By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
CASSVILLE, Mo. —
Dustin Back patted dry the 4-pound rainbow trout that I cradled like a football and told me to angle her tail toward the catch basin.
“Now apply just a little pressure with your hand,” Back said as he gently inserted a hypodermic needle into her body cavity near the pelvic fin. I did, and as Beck applied his own pressure — about 2 1/2 pounds — to inject pure oxygen into the cavity, 4,000 eggs the color of a school bus came out in a gush.
“You can figure about 1,000 eggs per pound of fish,” Back explained.
I transferred the trout to a bucket of shallow water on a scale.
“She’s weighing in at 4.62 pounds, so that’s gotta be about 4,000 eggs,” he said, noting it on a spreadsheet.
Her eggs would join thousands of others before the morning was through at Roaring River State Park’s trout hatchery. After using milt extracted from the males in the hatchery’s broodstock to fertilize the eggs, the wait is on.
One year from now — Opening Day in 2014 — they will be just the right size to release into Roaring River, where they will live the remainder of their days waiting for caddis flies to hatch and avoiding anglers attempting to hook them for their dinner plates.
I am one of those anglers.
I first fished the banks of Roaring River with my husband 13 years ago. I was not quite five months pregnant with our first son. Five years later, our second son would join us in a backpack I bought especially for such outings. Now, our boys fish the banks with us.
But we’ve never known how trout get to our favorite pools along the stream. We know they come from the hatchery, but beyond that, it’s vague.
To find out, I embarked on a yearlong project that will take me not just inside the hatchery for a quick tour, but into a hands-on effort to breed, rear and release trout into the wild.
Although not native to the Ozarks, trout have become big business in Missouri, so big that Missouri’s director of state parks, Bill Bryan, has declared 2013 “The Year of the Trout.”
Some 100,000 anglers visit Roaring River State Park each year. An estimated 22 percent of them are from out of state. Anglers mean visitors for nearby restaurants, fishing lodges, gas stations and stores. Anglers mean jobs for local youths, who work seasonally throughout the park and at the hatchery, and for the area women who work for Tim’s Fly Shop tying flies.
On Friday, thousands of anglers will line up elbow to elbow along the banks of Roaring River for the tradition known as Opening Day, the beginning of catch-and-keep trout season. Thousands more will do the same at other trout parks in Missouri. Opening Day, which is always March 1, has become a tradition for countless area anglers and their families.
The season will continue through Oct. 31.
“We need to produce 250,000 trout per season,” said hatchery manager Paul Spurgeon, who takes that responsibility seriously despite his lack of personal interest in trout fishing. He’s been with the parks department 28 years, the past three at Roaring River. “It’s a conveyor belt of fish, and there are a lot of variables that can get in the way and shut the whole thing down.”
Rainbow trout spawn — or release eggs and sperm — earlier in their lives than most other trout species, at about 2 years old. During a spawning season, a single female rainbow can produce 200 to 8,000 eggs. Of eggs that are fertilized in the wild, only a few survive to become mature adults, the rest fall prey to large insects, amphibians, water pollution and mature trout.
Because trout aren’t native — they were brought here in the late 1800s from California — spawning is done with human assistance.
Starting in early January and continuing every week to 10 days, the park’s broodstock of 800 to 900 males and females is checked and sorted. Eggs have a narrow window in which they can be fertilized.
“We check to see if they’re ripe. If they are, they’re soft and you can give ’em a squeeze. If not, they’re hard. Once they’re ready, the eggs will almost come out,” Spurgeon said.
Feb. 13 was chosen for the park’s third spawning of the season, a sunny, blue-sky day auspicious for two reasons: It’s Spurgeon’s 53rd birthday and the day before Valentine’s Day. Because we are there to create new life, the two holidays generate plenty of fodder for jokes among the hatchery crew.
There are six of us: five men, one woman. Of the men, four are Cassville natives who grew up fishing at the park.
“It’s a dream job,” said Cody Cantwell, 21. Brad Farwell, 27, is the assistant hatchery manager, and Caleb Beuterbaugh, 23, along with Back, 25, round out the crew.
Shielded from the 58-degree spring water by hip waders, raincoats and rubber boots, we begin with the males: Outside in a sunny spot near the brood pool, the crew has set up a waist-high plastic trough filled with MS-222 — an anesthetic that relaxes the trout.
