Hatch-22: Inside a Hatchery and the Life of a Fish


Jameson Clifton

(Photo by Jameson Clifton)

(Photo by Jameson Clifton)
(Photo by Jameson Clifton)

Some consider Travis Dees to be the luckiest man alive.
Each day as Dees turns the ignition in his car, he isn’t thinking about the cubicles and computers of a typical nine-to-five office job. Instead, Dees drives to work through miles of pines and aspens—a green maze that lies just feet off the road on Mirror Lake Highway.
When he reaches his destination, Dees pulls into what looks like a gated community. And he parks at a building camouflaged to match the surrounding foliage with its dark green roofs. But what makes his job a dream is what lies within the building: upward of one million fish, depending on the season, making this place a fisher’s paradise.
According to the brown wooden sign at the entrance, this is the Kamas State Fish Hatchery, where Dees has worked as a wildlife biologist for two and half years. Dees grew up fishing the Snake River in Idaho with his dad, and the pastime spurred his appreciation for hatcheries.
“Oh, I love it,” he says about his work. “It just fits my personality.”
The Kamas State Fish Hatchery, Dees says, is a production hatchery, which means fish are raised from the egg until large enough to stock in a lake (about eight to ten inches). The hatchery supplies fish for the Uintas, Cache Valley and all aerial stocking for Utah, for a combined total of about 115 lakes statewide.
One of eleven fish hatcheries in Utah, the Kamas Hatchery raises grayling, rainbow trout (the majority of the fish at the hatchery), cutthroat, and golden trout to stock from June to September depending on the weather conditions. But, Dees says, the hatchery exists as much for the people as it does for the fish.
“The one and pretty much singular reason for having hatcheries is just to provide fish for fisherman,” he says. “If we didn’t stock these lakes then they would be fishless because there’s more fisherman than fish.”
And the process of growing the fish is no small task. Dees says there are about five stages of fish growth the hatchery nurtures before releasing the fish for anglers to catch.
“It’s a lot of effort to get those fish out to the lakes,” he says.
A rainbow trout in the Kamas Hatchery takes, in perfectly monitored conditions, about a month per each inch of growth. Dees walks through the life cycle of a fish from an egg to a guppy to a full-grown rainbow trout.
1. Egg
The fish eggs come to the Kamas Hatchery from a brood hatchery, which raises adult trout to spawn and produce eggs. Biologists, such as Dees, place the eggs they receive into hatching trays where they can control the temperature of the water — near 52 degrees Fahrenheit — for optimal hatch times.
Each egg is approximately one-tenth the size of a marble, Dees said, and looks like “a cloudy crystal ball.” The pigment of the fish is not developed at this stage, so some rainbow trout eggs have a gray hue, but most are transparent spheres.
“You can see clear through the fish,” he says.
As the fish develops, a black dot forms in the egg, which is the eyeball. This is referred to as the eye-up stage and takes about one month to develop.
2. Hatch
Hatch starts when the tail of the fish breaks out of the egg. The size of the fish at hatch is still relatively the same as the size of the egg.
“You actually have to look pretty hard to see it,” Dees says.
At this point, he says, a fish will feed off of the yolk of its egg for nutrients. This stage lasts about two weeks. The fish gather at the bottom of the tanks in the hatchery, eating their egg sacks until they run out.
3. Fry
It turns out fish fry is more than just seafood deep-fried in batter. The word ‘fry’ describes the size of the fish after hatch is complete — about one inch long for rainbow trout.
When the fish has finished eating the nutrients of its egg, it swims to the surface of its tank searching for more food. Dees calls this the swim-up stage.
The biologists at the Kamas State Fish Hatchery spread fish feed made of lipids and proteins on the water. The feed starts as a “dust,” but the pellet size gradually increases as the fish grow.
A fry is comparable in size to a minnow, Dees says, but he adds, “At that stage, all fish look pretty similar.”
The fry is beginning to develop some color due to the feed.
4. Fingerling
A fingerling is a rainbow trout around three inches long, which Dees says looks like “a small version of a big fish.”
“They’ve got all their right proportions at that time,” he says. “They’ve got their fins developed, just like a miniature version of the adult.”
At this stage, the fish are moved out of the hatchery building’s indoor, blue fiberglass tanks, what Dees calls “big bathtubs,” and taken outside to the cement raceways.
“Buildings can’t contain them anymore,” Dees says. “They just need a lot more space.”
5. Catchable
A rainbow trout stays in the raceways until it reaches about eight to ten inches in length — what’s considered “catchable” for fishers.
“If they’re under eight inches, they’re not very big fish to catch, and people prefer catching bigger fish,” Dees says.
At this stage, a full-grown rainbow trout has olive green scales across the top fins of its body. Silver and gray scales with a pink or red stripe cover the side of the fish, with brown dots speckling the belly — a rapid transformation from the colorless egg it started from.
The fish are transported from the hatchery to be stocked in lakes. Most of the stocking is done by truck, with about 800 pounds of fish in each tank. Aerial stocking is done by plane for the more remote lakes, usually only accessible to hikers.
The biologists at the hatchery study the lakes before stocking fish to determine the quantity of fish each individual lake can support with the highest survival rates. And the rainbow trout stocked by the Kamas Hatchery are sterile, so the population does not compete with the already present native species.
“They’re only there for fishermen to catch,” Dees says.
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