The Lure of the Cheesecake Trout
If you have caught a 12+ inch trout in Western North Carolina, chances are pretty good that it was raised at the NC Wildlife Resources Commission’s (WRC) Bobby N Setzer fish hatchery in Pisgah National Forest, the largest cold water hatchery in the state. The WRC is a unique division of the North Carolina state government that is responsible for managing the state’s wildlife to ensure they will always be there for the enjoyment of the public and for the health of the environment. One way that we that we accomplish this mission is by stocking just under a million trout into 80+ different lakes and streams in the 15 most western counties in North Carolina. Before explaining how we raise so many fish, first we have to ask why we raise so many fish with the sole purpose of them being caught and eaten by Anglers. How does this help protect wildlife?
When most people see the trout in our hatchery they are very surprised by their giant size (sometimes growing up to 18 inches before being released). Most people (including myself before I got this job) imagined the state stocking little trout with the hopes that they will one day grow big and lay eggs, however, that is not the case at all. Actually, we don’t expect these “cheesecake” Trout to last a month before being caught and eaten, which is the entire point of the stocking program. The reason I call them “cheesecake” Trout is because who can resist the lure of heavenly cheesecake? Without these purty stockers fisherman would destroy what is left of our wild Trout populations, especially the rare and recently discovered Southern Appalachian Brook Trout. Not only would Anglers move higher up the rivers in pursuit of the fish but the lazy bums would demand easier access which in turn would spell the end of our wild trout. With access comes environmental impact, mainly sedimentation from road building, which pollution sensitive Trout cannot tolerate.
As it is today, people who want to have a chance at catching a Southern Appalachian Brook Trout have to really want that experience, because they are going to have to work hard for it. An Angler usually has to hike far from civilization to find these beautiful fish, they can only use specific types of bait and hooks to catch them (single hook artificial lures only), and they can only keep four fish which must be at least 7 inches long (which is huge for a wild trout). The goal of the NC Wildlife Commission is to keep it so that most Anglers would rather catch a giant “cheesecake” Trout then have to work really hard just to catch a little ole “breath mint” trout. I myself would much rather catch one beautiful wild native trout in the middle of the remote wilderness than a bunch of big dumb farm-raised trout right next to a roadside pull-off. The feel of catching a fish who’s past generations have possibly never been in contact with a human since the beginning of their existence is a special experience indeed.
In order raise so many fish successfully, the hatchery must attempt to recreate the natural life cycle of trout in a very unnatural environment. The hatchery was built in the 50’s, when humans didn’t know a whole lot about raising fish so there are a lot of obstacles to overcome.
The Natural Way
When a mother trout (known in the hatchery a Hen) is ready to lay her eggs she begins searching for a cold clear section of a stream that has steady flow and has a bottom made of the perfect sized pebbles. Once her location is found she feels the universal instinct of all pregnant mothers, to begin nesting. She scoops out a perfect little nest bowl (known as a Redd) using her fins (and sometimes her mouth) and aggressively defends it while the males (known in the hatchery as cocks) swim nearby and do their best to impress her with their killer fish dance moves. The trout then lays around one thousand eggs over a few days into the nest but only a fraction of those eggs will survive to adulthood. The male trout that could shake his tail fin the best will become the lucky father who is chosen to swim over the nest and fertilize the eggs. The eggs will lie in the cracks of those perfectly-sized pebbles in the fish’s nest receiving oxygen from the water and nutrients from its yolk sac for 4 to 6 weeks until ready to hatch. As the embryo begins develop, the eye becomes visible through the transparent egg shell and is now referred to as an “eyed egg.” After hatching the yolk sac remains attached to the tiny Trout who stays in the nest while they grow and learn to use their brand new fins. Once they’ve eaten up all of their yolk sack the “fingerling” had better be ready to face the world because the time has come to leave the nest and search for their own food. Only about 5% of trout survive their first year on this earth but if they can make it 1 to 3 years then they’ll be able to have their own babies and if they’re really lucky they’ll survive to be 11 years old.
The Hatchery Way
In the hatchery we have our own brood stock of Brook, Brown, and Rainbow Trout that are chosen to be the moms and pops of all of our trout. When egg-laying time comes in October or November the hatchery staff become Trout mid-wives and help the Hens lay millions of eggs. Without a nest, a momma Trout will not lay her eggs and will become very sick so the staff must squeeze the eggs out. Once combined with Milt from the male trout, the eggs are put into a pressure chamber and increased to a point that alters the chromosomes of the fish rendering them sterile. The reason we sterilize every single fish that we put into the wild is because we strive to preserve the genetic integrity of our wild Trout populations. Hatchery fish learn behaviors that are not conducive to survival in the wild. For instance, because the Trout in our hatchery are fed by a truck, they associate the sound of a car with dinner time and that learned detrimental behavior can actually be passed on to offspring through genes. It wouldn’t take long for wild Trout genes to get dumb after being mixed up with those of the stocked hatchery fish.
After sitting in special incubators the “Fingerlings” are moved into the hatchery building and then into the outdoor raceways until they grow to a “catchable” size of 10 to 14 inches. At a growth rate of about one inch per month, the Trout take around sixteen months to grow to that “cheesecake” size before being stocked into lakes and rivers giving Anglers an opportunity to catch the lunker of their dreams and leave that beautiful little native Brookie in the stream.
Wild Rainbow Trout