CMC's Denver Fly Fishing Section
Colorado DOW Hatchery Update
Smile of Success
The long battle against whirling disease is finally turning in DOW's favor

Charlie Meyers - article published 2/9/05 in the Denver Post

If the cleanup of the Colorado Division of Wildlife hatchery system were a basketball game, Eric Hughes might light a victory cigar - or, at the very least, send Nikoloz Tskitishvili into the game.

Hughes, an unassuming man who heads the agency's aquatic program, seems content simply to smile. But it's a big smile.

With the recent announcement that the Roaring Judy Hatchery had been certified free of whirling disease, Hughes and the dozens of associates who have labored so long finally could claim success. Nearly seven years and $11 million later, eight DOW hatcheries have been rendered ready to produce catchable rainbow trout free of the deadly pathogen.

An additional unit, near Monte Vista, recently was constructed with funds provided by Colorado State Parks and turned over to the wildlife agency.

In 2007, production from the Pueblo unit will go on line, along with Pitkin Hatchery, scheduled for cleanup that same year. Three other facilities, Chalk Cliffs, Watson and Poudre never can be completely cleansed of the disease generally fatal to young rainbow and cutthroat trout. The Crystal Hatchery, once certified disease free, mysteriously has been reinfected and a date for cleanup can't be determined.

When all deliveries are completed in 2005, DOW will have planted approximately 2.55 million catchable trout, compared with just 302,000 in 1998, when the Colorado Wildlife Commission decreed no more infected fish would be stocked in waters that qualify as salmonid habitat as monitored by the strictest DNA testing. The entire Western Slope, which holds most of the state's trout resources, received just 158,000 of these 10-inch fish.

What a long, strange trip it has been.

Hughes, who was state hatchery chief when cleanup began, vividly recalls the low point of the enterprise.

That came when the Mount Shavano Hatchery failed the test four or five years ago," Hughes said of a $1.5 million effort to cleanse what, before infection, ranked as the state's second- largest producer. "We thought we had it, then, after spending all that money, I wasn't sure we could pull off a clean water supply. "After several trips back to the drawing board, technicians discovered a seasonal irrigation flow carrying infected water from the nearby Arkansas River had made its way into a manhole and thence into the hatchery system.

"We never gave up," Hughes said. "We were determined to get the system clean."

Hughes' highlight was the recent victory declaration at Roaring Judy, a particularly pivotal facility on the East River north of Gunnison. This unit not only will produce the second- greatest volume of rainbow trout, its hatch house grows approximately 2.6 million fingerling kokanee salmon. The house was pronounced fit last March; it took another 10 months to cleanse the outside raceways.

"I was so pleased when Roaring Judy came back. I give so much credit to the engineering staff, to the fish culturalists and staff who simply refused to quit," the aquatics chief said.

In nearly every case, the challenge proved the same: How to convert from surface water to uncontaminated ground sources. Since every significant stream in the state is infected with the water-borne parasite that causes the disease, it became imperative to use only flows obtained from springs or deep wells.

"In most cases, we even found it necessary to bury our spring sources," Hughes said of a process that unavoidably left the hatcheries with a considerably reduced supply, hence less production capacity.

Before whirling disease and the cleanup dictum, DOW produced an average of 4.7 million catchable trout, fish considered essential to recreation in the scores of cold-water reservoirs with neither natural reproduction nor the nutrients sufficient for sustained growth.

From that 1998 low, yield has grown steadily. Hughes hopes to deliver 4.25 million clean fish in
2007 through increased efficiency, coupled with a 150,000 boost from Pitkin and another 200,000 from Pueblo, which temporarily lost its trout capability when reservoir levels plunged from the 2002 drought.

A substantial number of the 2005 supply comes from outside sources: 590,000 from private hatcheries and 35,000 from federal sources. In addition, DOW hatcheries produce roughly 1.2 million catchable rainbow trout with varying levels of infection, including 800,000 at Chalk Cliffs and 300,000 at Watson. By commission decree, these cannot be stocked in waters associated with sustainable trout habitat. Instead, they are planted east and west of the mountains, most notably in urban reservoirs and ponds. Whirling disease has no health effect upon humans or other mammals.

The long, tangled journey toward full production still has a few twists and turns. More money will be spent; alternating waves of triumph and disappointment will follow. But in the end, Hughes still will be smiling.

Where Colorado's Trout Come From

1. Rifle Falls: Colorado's largest hatchery with production of 820,000 disease-free catchable trout. 2. Finger Rock: 150,000 clean catchables. 3. Bellvue/Research Unit: 937,000 clean subcatchables. 4. Roaring Judy: 215,000 clean catchables.
5. Mount Shavano: 257,000 clean catchables. 6. Buena Vista: 50,000 clean catchables. 7. Durango: 140,000 clean catchables. 8. Monte Vista: 150,000 clean catchables.
9. Glenwood: 1,500 brood fish and variable number of clean subcatchables. 10. Pueblo: Projected to produce 200,000 clean catchables in 2007. 11. Pitkin: Scheduled for cleanup in 2007. Meanwhile, 60,000 infected fish will be shipped to Front Range reservoirs. 12. Chalk Cliff: 800,000 infected catchables for various distribution.
13. Poudre: Primarily a brood unit. Also, 50,000 infected fish for Front Range distribution. 14. Watson: 300,000 infected catchables for Front Range distribution. 15. Crystal: Cleanup date undetermined. Meanwhile, serves as brood unit and produces 35,000 infected catchables for Western Slope distribution. 16. Spicer: Operated from well water at San Luis Valley farm site, producing 80,000 clean catchables.

Other Sources

Purchase from private hatcheries in Colorado, Nebraska and South Dakota: 590,000 clean catchables. From Hotchkiss Federal Hatchery as mitigation for Bureau of Reclamation water storage projects: 850,000 clean subcatchables. Additional purchase from Hotchkiss Federal Hatchery: 135,000 clean catchables. Note: A catchable trout generally is 9 to 10 inches long, sometimes longer, a length considered suitable for sport fishing.
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