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Spawning education at Spokane Fish Hatchery

Rainbow trout eggs in a fish hatchery tray. (FILE The Spokesman-Review)
Rainbow trout eggs in a fish hatchery tray. (FILE The Spokesman-Review)

Fishing-season openers in March and April are highly anticipated dates for Eastern Washington anglers. But the most important period of the year for anglers who frequent the region’s trout lakes is November and December – rainbow spawning time at the Spokane Fish Hatchery.

I was a teen volunteer helping Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery staff last year during the Christmas-New Year school break to get a hands-on education on what goes into restocking lakes for fishermen.

My day started with other helpers at 7:30 a.m. in the refreshing winter weather outside at the female breeder trout tanks. We corralled the fish with big, underwater fences called “crowders,” and caught them in nets. The fish were transferred to oval-shaped tubs. Sedatives in the water calmed them.

Each fish was tested for “ripeness” by applying a gentle pressure to its midsection. If a few eggs came out, we put the fish into a submergible cage for holding the egg-collectable fish. Fish that weren’t ripe were returned to the tank to be spawned another day.

Each female spawner was lifted to a tray so a sterilized needle attached to an air pump could be inserted into the fish’s stomach. As a puff of air was injected and we rubbed the fish’s midsection, a stream of eggs shot out. This didn’t hurt the fish. The eggs looked like pea-sized spheres of amber.

The crew collected hundreds of thousands of eggs from the female brood stock before hatchery manager Ace Trump led us to the male fish.

Even though these trout were big, strong and more than a foot long, they would not be sedated. The crew must wrestle each slippery, writhing and clearly displeased fish while trying to squeeze its sperm into the red plastic cups commonly used at college parties.

Donning a cotton glove for extra grip, we scooped up a fish with a long-handled net, grabbed its tail, held it over a cup and squeezed its midsection with an ungloved hand. The milt streamed out. We squeezed five fish per cup. Hatchery workers eventually would fertilize the eggs with measured amounts of milt.

I enjoyed squeezing a bunch of fish that day, but if I ever see anybody drinking out of one of those cups again, I will probably barf.

My last task was counting any dead fish in the round ponds and removing them to help hatchery workers monitor for illnesses in the ponds. Sometimes I’d have to comb through fish dung on the bottom of the tank to see if it hid any dead fish.

Hatchery work may sound disgusting. I admit I came home, dumped my clothes in the laundry and scrubbed myself clean. But spawning trout is a delicate and complex job. The workers need to be on the top of their game while performing their tasks.

And what teenager wouldn’t relish coming home and giving his mother all the details of a day at the hatchery?

“Mom, guess what I touched today!”

“I don’t know, Sam, what all did you touch today?”

“I touched dead fish, fish poo, fish sperm, fish eggs, and FISH!”

My mom got the last laugh, though.

“What’s for dinner?” I asked after my failed attempt at grossing her out.

“Fish sticks!” she announced.

Sam Richardson is a junior at North Central High School.

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