Wild Rose fish hatchery still going strong
By Greg Seubert
One of Wisconsin’s leading fish factories is located right in Waupaca County’s backyard.
Whether it’s salmon, trout, walleye, northern pike, sturgeon or musky, they’re all raised at the Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery.
Raising fish is nothing new at the hatchery, which has been open since 1908.
What has changed, however, is how they’re raised.
“Hatcheries definitely provide a resource to the public and local biologists by providing a product – fish – that can get stocked out for anglers to catch,” hatchery manager Jesse Landwehr said. “Some of what we’re doing is put-and-take stocking throughout the state at different places. Other things that we’re doing, like our sturgeon program, that’s more of re-establishing fish into their native areas that they’ve been removed from due to dams, habitat degradation or whatever. The hatchery ends up being a pretty good tool to keep the fisheries going.”
Landwehr is replacing retiring hatchery manager Steve Fajfer after working at the state’s Lakewood, Lake Mills and Thunder River facilities. The state Department of Natural Resources operates the hatchery, located just north of Wild Rose on both sides of State Highway 22.
The hatchery has undergone three major renovation projects in recent years.
The first phase, which included the construction of the Wild Rose Hatchery Education Center and new coldwater fish production facilities to raise salmon and trout, cost $15.9 million and was finished in 2008.
“The first phase was to build the entire coldwater side of the hatchery,” Landwehr said. “Everything was outdoors for the most part at the old hatchery. It was susceptible to animals and any disease they had. One of the keys was to modernize the hatchery and make it self-contained and biosecure. All of our fish rearing is now inside under cover. It’s all well water and it’s the same temperature year-round. We don’t have to deal with flooding. We’re not losing fish to predators. Phase 1 also included our new visitor’s center. We wanted to be able to show the public what we do and why we do it.”
The second phase cost $15 million.
“Phase 2 was the renovation of the coolwater side of the hatchery where we do the northerns, muskies, walleyes and sturgeon,” Landwehr said. “That was taking the older earthen-bottom ponds and renovating them into poly-lined ponds so we’re not trimming weeds and having vegetation grow up through the bottom of the ponds. It’s a lot more flexibility and control of the ponds.
“Along with that, they added the coolwater building, which is a recirculation system,” he added. “Rather than heating the water up and sending it out the door, we’re trying to recycle as much of that water as we can so we’re keeping all of that heat in our system. The building also gave us the flexibility of being to work with smaller lots of fish. With the old system, a pond was a pond. You couldn’t subdivide it. We have a lot of flexibility with smaller tanks and raceways. We can do smaller numbers of fish and have a lot better control on the numbers of fish we have. When we’re working with the northern pike and muskies inside, we have very good inventory control. We know what we have throughout the whole cycle.”
The third phase coincided with the Wisconsin Walleye Initiative, an statewide effort to increase the number of walleyes by expanding production of large fingerlings at state, private and tribal fish hatcheries for stocking.
“We get our walleye fingerlings from the Art Oehmcke Hatchery up in Woodruff,” Landwehr said. “We don’t bring them in as eggs because the timing doesn’t work real well for us. We bring them in as fingerlings, stock them into our ponds and grow them out until fall. We were able to put a well in at the hatchery here that gives us more flexibility on how to use the hatchery. That well is supplying water to our ponds, which makes it a lot easier for us to clearly differentiate the coldwater side and the coolwater side of the hatchery.”
Renovations at the hatchery aren’t finished, according to Landwehr.
“The third phase ended up being the Walleye Initiative and adding a well,” he said. “What was Phase 3 is now going to be Phase 4. It’s restoring and rehabbing the old hatchery. Parts of the old hatchery will be renovated and restored back to the way they used to be. Part of the reason we went through the renovation is the old hatchery was just getting to the point where it was almost irreparable. It’s also taking parts of the old hatchery and turning it back into native stream. There’s really no timeline on when that may start.”
Variety of fish
Some of the hatchery’s work centers around Great Lakes spotted muskies.
