Hands-On at the Hatchery

Each year, they raise approximately 300,000 catchable trout and approximately 1.5 million sub-catchable trout between 4 and 6 inches in length.
Bellvue Watson Fish Hatchery.  All photos by © Doug Skinner.

When I was a kid, it felt as if every adult I encountered would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I still remember being puzzled and somewhat annoyed by the question. How is a 10-year old supposed to know what they want to be when they grow up? But now, I rarely hear anyone ask that question anymore. I suspect that the question has become less common as a result of a continually evolving job market. Heck, many of the jobs we hold today were not even thought of when we were children. And for millennials and generation Z, the pace of change only seems to be accelerating. Today, the question almost seems silly.

That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when my son Theo came home from school and informed me that April 26 was Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day 2018. At that moment, I realized that I had never really asked Theo, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And up until now, the only aspirations for adulthood I had heard from him were the desire to be Spiderman when he was 3, a paleontologist when he was in his dinosaur phase at age 5, and an MLS soccer star when he started playing soccer at age 6. I thought about the fact that kids can only start thinking about careers if they are exposed to the possibilities – if you’ve never seen someone working in wildlife, you may not consider it as a career path. But exposure to potential careers and career planning seemed to be relegated as a spare-time activity, not part of the 5th-grade curriculum. So any opportunity to get him started down a path of career investigation seemed like a win-win. I get to hang out with him and, at the same time, expose him to a small slice of the working world. I was in!

I casually asked what he was most interested in learning about my job, assuming that he would want to go downtown with me, see my office, and experience a day in the life of the CPW marketing and communication team. His answer was not quite what I expected. He excitedly responded that he wanted to see how CPW produced enough fish to stock ponds. And he pressed on with, “CPW does that… right?”

After a brief pause, I responded, “Yes” and I told him I’d see what I could do to get something lined up.

I was a bit puzzled by his request and I wondered where the interest may have come from. Thinking back, I recalled a conversation during a recent fishing trip to St. Vrain state park, where Theo had asked how a small pond could have so many fish, wisely noting that the small ponds could not sustain the type of success we were having. At the time, I simply told him that CPW stocks the ponds, so not to worry about running out – there will always be fish. And that was the last I thought of it. I guess my answer had left him with questions and now he had his own plan to get the answers.

A little research and a couple of emails to staff revealed that CPW offered tours to the public at many of its hatcheries around the state. And they would be more than happy to put us to work for a day. Bellvue-Watson Fish Hatchery & Rearing Unit was one of our closest hatcheries, so I reached out to Steve Hokansson, the Assistant Hatchery Manager, and we put a plan in place. We were good to go!

MapBellvue-Watson is located near the Cache la Poudre River, just outside of Ft. Collins, Colorado. The hatchery and rearing unit, a cold water facility, raises rainbow trout, rainbow/cutthroat trout hybrids, cutthroat trout, splake and brown trout. Each year, they raise approximately 300,000 catchable trout and approximately 1.5 million sub-catchable trout between 4 and 6 inches in length. This was the perfect place to see how “CPW was producing so many fish.”

When the day finally arrived, Theo was eager to get to work. We pulled into the hatchery around 8 a.m. and found a note on the office door. The note read, “Doug and Theo, please come in and take a seat. We’ve got a couple of issues we’re dealing with and we’ll be right back to get you started.”

Theo was shocked – the team had started without us! The hatchery crew typically starts their day by 7 a.m., so they had been busy loading fish in a stocking truck, cleaning and repairing equipment, completing paperwork and feeding fish.

After a short wait, Steve was back and ready to put us to work. The day would start with a quick hatchery tour, designed to provide an overview of how, where and why things happened. And then, hopefully, we would have time for some hands-on hatchery experience.

Whirlwind Hatchery Tour

Our tour began at the Bellvue unit. Bellvue has been in operation for more than 100 years. With the original hatchery building having been built in 1924, driving through the gates feels like a step back in time. The hatchery runs primarily on a well water system.  However, to meet water demands, the system is supplemented by a recirculating water system that reuses water from the units eight outdoor raceways. Bellvue produces whirling disease-free trout from eggs all the way to adults.

BW-10Steve began our tour with a quick lesson on the life cycle of fish. He quickly moved through the building and physically showed Theo examples of the different life cycles, sights, and sounds that you can’t get from a biology book.

BW-8Theo and Steve carefully inspected the hatchery nurse basins. Sharing the challenges of the natural world, Steve explained how survival of trout in the wild (from egg to adult) is typically less than 10%. He took pride in the fact that in CPW’s hatcheries, survival rates are closer to 95%.

BW-64Steve uncovered a tank full of sac fry, trout immediately after the eggs hatch. And Theo marveled at the baby trout dependent on a yolk sac for food. A closer look revealed that the trout have tiny fins and a mouth, but they share little resemblance with adult trout. Theo was thrilled by the fact that he had seen something that few other people on earth have seen.

