RogueMuirHead: Photography and Writing

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish: Hot Creek Fish Hatchery April 2017

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Location: Mammoth Lakes, CA 

35 Miles North of Bishop on North 395 taking a right onto Hot Creek Hatchery Rd

“Don’t take any wooden nickels,” my friend, Hendrix’s mother used to say to him before he would leave on ventures. “Don’t be cheap with your experiences,” he would later tell me is what she meant.

I try not to be. Not in the form of the most extravagant hotels that money can buy overlooking the most exquisite gold lined sunsets of life. But rather in the choices of my experiences. Would I prefer to drink in the peaks of the jagged eastern Sierras or rush on to my next destination, continue working each day away in hopes I can save for the best new electronic? 

Well, down the open mouth of 395 I chose my experience, taking a turn into a branch of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife at the Hot Creek Trout Hatchery. Just south of Mammoth Lakes the winds settle here. Birds fly, circling the facility in hopes of their free dinner. I have been here many times with Arizona since 2014, however this was the first time I got to see the smallest of creatures.

As you pull into the large, gravel parking lot you are greeted by a small house surrounded by wired fencing with a “do not disturb the residents” sign. As you walk the path you see signs showing what the California Fish Department does. The eggs of Rainbow Trout are hand fertilised by scientist, the eggs are then brought to sites like this to hatch, and from there the small fish are hand reared to be fed, grow, moved to various containers and released into other habitats in the local area. The colorful areas of the posters showed the cycle.

As I entered into the facility this time around with Arizona and T2, we were lost in the remarkable scenery as we chanced upon one of the caretakers named Stephen who was feeding some of the trout in the smaller pools at the front of the property. The fish excitedly swam to the surface, plopping their lips against the surface of the water for the feed that was specifically balanced for their size. Stephen had been working here for about four years and very proud of his job. Passion escaped his voice as he explained the science behind the caring of the fish. How the fish did not all eat the same grams of food, but rather it was placed on a scale of one to four. The alevins or baby trout live on their yolk from their egg sacks generally, however as they get older this is when Stephen begins to feed them their specific diets.

He invited us to join him in feeding the baby trout which were located in an elongated steel building I had observed many times, but never ventured into before. So, we went. As Arizona, T2 and I entered the building we encounted metal tubs filled with water and hundereds of baby rainbow trout some smaller than my finger nails. Dipping my hands into the icy waters of the metal tubs the fish fled from the shadows of my body. However, as my temperature cooled some began to swim into my hand, keeping themselves safe in the new environment. From their perspective it was possibly a new place to hang out when all they really saw was each other.

Merely walking by, their insticts would kick in and they would flee, swimming to the opposite side from where you were standing, bumping into each other for fear they may be eaten by a predator. I did try to reason with baby trout that I was, in fact, a vegetarian. However, they refused to go against their basic instict. So, we moved on to the outside, where it was time to feed their bigger brothers, sisters and cousins the level four of the food.

Within the outdoor troughs, where the teen trout reside, wire covers the open skies. Large fences run the entire perimeter, reaching 25ft into the air. Wires stretch across the open stadium, however it does not deter the birds. There is an electric fence running along the short wall of the trough of the smallest trout against the birds longing for that free meal. At one point, Stephen said they attempted to place netting over the open waters hoping that this would deter the birds. However, various species collaborated by sitting on the net, weighing it down so they could indulge in an all you can eat buffet. The fried remnants that were discovered before our arrival proved that the electric fence was the best option.

Stephen was now preparing to feed the hungry teenagers with the help of his truck. The particular food would be dispensed from a leaf blower like machine and the trout would be fed at a faster rate. This is done as many as six times a day. The growing fish need to consume as many calories as possible before they are released into the wild. As he got in his truck I followed behind observing, as he turned the ignition key, the roar of the feeding machine echoed as the food poured out into the once still waters. As the food touched the once placid water, the fish excited by their meal erupted in a feeding frenzy. Each, hundreds upon hundreds attempting to get a piece of the level four nugget that they desired. The vibrations of the machines possibly over rode their instinctual fear in favour of food. The waters raptured, splashing out over the electric fence, onto the pavement. Stephen drove around each side of the double row of troughs. The birds kept at bay, unsure of the frenzy and the loud noise of the machine. As the truck drove on the waters that were once in a feeding frenzy began to calm as each of the trout slurped up their final piece of food.

There used to be a feeding machine, when you placed a quarter in you got a handful of level three feed and could feed some of the trout, however Stephen indicated that a few years ago a bear had wondered onto the property and decided the machine was better off in his claws. And at the present time there is no desire to replace the machine thus luring more bears to the area, even though I figured the bears may prefer the trout over the feed. However, then again these could be particular type of bears. 

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