While it sounds like a fraternity drinking game, egg sucking at the Spokane Fish Hatchery is of sobering importance to the region’s trout anglers.
Precious few trout would be available this spring for stocking in the region’s lakes without the tedious egg-sucking efforts of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s four-man hatchery staff and a stable of volunteers including fishing clubs, college students and Boy Scouts.
About 10 percent of the 7.4 million rainbow trout eggs taken from broodstock fish at the hatchery this winter are unviable. As the eyes of the trout can be seen developing inside the healthy pinkish-orange eggs in the hatchery troughs, the “dead” eggs are turning pale.
“The white eggs must be removed before they develop a fungus that would infect the rest of the eggs,” said Guy Campbell, manager of the hatchery near the Little Spokane River.
Two dozen members of the Spokane Fly Fishers devoted a morning to the task during the holidays.
The volunteers gently probed through trays of eggs submerged in the gentle flow of clear Griffith Spring water through the hatchery troughs. Using instruments resembling turkey basters, helpers would isolate the targets, release a rubber bulb with their fingers and suck each white egg into a clear tube for removal from the tray.
“It’s like a very low tech video game,” one volunteer said, barely audible above the constant flow of water in the concrete hatchery room.
Hatcheries help fill the void in lakes that have the forage for fish to survive and grow but lack the inlet streams to provide the flowing water necessary for natural rainbow trout spawning.
Without the Spokane Hatchery and the million or so rainbow fry earmarked for Spokane-area waters, there would be no opening-day crowds in April at popular fisheries such as Fishtrap and West Medical lakes.
Spokane Hatchery staff raises a select group of “broodstock” rainbows. Over several weeks from mid-November through December, the ripe eggs were massaged out of 3- and 4-year-old females and fertilized in buckets with the milt squeezed out of the 3-year-old males.
Each 3-year-old female produces about 2,500 eggs while a 4-year-old produces about 3,300.
The eggs are stored in troughs by date of fertilization. About 16 days later, the eggs reach the “eye” stage and become durable enough to endure handling and the disturbance caused by removing the dead eggs, Campbell said.
“The hatchery staff sucks eggs from the troughs three or four days a week until late January,” he said.
About 16 days after reaching the “eye” stage, the trout hatch from their eggs. Getting their nutrition from yoke pouches protruding from their bellies, the tiny “sack fry” hunker on the bottom of their troughs, following their natural instinct to lay low and avoid predators.
A month later, the “sack fry” deplete their built-in food supply and come to the surface looking for food.
“That’s when feeding begins,” Campbell said, noting that about 98 percent of the fry that reach this stage survive until they are stocked in Washington’s fishing lakes.
Most of the 7.4 million rainbow eggs produced at the Spokane Hatchery are shipped elsewhere to be hatched and reared.
“After the eye-up stage, more than 5 million of our eggs are taken to the hatcheries at Lake Chelan, Omak, Wells, Ford, Colville, Lyons Ferry, Tucannon, Columbia Basin, the Spokane Tribal Hatchery and Eel Springs in Western Washington,” Campbell said. Several school groups also get eggs for aquaculture projects.
The various hatcheries are set up differently. “We have only so much space,” he said. “At certain times, each facility has different demands, so we move eggs or fish to another hatchery to make room.”
Later this year, the Spokane Hatchery will get around 130,000 of the cutthroat trout eggs produced at the Colville hatchery.
Most of the area’s brown trout and brook trout are produced at the Ford Hatchery. Tiger trout, which are a sterile fish produced from a male brown trout and female brook trout, also originate largely from the Ford Hatchery.
The Sherman Creek hatchery west of Kettle Falls is devoted mostly to producing the 750,000 sterile “triploid” rainbows that will be reared this year for released from net pens along Lake Roosevelt. Sherman Creek also assists the Spokane Tribal Hatchery with kokanee for Roosevelt.
Sherman Creek is the only hatchery in the state that’s taking spawn from adult sturgeon, said Mitch Combs, hatchery manager. The hatchery also specializes producing native redband rainbow trout.
Like most hatcheries managers, Combs tries to interact with the local communities.
Last week, the hatchery staff worked with students from Colville schools to clip the adipose fins of hatchery rainbows so they can be distinguished from wild rainbows in Lake Roosevelt.
The Spokane Hatchery is incubating about 500,000 kokanee eggs taken from naturally-spawning kokanee at Sullivan Lake plus another 500,000 kokanee eggs in the hatchery’s first try at rearing captive kokanee.
Fish are stocked in different ways throughout the state.
The Spokane Hatchery alone will rear about 500,000 rainbows to be stocked this spring as the proverbial small fry while a similar number will be raised to bigger proportions and stocked as fall fry as directed by the area fish biologists.
About 40,000 of the hatchery’s fish are reared for a year to be stocked in certain lakes as “catchable size” 8-inchers.
The state spends more money to raise fish to “catchable” sizes, but the large releases have a better survival rate in lakes with a high ratio of predatory and non-game fish.
A select few rainbows are pampered for three or four years in Spokane Hatchery raceways open to public viewing to become the brood stock that starts the cycle over again.
The brooders that provided this year’s eggs have not been discarded. Although they are showing the wear of living in hatchery raceways for three or four years, they will be trucked and scattered in various lakes this spring as 4- to 6-pound trout that always produce big smiles on the lucky few anglers who catch them.