LIGONIER, Pa. -- Crouching on a creek bank on a pleasant spring day, 9-year-old Makayla Boda of Roscoe reinforced deep, personal connections with nature as she helped to maintain water quality and recreational opportunities in an important watershed vital to the environmental health of Pennsylvania.
But if you ask her, pouring buckets of brown and rainbow trout into Loyalhanna Creek on March 9 was just a fun thing to do outdoors. It was the second year Makayla had volunteered to help the guys on the stocking trucks.
"I get to be with my Pap and Gram when we stock fish," she said.
As about 850,000 anglers prepare for the April 13 statewide opening of trout season, the tanker trucks are on the road delivering nearly 4 million adult trout to Pennsylvania rivers, lakes and streams.
Of the states' 15 fish hatcheries, eight are cold-water operations rearing trout. It's a complicated process costing $7 million to $7.5 million per year. No money used to finance the Fish and Boat Commission's stocking programs comes from the state's general fund.
This year's trout stockings will not be impacted by looming budget cuts that will trim $9 million per year from the agency's $60 million annual budget. The savings will fund employee health care and retirement obligations and pay for growing infrastructure costs. In 2014, two of the state's eight trout hatcheries will be closed, saving about $2 million annually with a loss to anglers of 785,000 brook, brown, rainbow and golden rainbow trout. Those fish won't be replaced. The cuts won't be felt on the water until the 2015 trout season.
Executive director John Arway said the agency, "must streamline our operations and reduce operating costs in order to maintain a sound financial condition while we attempt to secure long-term, dedicated alternative funding."
While he's doing that, it's easy to set the hook without knowing just how those slippery, speckled fish got in the water.
Tom Cochran, the agency's southern fish production manager, said it's gratifying for him and his 60 to 70 employees to hear about volunteer stockers like Makayla.
"Kids are especially near and dear to us," he said. "They get a really good day on the water, it helps with their appreciation of the environment and much more."
The process begins in August when brood stock raised in Pennsylvania hatcheries are anesthetized and hand-squeezed to produce eggs and milt. Wildlife agencies from several states including Pennsylvania routinely trade genetic material to maintain the vitality of blood lines.
After an incubation period of 35 to 45 days, the first to hatch are tiny rainbow trout, then brookies, then browns. When they've depleted the nourishment in their yoke sacks, they're fed a powdered form of fish meal and fish oil, and are reared in indoor tanks until spring.
At 2 to 4 inches, the fry are transferred to outdoor pools or raceways until the following spring when they reach a target stocking size of about 11 inches and a little more than a half pound. "The process from spawn until they're on the truck and heading for the stream takes 16 to 18 months," Cochran said.
No refrigeration is needed to keep water temperatures in low- to mid-50s.
"We rarely have temperatures too high," Cochran said. "We get water from springs and underground wells. Even on the hottest day of summer, the water is still cold."
Cochran said intake water quality is documented weekly by a Fish and Boat laboratory. Technology introduced several years ago improves the removal of wastes. Effluent and uneaten food pellets are removed two or three times a week and dumped into "polishing ponds." The fertilizer produced is donated to local farmers. The state Department of Environmental Protection certifies that water going out of the hatcheries is clean as it was going in.
In his 20 years with Fish and Boat, seven in his current job, Cochran said he has felt the most satisfaction from clever little innovations that improve the hatcheries' efficiency. When great blue herons at the Reynoldsville hatchery developed a taste for holding pond trout, the site's new hatchery manager developed a process for stretching inexpensive netting over the water to keep out the birds.
"That's the exciting thing, a continual process of always looking at making it more efficient," Cochran said, "not just from the standpoint of production, but in improving the quality of the water going out of the facility."
Fish and Boat's cold- and warm-water hatcheries are open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily for free visitation. Find locations and other details at www.fish.state.pa.us.