Steve explained that if all went well, the fish would move to the outside when they reach about two inches in length. Many of the fish are moved to raceways where they will be raised to adults. Others will be taken to productive lakes, ponds, streams and rivers as 4” to 6” sub-catchables, where an abundance of naturally occurring food sources (eg. caddisflies, mayflies, shrimp, etc) allow the fish to grow faster in the wild than they would at the hatchery.

BW-2Getting to work

Steve had laid the groundwork with his tour, making it clear that raising trout is a fragile process and water is a key element.

Our next stop was to join Dante Florez, a CPW Fish Culturist, and get some hands-on experience. Among his many responsibilities, Dante maintains the water quality in Bellvue’s recirculating well water system. He maintains water chemistry levels, rotates recirculating ponds and inspects and cleans a crucial filter system. Dante gave us a quick introduction to Bellvue’s water system and then put us to work on a couple of cleaning tasks.



Theo inspected the pack columns of the hatchery’s aeration unit, a crucial piece of equipment that is used to reduce high levels of naturally occurring nitrogen from the well water. This is a necessary process to make the water safe for the trout.

Indoor Feeding

After quick instruction from Dante, Theo took over feeding and served breakfast to several thousand trout. Theo was instructed to feed row by row, first across the top and then back along the bottom until each nurse basin has been tended to and every trout is fed.

After completing his task, Theo peered into a nurse basin and admired his work. He now has a new understanding of the importance of feeding your fish.

Outdoor Feeding

After finishing up with indoor hand feeding, we were off to Watson to feed the bigger fish in the outdoor raceways. To feed trout outdoors, CPW broadcast feed pellets from the back of a flatbed truck. Relatively calm raceways are quickly transformed to choppy water as trout compete in a feeding frenzy.

Loading Fish

To wrap up the day, Steve gave us a lesson in loading trout onto a hatchery truck – a process that is a bit of a fish rodeo. Using a series of crowding screens, trout were consolidated and confined to a small area to make for easy netting.

Net after net of fish were added to the fish loader until the desired number of fish had been collected.

With the truck loaded, the final step before hitting the road was to complete the paperwork. Terry James, a CPW fish hatchery technician,  filled in fish counts and had a quick conversation with hatchery visitors. Then he’s back out on the road for his second delivery of the day.

Testing the Waters

Theo’s experience at a CPW Hatchery may not lead to a career path, but it’s clear that the opportunity has caused him to take a more critical view of his future. Since our outing, he’s asked me to look for more opportunities where we can get out in the field and “help out.” He may not realize that a volunteer opportunity might open a door to a career that he may not have known existed and one day soon, he may even have an answer for the dreaded, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question.

Volunteer opportunities are not limited to CPW employees. CPW relies on the invaluable contributions of volunteers to help complete tasks from the plains to the mountain tops. Volunteers serve in a variety of roles including hosts, naturalists, wildlife transporters and trail workers, assisting CPW staff and much more. Individuals and families spend time out in beautiful scenery, getting fresh air and that great feeling that comes with a rewarding hard day of work. As a volunteer, you meet new friends, learn new skills, and complete important work as part of a project team. To learn more about current CPW volunteer opportunities, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.


You Can Visit a Hatchery

Colorado has multiple hatcheries, most of which welcome visitors. Some hatcheries offer self-guided tours, while others may have tour guides available during certain times of the year.

Call ahead to find out what is offered at the hatchery you will be visiting. To enhance your experience, educational materials are available at all hatcheries.

Tours for groups and schools must be arranged in advance. Call as far in advance of your visit as possible to make these arrangements. This will help ensure that a sufficient supply of educational materials is on hand and that your group has a coordinated, enjoyable experience.

BW-3More information about the Bellvue-Watson Fish Hatchery


P.O. Box 107
4936 West CR 52E
Bellvue, Colorado 80512

Contact: Chris Praamsma, chris.praamsma@state.co.us or 970/482-1659


    • Informational and educational material
    • Self-guided tours
  • ‘Feed the Fish’ fish food dispensers (requires quarters)

Where is CPW stocking catchable trout?

To find recently stocked waters, download the CPW Fishing App or view the fishing report on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.

Hatchery Gallery

Written by Doug Skinner. Skinner is an editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

4 Responses

  1. Great article, Doug. Glad to see Theo’s enthusiasm. I didn’t realize that hatchery was so old. I worked for the construction company that laid the pipeline to a couple of settling ponds that we dug just south of the hatchery in the late ’80s. It was, I believe, shortly after the Poudre received “Wild and Scenic” status and the effluent from the raceways could no longer be discharged into the river. We always enjoyed watching the feeding frenzy. I was also surprised at the number of species raised there. I didn’t know browns were raised in hatcheries, and I see brook trout are not. Perhaps someone can tell me if brookies are always wild in Colorado. I believe they are not indigenous to Colorado, and that only the cutthroat is. Again, great article Doug, and thanks for all that CPW does. As an angler, it is much appreciated.

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