Making sure hundreds of thousands of trout survive to see trout season takes some know-how. That’s to be expected. Water temperatures, oxygenation and feeding are all pieces of knowledge a hatchery manager and fish culturists should have.
How to protect the fish from other Pennsylvania predators is a little less obvious.
The Huntsdale Fish Hatchery in Penn Township, which is run by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, keeps its eggs and minnows indoors, but the majority of its trout stay outside until they grow big enough to be transported to waterways in the region for trout season.
Hatchery manager Jim Wetherill had placed a few trout in a public viewing area outside, and only days later, one was dead in the water.
The likely culprit? A great blue heron.
“I thought the trout would be too big enough for it to eat,” he said. “And sure enough, it was. It just left it there.”
The herons aren’t the only ones looking for a plentiful meal at the hatchery. Station foreman Andrew Wagner said they also get unwelcome visitors in the form of grackles, night crawlers and feral cats.
The hatchery uses netting over the entire area where the trout are kept, but small birds still worm through any opening. Wetherill says his crew usually knows when there’s a significant problem based on the white mess left behind.
With larger raptors also taking notice and picking off the birds coming up from the netting after a meal, the hatchery sees quite a life cycle of nature — even if its main focus is trout.
Trout stocking is in full swing this month, and doubly so last week when hatchery crews worked ahead of the winter storm. The hatchery has nearly a full schedule for six days each week in March, stocking trout at waterways across the south-central and southeast regions of the state.
It’s the only hatchery in the region providing trout ahead of trout season. It also must work faster than other hatcheries, since trout season in the region — including the Midstate — starts on April 1. The opening day for the rest of the state is April 15.
The hatchery must also make sure waterways are stocked before Mentored Youth Trout Day, which is this Saturday in the Midstate.
And even after trout season begins, a number of waterways are restocked a second or third time.
“We’re stocking right to May 12,” Wetherill said.
All in all, Wetherill estimates the hatchery stocks about 200 waters in their coverage area, which covers the Midstate, except for Dauphin County, as well as Philadelphia and Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Berks counties.
When the hatchery was built in 1932, Wetherill said it was located in a prime position off the railroad — where it still stands — and raised more than just trout. That focus has since narrowed to just a few cold-water types, including rainbow and brown. Wetherill said the springs from which the hatchery gets its water is the perfect temperature for the trout to flourish.
The trout begin their lives as eggs taken from mature trout and brought into the hatchery house, where they are placed in temperature-regulated water to better predict when they will hatch. The minnows then stay in large tanks as culturists monitor their size and health.
When they grow bigger, they are placed outside, where they’ll live for about two to three seasons before they make it to the region’s waterways.
In the meantime, though, hatchery crews must feed the minnows about eight times a day, and feed the trout outdoors four times a day. The comes in a truck that drives by the various segments of the hatchery “raceways.”
Wetherill said the full-time and seasonal employees monitor how many fish die in separate areas of the hatchery. More than just the predators in the sky and on land, disease is also an enemy.
He said the fish in the hatchery — and generally in situations where fish are contained in one area — get diseases that are not found in the wild.
“Thirty (dead fish) a day (is normal), but if you see 45 to 70 a day, and that doubles every day, you’ll notice something is not right,” he said.
At that point, the hatchery must move quickly to make sure whatever disease plagues one group of fish in a large raceway, does not spread to other parts of the raceway at the hatchery.
And given that the culturists are trained to protect the fish from diseases, predators and overcrowding, quite a few trout survive. The Fish & Boat Commission estimates average trout production to be 461,000 pounds, and Wetherill said they stock about 280,000 trout a year in the region.
That’s not counting, however, how much the hatchery gives to area nurseries to raise, which then provide thousands more trout to Pennsylvania waters.
And though trout stocking will take up most of the hatchery’s time through May, it’s also a year-round job that includes hatching, feeding, cleaning, repairing the hatchery and taking the waste and dead trout to be turned into fertilizer.
“We’re always doing something here,” Wetherill said.