ROYAL, Neb. — Anthony Ariano reeled in one rainbow trout after another while fishing from the shore at Standing Bear Lake, gently releasing each back to the water.
“What a beautiful fish,” Ariano said of his first catch.
Steve Wilhelm, Grove Trout Rearing Station fish production supervisor and part of the team that raises trout for the state's stocking program, enjoys watching people catching and harvesting the trout, despite working to protect the fish 24 hours a day, 12 months a year.
“I love to see people champing at the bit to catch the trout we're releasing,” he said. “It's my favorite part of my job.”
Wilhelm and a team of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission employees stock Nebraska's lakes and waterways with trout and many of the other fish that attract people, fishing poles in hand, to area lakes and waterways.
Great lengths go into protecting the fish. At the Calamus State Fish Hatchery and the trout rearing station, two employees live on the grounds with their families in state housing at each property.
“It's not an 8 to 5 job. Their job is something they live,” said Dean Rosenthal, assistant division administrator in charge of fish production.
Prior to releasing the trout they raise, five employees at the Calamus hatchery and three employees at the rearing station are almost over-protective of the trout — not unlike parents watching over their children.
Using new technology and old-fashioned hard work, the team works nonstop for one goal: to raise fish to provide fun for Nebraska's fishermen.
The trout stocked in lakes in the eastern part of Nebraska begin their journey at the Calamus hatchery at the Virginia Smith Dam near Burwell, Neb.
The hatchery, which was built in 1989, raises the trout until they are 4-inch fingerlings. It's Nebraska's newest fish production facility in a stocking program that began in the late 1870s with the purchase of the old Gretna fish hatchery.
The Calamus hatchery also raises walleye, crappie, bass, bluegill, musky, tiger musky, wipers and other species of fish depending on the state's needs.
The fingerlings are transferred to the Grove Trout Rearing Station near Royal, Neb., where they are cared for until they reach maturity. The fish are about 10 inches long when released.
To finish the process, trout are carefully transferred to nearly 50 lakes in eastern Nebraska using a specifically designed trailer. It has three 1,100-gallon tanks that are monitored for temperature, oxygen levels and water quality.
Often, fishermen and spectators are waiting to see the trout released.
It's not uncommon for word to spread fast in small towns that fish are on the way when the trailer is seen rolling down the road,” said Joe Cassidy, fish culture supervisor at the rearing station.
The Grove rearing station is one of two in the state. Rock Creek, near Parks, Neb., supplies the western part of the state with most of its trout. This year, 272,000 trout have been raised, 190,000 at the Grove facility. Each trout raised this year cost the state $1.03.
Not all of the fish make it to Nebraska lakes. Many of the trout are gobbled up by predators.
“Blue Heron are our biggest problem,” Wilhelm said.
At sunrise on Tuesday, as the team of three at Grove worked to load 3,500 trout for transport to Standing Bear Lake, osprey circled overhead waiting for an opportunity to swoop in for a fast meal.
“We've tried to scare them off, but we haven't found an effective way to stop them,” Wilhelm said.
To most, seeing an osprey diving into the water for a fish or a mink fattening up for winter would be a rare treat. Not for Wilhelm.
“We want to see every fish we raise make it to the lake,” he said.
Heron, osprey, mink, raccoons and other predators eat a lot of the trout raised at Grove. Of the 190,000 trout raised, only 160,000 will make it to their final destination.
The state is studying the double-crested cormorant migration as the first part of an investigation on fish predators. Cormorants have found their way to the Calamus hatchery for easy meals.
After a recent stocking at Standing Bear Lake in northwest Omaha, Cassidy carefully cleared all of the fish from the shoreline to make sure they weren't caught in algae or in the way of the wheels of his trailer before he pulled out.
“I don't want to run over any of the little guys,” Cassidy said.
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