CASSVILLE, Mo. —
It begins with a bucket full of eggs the color of a school bus and ends with a quick tug on the line and a flash of silver beneath the surface.
In between is nature, science, math, a bit of luck and a human-led process that is as cyclical as the seasons.
For Missouri Department of Conservation hatchery manager Paul Spurgeon, assistant manager Brad Farwell and resource assistant Dustin Back, raising rainbow trout at Roaring River State Park is as routine for them as writing stories is for a journalist.
Last year, they invited me to join them in raising the fish that will be released for anglers this year.
“We produce 250,000 trout per season,” said Spurgeon. “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.”
Spurgeon has been with the Missouri Department of Conservation for 28 years, the past four at Roaring River.
Farwell, a native of Cassville, grew up fishing at Roaring River from the time he was knee-high. He started working at the hatchery full time in 2010.
“I fish here whenever I can. When I hook one I think it’s pretty funny that I’ve probably handled that same fish 10 or 12 times over its lifetime,” he said.
Back, a resource assistant who started at the hatchery in 2011, is from Galena, Kan., and frequently fishes in bass tournaments on nearby Table Rock Lake. He also serves as the volunteer coordinator at Roaring River.
As for me, I had been angling at the park with my family each year going on 14 years when one day a trout ended up on my dinner plate and I wondered aloud, “How did that get here? I mean, how did it really get there?”
Feb. 13, 2013
We begin. It is not simple.
The male and female brood stock, which we must carry one by one from a plastic trough down the steps of the hatchery’s main building, are slippery, wet, cold and wiggly.
Goal 1: Get milt, or sperm, from the male fish into test tubes and then into plastic zippered bags, where it’s mixed with pure oxygen and placed in a cooler. In one hour, it begins losing its potency.
Goal 2: Get several thousand eggs from each female into a catch basin.
Goal 3: Mix them by hand with distilled water — a close match to ovarian fluid, which then activates the sperm — then pour them with spring water into a plastic bucket where they’ll spend the next few hours. From there, it’s into an incubator jar where they’ll spend the next 22 days before hatching.
Farwell knows exactly how many trout he needs to release each month based on historical data of tag sales from the Roaring River State Park store. Each tag permits anglers to keep four trout per day.
The river is stocked each night, beginning with the kickoff of catch-and-keep season on March 1. Throughout March, the hatchery crew will release 35,000 fish to the river. In April, they’ll stock 22,000, in May, 40,500, and so on. Then comes the highest release number of the year: July, at 45,000.
During catch-and-release season November through February, they’ll release 3,000 more fish every two weeks.
But the numbers game isn’t that simple. When spawning and raising fish, Farwell said they must factor in mortality rates that occur because of disease when the fish are young and still inside the hatchery, and hungry herons and raccoons after they’re moved to water-filled raceways outside.
He said they also must carefully plan how quickly they grow so he can release various broods of them at the appropriate times. The hatchery crew spawns fish several times each season and also cooperates with other state hatcheries to ensure that each has what they need.
Spurgeon cautions me that of the 60,000 trout I helped spawn, not all of them will make it.
March 1, 2013
It’s Opening Day at Roaring River, the beginning of catch-and-keep season. It’s a harbinger of spring and a tradition for many anglers, running several generations deep in some families.
I’m here with thousands of other anglers lining the banks elbow to elbow, as well as visitors and the curious. I don’t get to fish today, though; my job is to cover the event.
But I peek in at my babies and mark their first milestone: The eggs have eyes!
Twelve days later I return again for the next item to check off of a trout mother’s list: They have become fish!
Gone are the bus-colored yellow eggs, replaced by a half-inch long baby trout called “sac fry” that are translucent amber.
About 60 percent of the eggs I fertilized have survived, Spurgeon estimated — an excellent mortality rate.
