Wisconsin fish farms are helping to meet the increasing consumer demand for fresh, healthy, locally grown foods.
They offer families an opportunity to catch their supper from a pond, provide fresh fish to local restaurants, delis and fish markets, and bring live fish to farmers' markets.
Several fish farms throughout the state recently partnered with the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association to welcome the public to experience fish farming and learn firsthand how locally grown, fresh fish are raised on today's farms as they celebrated Wisconsin Aquaculture Day.
Wisconsin's private aquaculture dates back to 1856. Today, the state's fish farms raise trout, yellow perch and bluegills for food; walleye, northern pike, muskie and bass for stocking; and minnows for bait.
Wisconsin ranks first in the Midwest and 20th in the nation for aquaculture, boasting a $21 million economic impact with more than 2,400 fish farms.
One of the state's long-established trout farms is located in east central Wisconsin between New London and Northport near the Wolf River. It was founded by Rev. Wally Lang, a Lutheran minister, in 1963, when he began building four ponds, and, quite appropriately, named the property Wilderness Springs.
Over the years, expansion continued, with 30 ponds and concrete raceways hatching 300,000 rainbow trout per year.
Since 1974, Kathy Foster (Lang's daughter) and her husband, Mike, have operated Wilderness Springs.
For 10 years they worked full-time jobs and raised a family of four children. During those years, they kept Wilderness Springs open for public fishing while also providing fish for stocking trout for ponds, sport shows and other fee fishing facilities.
In 1984, they made the decision to concentrate on live hauling of trout and closed the property to public fishing.
"We had been open seven days a week, and with raising four children it got to be too much work for us," Kathy recalled.
Most of their ponds are six feet deep or less.
"Here we have a lot of natural water flowing through the ponds with artesian wells and springs, so we don't need a big body of water," Mike noted.
"In other areas you might want to dig a pond deeper because that sub-strata water would come in a lot colder and that helps to keep your pond temperature lower. But an eight-foot pond out in the middle of a field would not be conducive to trout rearing because you need the turn over of fresh water in there," he added.
They do some artificial aeration that involves simply splashing the water in their ponds that are about one-eighth of an acre.
"We're set up on the upper slope of the flood plain where we can get about 3-4 feet of vertical drop as water spills from pond to pond, and that means we don't need to run aerators more," Mike noted.
Public fishing returns
With their children grown, married and having children of their own, Mike and Kathy reopened Wilderness Springs to public fishing four years ago.
Public fishing is available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from May through September, and other times by appointment.
No fishing license is required and there's no limit. The fee is based on the weight of the fish caught.
Fish are iced and packaged at no extra cost. Cleaning is available for an additional charge.
"We have cane poles, but people can bring their own rods and lures," Kathy noted. "We don't allow any live bait, though, due to VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) restrictions."
A kernel of corn attached to a small hook is the preferred bait.
"It's quite simple to catch fish," Kathy said, "but there is a knack to it because they can swim past your hook just as easily."
There are fewer fish farms that allow public fishing today than in past years because of bio-security concerns, Kathy said. "Many have limited their operation to live hauling and processing for restaurants," she added.
Mike noted that the next closest farm offering public fishing is nearly 70 miles away.
Currently, the Fosters raise only the Western strain of rainbow trout.
"We used to raise brook and brown trout, but the brook trout are more difficult to raise and the browns are kind of moody," Kathy explained.
They purchase trout eggs and hatch the fry. "We just keep moving them in the raceways and thinning them out to a decent size and then we put them into the earthen ponds," Kathy said.
Another challenge to raising trout comes from a variety of predators.
"We have had problems with osprey and fur-bearing predators," Mike remarked. "Otters have been a big problem because they're found throughout Waupaca County. We also have some resident mink."
Herons are also proficient at taking trout, even from the concrete raceways that are covered with wire mesh.
"They get their long bills through the mesh and, if they get a fish by the head, they can pull it right through," Mike said.
Ospreys are posing less of a problem these days because bald eagles have moved into the area.
"We are getting some help from eagles that chase away the ospreys," Mike explained. "The eagles may take an occasional fish, but our losses from ospreys have decreased."
A couple of years ago the Fosters also started selling trout at area farmers' markets.
"Our two sons and son-in-law have been going to Appleton's downtown farm market, which has been really interesting," Kathy said. "We put a window on the side of our live tank so people can see the fish swimming around; they can pick out the fish they want, which we'll get ready for them to take home and eat."
The family also is exploring the option of processing fish.
"We've been getting increasing numbers of people asking if we can sell fish to restaurants or if they can buy smoked trout," Kathy noted, "but we don't have the proper license for that yet. We're researching that now because the demand is so great, especially for smoked trout."
Educating customers and the general public also is something they do.
"There are times I have to tell people their ponds are marginal for trout," Mike said. "Because trout is a cold water fish, it needs to be kept in as cool an environment as possible, but some ponds just don't have those cool water supplies."
He also advises customers on proper feeding methods.
Kathy had a booth in the Youth Tent at this year's Wisconsin Farm Technology Days that helped the youth identify the various species of trout and provided information about trout habits, habitat and preferred foods.
Kathy also provides a variety of delicious trout recipes to farm visitors.
Several families came out to do a little fishing at Wilderness Springs during this year's Aquaculture Day.
"We really enjoy seeing people come and fish," Kathy remarked.
Wilderness Springs Trout Farm is located west of New London at N4923 Lange Dr. For more information, phone 920-982-2386, or visit the farm's website: www.wilderness-springs.com.
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