On a brisk morning in early February, three hatchery trucks from the Mt. Shavano State Fish Hatchery arrive at Eleven Mile State Park. Snow crunches beneath tires as the rigs creep down the North Shore Boat Ramp and prepare to unload their cargo of 16,000 cutbow trout. After spending nearly 15 months confined to hatchery raceways and traveling more than an hour over snow-packed roads, the cutbows face just one final obstacle before their release into Eleven Mile Reservoir: 12-inches of rock-hard ice.
For most states, frozen lakes and freezing temperatures would put hatchery operations and fish-stocking plans “on ice.” Yet, this unique and ambitious effort is all part of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Winter Fish-Stocking Program.
Over the next hour, the crew from Mt. Shavano unloads a gas ice-auger, canvas tubing and numerous sets of ratchet-straps–all tools of the trade for stocking fish in winter. South Park is famous (although, most anglers would say “infamous”) for its high winds, and Mother Nature lives up to her blustery reputation on this particular morning. Hatchery technicians Bryan Johnson, Dave Karr and Mark Haver battle 50-MPH gusts as they assemble a temporary pipeline from the stocking trucks to a single hole drilled in the ice. With the pipeline connected, Karr lifts a t-shaped lever on top of the truck and the cutbows begin their tubular descent through the ice. Within minutes, the trout begin to explore the vast, ice-capped underworld of Eleven Mile Reservoir.
Although winter might seem like an unlikely time of year to stock Colorado’s high-elevation reservoirs, CPW Hatchery Technician Bryan Johnson says there are some significant advantages to planting fish during the “off” season.
“Winter stocking gives us a great opportunity to increase production at our hatcheries by utilizing timing when, historically, there wasn’t a demand for fish production,” said Johnson. “It also has let us increase diversity by stocking when different fish species are available from the hatchery.”
Located in Salida, the Mt. Shavano State Fish Hatchery stocks between 100,000 to 140,000 trout annually during the winter–usually a combination of Snake River cutthroats, cutbows and rainbow trout, based on the hatchery’s inventory.
Fertile South Park Reservoirs
Currently, Spinney Mountain and Eleven Mile are the only reservoirs in the state that receive fish through the ice, with the later receiving its only annual stockings of trout January through March. Despite the frigid water temperatures, the trout enjoy expedited growth once they are planted in the fertile South Park reservoirs. Johnson says this provides exceptional fishing opportunities for anglers come spring.
“The cutbows and cutthroats are some of the slower-growing fish in a hatchery, taking 14-15 months to reach catchable size of around 10 inches,” said Johnson. “But once stocked into a productive body of water, they seem to thrive. The fish continue to grow under the ice, achieving 13-14 inches in length by the time the reservoirs open to boating in spring.”
Additionally, Johnson says that stocking in the winter gives the hatchery trout the greatest chance of survival. Both Spinney and Eleven Mile are home to large (as in seriously large) northern pike. The toothy predators tend to feast on trout that are stocked in the spring and summer. Fortunately, pike are more dormant in the winter, which gives the newly planted trout time to settle into their new surroundings instead of being immediately gobbled up.
Winter Fish Stocking Program
Since its inception in 2007, CPW’s Winter Fish Stocking Program has planted more than 740,000 trout in Eleven Mile and Spinney. Johnson attributes the program’s success to good planning and teamwork.
“The winter stocking program is truly a collaborative effort between the parks, our Aquatic Biologist Jeff Spohn and the hatchery staff,” said Johnson. “The park staff is constantly clearing the boat ramps and parking lots of snow to allow continued access to the fish trucks. Everyone works together to make this happen every year.”
CPW’s Winter Stocking Program is proof that neither snow nor wind–or even a foot of ice–can keep the Mt. Shavano Hatchery crew from stocking South Park’s reservoirs. Thanks to these ongoing efforts, Spinney Mountain and Eleven Mile continue to boast some of the best trout fishing in the state.
Did you know?
Based on economic-impact studies, a single catchable-size trout generates $36 to Colorado’s economy and costs approximately $1.20 for CPW’s hatcheries to produce. CPW does not receive general tax dollars. Therefore, fishing-license fees support all statewide hatchery and fish-stocking operations. CPW stocks 90 million fish annually into waters throughout Colorado.
The following video provides an intimate, underwater look into CPW’s Winter Stocking Program at Eleven Mile State Park.
Story and video by Jerry Neal. Neal is the editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for CPW.