My sac fry, now free to swim in a protected raceway, will have some company: In troughs nearby inside the hatchery building, three more incubator tubes hold approximately 200,000 trout eggs spawned at Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery near Branson the previous month.
“The state’s five hatcheries work hand-in-hand in the trout-raising business,” Spurgeon said. “When one hatchery isn’t producing the numbers it needs, or when one has too many, we all share.”
In six other indoor raceways, there are other neighbors, too: Some 80,000 fry, spawned before mine, that already have absorbed their sacs and are growing at a steady rate of one inch per month.
May 18, 2013
I spend some time with them again, showing them off to my human children, who are here for Kids Fishing Day. They look like fish and are growing every day.
Much more demanding than newborn human babies, hatchery personnel must feed the developing trout every hour. They use a complex feeding formula based on the percentage of body weight and the size of fish desired for release, which here is about 12 1/2 inches.
“I can manipulate — slow down or speed up — their growth,” Farwell said. “I base it on what month I need the fish to be in the river.”
July 8, 2013
I return for their next milestone: going outside.
The hatchery crew has given the fingerlings, now each measuring 3 inches long, inoculations to build immunity against disease. We add a couple small scoops of salt to their water — to lessen stress and help slough off parasites, Back explains — and then wish them well.
Thirty pounds at a time, we carry them bucketful by sloshing bucketful up the hatchery steps on a warm, sunny summer day. We pour them into Pools 20 and 21, fed by the nearby Roaring River spring, where they immediately attract their first visitors: A Missouri native with a love of Roaring River and his family stops by. And soon, a family of visitors from Arkansas who want to take turns feeding them.
Also joining in the feeding over the course of the next 12 months will be hundreds of other people — some of the more than half-million visitors and anglers who come to the park each year.
But beyond the sunshine and the smiling and friendly visitors who toss them food, the shock of the real world soon will set in for the young trout.
“They’ll have to deal with muddy water after heavy rains,” Back said.
“They’ll face a different chemical balance than they did in the protection of the hatchery possible bacterial infections.”
Grackles and herons and kingfishers also will prey on them. It’s part of the circle of life.
“We’ll keep an eye on them, though,” Back promised.
Feb. 14, 2014
What mom wouldn’t want to check in on her babies on Valentine’s Day?
A year and one day has passed since I spawned my trout. I haven’t seen them since my last fishing trip in October. About 20,700 of them remain. They are beautiful and big enough that it takes two hands to hold onto them.
Farwell and Back guide me through what they do the first of every month in all 40 pools: We dip out a netful of trout, weigh them, hand count them and return them to the water.
We calculate how much the fish have grown so Farwell can adjust how much food they get in coming weeks to slow down or speed up their growth.
“I know, for instance, that a pool of 3 1/2-inch trout that we’ll need to release in March 2015 need enough that they grow 8 more inches in the coming year,” Farwell said.
My trout are 10 inches, so they are on track to be released as planned this year, probably this summer. They’ll miss the excitement of Opening Day this year.
On Thursday, the hatchery crew will release 8,000 trout they spawned more than a year ago in anticipation of a Saturday opening day that, depending on the weather, could draw as many as 2,600 anglers.
A new season will begin.
One day, I know that the babies I helped create and carefully monitored for so long will wind up either on my hook or someone else’s — that’s the hatchery business.
And I’ll have a whole new understanding and respect for what it took to get them there.
Roaring River record
Missouri’s state record rainbow trout — weighing 18 pounds, 1 ounce — was caught at Roaring River on Aug. 14, 2004, by Jason Harper, of Neosho.
Source: Missouri Department of Conservation
Roaring River facts
• The spring at the head of Roaring River produces an average of 20 million gallons of freshwater every day.
• There are more than 600 species of plants in the park, some of which are not found anywhere else in the state.
• In 1928, Thomas Sayman, a St. Louis businessman, bought 2,400 acres surrounding the river and, within a month, donated the land to the state.
Source: Missouri Department of Natural Resources