Farwell, Beuterbaugh and Cantwell take turns throughout the morning netting about five males at a time that we put into the trough, then carry one by one into the hatchery’s main building.
There, Back is waiting at the bottom of the steps, holding three test tubes at a time in one hand to collect the milt. He pours the milt into plastic bags, to which he adds pure oxygen before sealing them and placing them in a cooler. We have one hour for the milt to remain at its highest potency level.
“Ready for the females,” he tells us.
Again, we net the trout, relax them in the trough, then carry them one by one down the steps to Back.
Rows of Dixie cups are waiting, lined up on a low table. For each female we bring in, Spurgeon directs us to first gently squeeze the trout in his direction so that he can catch ovarian fluid samples in the cups.
“We run diagnostic tests once a year to see if our broodstock is carrying any diseases,” Spurgeon tells me. Once extracted, the fluid is sent to Auburn University for testing.
If the hatchery is given the all-clear, it is certified as spawning disease-free fish. If not, the trout are vaccinated.
“There are a few diseases that would close us down if left untreated,” Spurgeon said.
After that, Spurgeon picks up an unlikely tool: a short piece of deer antler to which a petri dish is attached.
“This is what hatcheries everywhere use,” he said. “Seriously, it’s a tradition.”
Using the antler as a handle and the petri dish as a shallow catch basin, he directs me to squeeze a few eggs out so he can determine whether they are overripe, indicated as an opaque pasta color rather than the brilliant gold-orange of just-right eggs.
When they are overripe, I am directed to finish extracting them into a discard bucket.
“If you do this long enough, you can almost tell by the coloration, just by looking at it, whether the eggs are going to be good and about how many you’ll get,” Back said.
I’m nervous, and the trout wiggles, and I drop her. They assure me it’s OK — all the guys have done it at least once.
In another sample, the ovarian fluid comes out red — there is blood in it, which means one of her ovaries burst.
“We have to cull her out,” Back tells me. “We send her to the river. You might see her Opening Day.”
Such is the case with broodstock that weigh more than 6 pounds — lunkers, they’re called.
“The larger fish just don’t take getting knocked out as much,” Back said.
When a tray is full of eggs, Farwell adds distilled water to one of the plastic bags of milt. The distilled water, a close match to ovarian fluid, activates the sperm. He then pours it over the tray of eggs and directs me to mix them by hand. It takes little effort to stir the pea-sized, delicate orbs. They are bold, beautiful and turning into future babies right before my eyes. I am awestruck.
“Congratulations,” Spurgeon tells me with a smile. “You’ve just made 60,000 babies. And none of them will look like you.”
The newly fertilized eggs are poured with spring water into a plastic bucket with a tight-fitting lid — the kind a painter might use — and allowed to harden in a water-filled indoor raceway for a few hours.
The eggs absorb the water, become round and firm and seal themselves off. The eggs are then poured into a transparent incubator jar, through which spring water flows to keep them from sticking together.
Water temperature plays a role in how soon our eggs will hatch. At Roaring River, the water temperature is 58 degrees year-round, so eggs take about 21 to 22 days to hatch. At the Shepherd of the Hills hatchery near Branson, where the water is cooler, they take about 28 days.
But first, the eggs must develop a tiny eye. If all goes well, that should happen at Roaring River on Wednesday. I’ll be there on Friday to cover Opening Day, and will peek in at them then.
Three months later they will be large enough to leave the hatchery for the outdoor raceways, where visitors to the park help feed them.
Meanwhile, Spurgeon assures me his crew will take good care of them. A hatchery crew is on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“There’s so much care, constant care, involved,” he said. “It’s not just throwing ’em in a thing and watching ’em grow for a year. A lot goes into it and a lot can go wrong, and you don’t want to call your boss and tell him you killed all the fish for next year.”
“There’s a lot of science behind the scenes that most people don’t know about or won’t ever see. But it’s what keeps those trout in the river, and people coming back.”
Roaring River record
The Missouri state record rainbow trout — 18 pounds, 1 ounce — was taken by Jason Harper, of Neosho, on Aug. 14, 2004, at Roaring River State Park. The state record brown trout — 28 pounds, 12 ounces — was caught by Scott Sandusky, of Arnold, at Lake Taneycomo in 2009.