Rabbitbrush Rambler: Fish stories

When hordes of miners and new towns appeared in Colorado Territory, the supply of native fish quickly diminished because of fouling and diverting water for prospecting and mining, town building, farming, dynamiting fish out of pools and many other events that killed off native fish. Too slowly the newcomers learned the lessons of supply and demand.

The first commercial fish operations in Colorado Territory were started by Gordon Land in 1866 in Conejos County, according to Glen A. Hinshaw’s book “Crusaders for Wildlife.” For this enterprise he obtained eggs of what he later called red-throated trout that he obtained from elsewhere in the country.

Hinshaw also says that in 1880 Albert W. McIntire (a lawyer from back East and governor in 1895-1897) operated a hatchery at the warm springs opposite Pike’s Stockade on the Conejos River, where McIntire had a ranch and sportsmen’s adobe lodge. I have not learned whether McIntire’s place was the same location as Gordon Land’s operation, but Land is the same man who in 1889 would be appointed to be Colorado’s fish commissioner.

By the time that Ulysses S. Grant was president, the nation was recognizing the value of conserving fish for both food and sport. It was an era when nonnative species, especially trout, were being introduced to regions where they were not indigenous. The federal government established its first fish hatchery in 1872 in northern California, and the next one would be near Leadville in 1889, where silver mining had resulted in what was then Colorado’s second largest city. (Turn off at the junction called Malta on U.S. 24 for an interesting visit to the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, which is open to the public and is on the National Register of Historic Places.)

In their new book “Hidden History of the Upper Rio Grande,” Sandra Wagner and Carol Ann Wetherill describe in detail the enterprise that Charles Mason and members of the Wetherill family operated at lakes in the Upper Rio Grande area, beginning around the turn of the century. They annually harvested, dressed, and sold literally tons of fish, brook trout being their main product. And believe me, as the authors describe, this was no job for sissies. The Hosselkus family also was operating at Road Canyon, and the state had fish hatcheries at Del Norte, La Jara, and Antonito.

The federal hatchery existed at Creede from the 1920s to the 1960s as a result of efforts led by a prominent political figure/resort owner at Wagon Wheel Gap. Gene Mason, son of the earlier Mason hatchery operation, was in charge at this federal hatchery. Today there still is a privately-owned fish hatchery in the San Luis Valley, Crowther’s trout hatchery at La Jara, but the Alligator Farm at Mosca is mainly raising carp now instead of tilapia to feed its alligators as it did originally.

On the whole, the principal fish business in Colorado had changed long ago from producing food for human sustenance to the business of recreation. Lakes where fish were raised commercially became clubs and privately owned getaways like Brown, Pearl and Hermit Lakes.

Serving its ardent cohort of fishermen, CPW reports it hatches 90 million fish annually, distributes them to various rivers, streams, and lakes, and contributes $1.9 billion to the state’s economy. The state has 19 hatcheries and/or rearing facilities, meeting the needs of cold- and warm-water species, plus two USFWS facilities.

To locate these easily, go to Colorado Parks & Wildlife, then to Colorado Fish Hatcheries, then to a nifty map where you can touch on the icons and information about each will pop up. The facilities include CPW’s Mumma Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility on the west side of Alamosa, where conservation of endangered, threatened, and otherwise species takes place.  

But before you click off your computer, open to Trinidad State Junior College at Alamosa to view its programs in aquaculture and its courses, certificates, and degrees. ASU’s biology department offers course work appropriate for natural resource management. Or look at a Colorado Parks & Wildlife site that describes how to get started on a fish hatchery career and provides a job description. The job description warns about possibly having to move to different locations for the work.

Or just buy a license and go fishing.