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July 2008

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Poudre River hatchery celebrates 60 years ... and plays key role in restoring healthy fishery

By Cherry Sokoloski
North Forty News

Contrary to fish tales being circulated, the Poudre River State Fish Hatchery is alive and well. Located 40 miles up the Poudre Canyon on Colorado Highway 14, the facility is celebrating its 60th year in operation.

Not only is the hatchery open, but it's steadily expanding and improving under the leadership of Arlene Ganek, manager of the facility and a 30-year veteran there. For instance, a brand new hatchery building opened in May, bringing with it new possibilities for the future, and two new water wells supply the hatchery with disease-free water.

The so-called Poudre Unit, run by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, has been instrumental in reestablishing the greenback cutthroat, a once-threatened fish that is the only trout native to Colorado waters. Greenback cutthroat eggs are collected and fertilized at the Poudre Unit, then shipped off to another hatchery where they are hatched and raised to fingerling size. These 2- to 3-inch cuts are then stocked from airplanes in mountain lakes.

The Poudre Unit is also playing a critical role in solving the whirling-disease dilemma. This spring, Ganek said, the facility produced 1.3 million Hofer-cross eggs. The Hofer strain of rainbow, a German import, is extremely resistant to whirling disease, so it's helping to reestablish healthy, reproducing rainbow trout populations in Colorado.

From a fisherman's standpoint, the Hofers are a welcome addition to the creel because they're much larger than Colorado River 'bows.

Whirling disease can be blamed for false rumors about the Poudre Unit's demise. Since it opened in 1948, the facility had been a rearing unit, where fry were raised to catchable size. But, after the disease was discovered at the hatchery in 1988, the earthen ponds that held young fish had to be taken out of production. These ponds provided a good environment for the whirling-disease parasite - thus a bad environment for raising fish. Without the ponds, many assumed the facility was dead.

DOW officials did strongly consider closing the Poudre Unit because of whirling disease. Instead, they decided to think outside the box, and they came up with a new mission for the high-mountain facility. In 1998, it became primarily a brood fish operation. The Poudre Unit keeps mature fish on the premises, collects and fertilizes their eggs, then ships the eggs to 10 other hatcheries in the state. At those facilities, eggs are incubated until the fish hatch; then the fry are either stocked or raised to catchable size.

The Poudre Unit produces four million to six million eggs each spring. To keep everything running smoothly, Ganek and Marde Hersh live on the premises year-round. Other staffers include Jackie Matzner and Cliff Snyder. Snyder, a former manager of the DOW's Poudre and Pueblo hatcheries, just couldn't stay away from the fish when he retired in 2001, so he now works at the Poudre Unit as a seasonal employee.

Ideal location

The upper Poudre River is an ideal location for a brood fish operation, Ganek noted. The fish thrive on the cold river water, which is diverted to the facility. The natural conditions encourage fish to maintain their natural spawning cycles. Each female produces eggs just once a year at the Poudre Unit; at some other facilities, where water is warmer, they can spawn slowly for several months.

The beauty of being a brood fish operation is that whirling disease can be circumvented. Even though the adult brooders are whirling-disease positive, the eggs will remain disease-free if they are incubated in disease-free water. With the new hatchery building, that's now possible at the Poudre site.

Before the Poudre Unit had its own hatchery and well water, fertilized eggs had to be rushed to other hatcheries for incubating, because river water - which is contaminated with whirling-disease parasites - could not be used for this purpose.

Some of the eggs are now kept at the Poudre hatchery. In fact, for the first time this year, the staff will be able to raise its own brood fish from eggs. Before, brooders were brought in from other state facilities.

The Poudre Unit hasn't completely given up its function as a rearing unit. This year, about 50,000 rainbows will be raised to 10 inches, considered catchable size. These will be stocked in Front Range lakes such as Flatiron and Carter. In the past, when the facility operated strictly as a rearing unit, it produced 350,000 to 400,000 catchables every year.

Fishermen who catch stocked fish in Colorado will likely appreciate all the effort required to raise these fish. At the Poudre Unit, it takes one and one-half to two years to grow a rainbow or cutthroat to catchable size. Newly hatched fish must be fed by hand six times a day.

Big numbers

Rainbows spawn in April and May, while cutthroat trout produce their eggs in June. The Poudre Unit currently has brood fish for three types of rainbows --Colorado River, Hofer and Tasmanian - and two strains of greenback cutthroat.

On the day this reporter visited the facility, 38 female greenbacks were stripped of their eggs - resulting in 34,916 eggs or an average of 919 eggs per fish.

Greenbacks are not the champion egg producers at the facility, however. The newcomers, Hofer rainbows, average 3,000 eggs per female. Tasmanian rainbows average 2,000 eggs per fish.

The Poudre River State Fish Hatchery is open 365 days a year, and the public is welcome to visit from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day - although the new hatchery building is off-limits. The Poudre Unit is home to at least 60,000 fish at any one time. Youngsters can even feed the fish - with food costing 25 cents per handful.

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