take the fry back with him at the end of the day.
Each year at the park, fish are released for fishers of all experience-levels. The park has Opening Day, but also two Kids’ Fishing Days to instill a love of trout fishing and the outdoors in children and their families. Paul determines how many fish will be released based on what he expects the turnout to be at any given time. This year, he said he expects Opening Day to be pretty packed, but the weather can always change.
Last year, even in the middle of a blizzard, the masses still showed up to the icy banks of Roaring River as part of the annual tradition.
With the park’s loyal following and tourists visiting from all over, it takes a lot of trout to keep the waters abundant with fish hungry for anglers’ bait. On average, the park stocks 265,000 trout in the river annually.
After suiting up in waders, a rain coat and some heavy duty rubber gloves, I was ready to help the crew spawn some trout. Spoiler alert: I was not prepared for this.
At first, Brad told me to watch how they did it, take pictures and ask questions, then I’d have the opportunity to get my hands dirty and help.
The process starts with a tub of icy water pulled from the river that gets treated with a sedative powder. Then, a few fish at a time get pulled from the round breeder pool and dumped into the tub. After a few minutes, as unnerving as it looks, the fish are sedated and floating upside down, ready to be handled and spawned.
The males’ milt is collected first. The fish are taken by hand into the hatchery building one at a time. While one person holds the trout, another person has three test tubes and a towel in the other, After drying off the underside of the trout (sperm is activated by water, causing them to die in a few minutes if there isn’t an egg present), the handler holds him on his side and slightly toward the ground, lifts the tail end and gently squeezes his underside. The other person catches some of the sperm stream in the test tubes, then the fish’s weight is recorded, and he is taken back to the breeder pool to wake up.
So repeat this process around 60 times and you’ve got enough sperm to fertilize a couple buckets of roe. It takes way less time than I’d imagined. It is also much easier than I had mentally prepared myself for, as long as you are able to either hold test tubes with relative steadiness or manage a big slippery trout without dropping it.
Occasionally, a trout would need to be culled, meaning that it would be removed from the breeder pool and moved out as a lunker. Typically, trout are viable as breeders for four or five years. After that, the males sometimes stop producing altogether or it’s extremely watery. Based on how the milt looks and the size of the trout (older fish are bigger), Brad determined whether he would be put back out with the breeders or turned out to pasture (turned out to river, I guess).
As we wound down to the last few trout, I got to try out my skills after watching the experts. After bringing in a few trout, I’ve decided to add “trout spawner” to my future resumes.
After the milt was stored in airtight bags and put in a cooler, we moved on to the females. This process was much more involved and slightly terrifying.
The females were brought in the exact same way, but the process to collect the roe was more involved.
This time, when the handler applies pressure to her underside, a group of orangey yellow eggs are expelled, which Brad caught in a small dish to determine their viability.
If her eggs were determined to be bad, he would decide either to cull the fish out or just have the handler strip all of her eggs into a bucket and put her back in the breeder pool to try again next year.
If the dish of eggs looks good, the trout is taken to a table with a bucket with a hole cut in the lid. A net inside the hole catches all of the eggs as they are expressed. However, most trout need a bit of air injected by a needle into their egg cavity to push them all out. Each female produces anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 eggs at a time.
When it was my turn to inject the air, a look of sheer terror washed over my face, and I think I actually apologized to her. Good news: I didn’t mess up, her eggs were excellent looking, and she was fine in the end and released back to the swirling waters of the pool.
Once a big rubber bowl was filled with roe, it was time to fertilize them, which was pretty simple. I poured the milt in a circle on top of the eggs, Caleb added some salt water, and then I used my hand to stir the eggs until it was all mixed together. Your hand being surrounded by thousands of fish eggs is a surprisingly cool feeling.
The eggs were then added to a big bucket with more water, and then that bucket was set into one of the hatchery’s troughs of water to keep cool. For two hours, we waited.
Next, Brad rinsed the eggs by slowly filling up the bucket with water and pouring off what floated to the top. All of the extra milt and bad eggs floated to the top and eventually, the fertilized eggs were clean.
Next, an iodine solution was added to the bucket to disinfect them. From there, Brad and I counted the eggs to determine how many roe were in a single ounce. By counting them half a dozen times, the numbers could be averaged to determine how many roe were in an ounce. Then, Brad measured the eggs out to find out how many ounces of eggs we had fertilized.
This time, our bucket contained around 67,000 fertilized eggs. It was a huge number for such a small bucket, but they would repeat the process again that day, and they spawn multiple times before spring.
All in all, it took the five of us just a few hours from start to finish. The process was both complex and simplistic all at once. But it was a process that keeps the park going year in and year out.
It will take the fertilized eggs 21 days to hatch. Then, the fry are extremely needy, as most newborns are, needing to be fed hourly for the first couple weeks, meaning the hatchery has to have 24-hour staff. It’ll be up to four months before the fry will be moved outside to continue to grow until next year when they’ll be released into the cool waters for anglers to catch.
Not all of the eggs will hatch. Roaring River’s hatchability numbers are around 60 percent, but parks with cooler waters have higher rates. Some parks spawn twice a year. Some, like Roaring River, just spawn once.
The miracle of nature and the cycle of life is easy to see at the Roaring River hatchery. Every year, the staff is responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives.
When you cast your line into the waters on Opening Day, take a moment to pause and think of what went into your catch.
In the short time I was at the park, I’d helped spawn around 67,000 trout. Much to my disappointment, I wouldn’t be able to follow my babies’ progress over the coming year; this batch went back to Bennett Springs with Brandon. But don’t worry, he promised to let me know how they are doing and send pictures.