“That’s one of the few fish that we get as fish and not as eggs,” Landwehr said. “The spotted muskies come from Michigan. The Michigan DNR goes out and spawns them, starts them in a hatchery and they come with a clean bill of health to us. Those usually end up coming in the late summer and early fall as fingerlings that are about 6 inches long. We hold them over winter and stock them out the following summer. They’re about 12 to 14 inches. The reason we’re getting them from Michigan is there is no spotted musky brood stock available in Wisconsin.”
The DNR wants to establish two lakes in Oconto County, Anderson and Archibald, and Elkhart Lake in Sheboygan County as brood stock lakes.
“When we’re doing our musky production, we can go into those lakes and spawn the fish rather than have to go to Michigan to get them all the time,” Landwehr said. “We’ve been working with those lakes for quite a few years now and within the next to three years, we’re hoping we can get eggs out of those lakes from the brood stock that’s there. That will really bump up our ability to produce more Great Lakes spotted muskies for stocking in Green Bay and the Lake Michigan drainage basin.”
There isn’t much difference between Great Lakes spotted muskies and traditional muskies.
“They look a little different and we think the spotted muskies have over time evolved themselves into being a little more suitable with the Lake Michigan drainage basin,” Landwehr said. “Fish aren’t like birds or mammals where they can move back and forth. There are times when they kind of get genetically predisposed to a particular water body or system that they’re in. Lake Michigan has spotteds and they evolved that way for some reason so we’re going to keep that going.”
Green Bay has developed a reputation for large spotted muskies.
“They do really well,” Landwehr said. “We only get a certain number of them every year that are going to brood stock lakes. To supplement Green Bay, we are also spawning fish that are on Green Bay already, but we can’t bring them here to Wild Rose because of disease transmission concerns. We have two ponds in Kewaunee by the spawning weir we operate. We’re raising between 5,000 and 7,000 musky fingerlings a year there and those get stocked back into Green Bay and the Fox River.”
Coldwater vs. coolwater
Wild Rose is one of the state’s only hatcheries raising coldwater fish (trout and salmon) and coolwater fish (walleye, musky, northern pike and sturgeon).
“We’re a coldwater and coolwater hatchery and there are not a lot (of hatcheries) in the state that do both,” Landwehr said. “On the trout side, we do brown trout, coho salmon and chinook salmon for Lake Michigan. On the coolwater side, we’ll do walleyes, traditional muskies, Great Lakes spotted muskies, northern pike and, depending on the year, two or three different strains of sturgeon. It depends on the year and what’s needed, but we try to be flexible.”
The hatchery has 10 full-time employees and four to six part-timers.
The 2017 stocking season recently kicked off with brown trout and coho salmon being stocked in Lake Michigan.
“It gets really busy on the coolwater side with northerns, followed by walleyes and muskies,” Landwehr said. “The coldwater side kind of slows down over the summer. We have all our fish in and they’re growing. Once we stock out all the coolwater fish in the fall, that coincides with the fall spawning runs for the chinook, coho and brown trout. When one side is cooling down, the other side is ramping up. There’s really no down time through the year.”
Visitors are encouraged to visit the hatchery and check out the Wild Rose Hatchery Education Center.
“The visitor’s center has some really good educational stuff,” Landwehr said. “There are some really nice displays on how the old hatchery operated, even 60, 70, 80 years ago. There are few old brood stock in the old hatchery so you can still see some fish down there. When the hatchery is open for tours, (naturalist Joan Voigt) takes folks through and kind of explains the new hatchery. You can get into the viewing room in our coldwater building and see what the inside of the new hatchery looks like. We generally don’t allow the public into any of the rearing areas for biosecurity purposes. We’re trying to keep as clean an area as possible for the fish.”
Hatcheries play a big role in making Wisconsin one of the nation’s top fishing destinations, according to Landwehr.
“You don’t have to look very far and you can catch a little bit of everything,” he said. “You can go for trophy musky in one lake and within 20 or 30 miles, you can probably find a really good coldwater trout stream. Depending on where you are, you may be only 50 miles from Lake Michigan and catch 20-pound chinook salmon.
“Wisconsin has a pretty good diverse fishery across the landscape,” he added. “Along with the habitat work the DNR does, we’re a big part of that.”