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Volunteers from Salmon Unlimited mark more than 50,000 rainbow trout in a single day. Photos by Chris Young.

Jake Wolf Hatchery: Technology advances, but volunteer support still critical

March 30, 2013 at 10:00 PM

The State Journal-Register

It’s old school versus high tech.

During the second week of March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes Fish Tag and Recovery Lab paid a visit to the Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery in Mason County to mark and tag more than 300,000 Chinook salmon.

The apparatus is housed in a fifth-wheel trailer and fish are automatically sorted by size, have one fin clipped and a coded wire tag is inserted – all with minimal handling by hatchery or Fish and Wildlife Service staff.

By clipping a particular fin, any fish that are recovered can be traced back to its origins. That can help biologists learn more about fish movements within Lake Michigan – where these Chinook will be stocked – and how fast they grow.

They also want to understand how well the salmon are reproducing naturally, especially in streams in Michigan that feed into the lake.

Jim Webster, a fisheries biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the computer controls a sorter that separates fish according to size. It also feeds more fish into the system when they are needed.

Fish are sorted by size before clipping and tagging.

Then it locates the proper fin for clipping and injects a 1.1 millimeter, hair-like wire with a number printed on it into the fish’s snout.

“We can clip and tag 7,000 fish an hour,” Webster said. “Sometimes it can go slower, sometimes it can go faster.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service operates four trailers that clip and tag fish being produced for the Great Lakes in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, primarily.

“This is the third year we’ve marked all the Chinook stocked into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron,” he said. “We also do all the lake trout.”

The trailers are fast and efficient and a marvel to watch in action. But there are more fish to mark than even the four trailers can handle.

The following week, 38 volunteers from Salmon Unlimited in the Chicago area made their annual trip to Jake Wolf to help clip more than 50,000 rainbow trout – by hand.

The work takes an entire day, and the hatchery staff provides a hearty lunch of fried chicken for the volunteers.

Hatchery manager Steve Krueger said without the “old school” volunteers, the work would take too long.

“Without them we couldn’t do this,” he said. “What they knock out in one day, it would take us a week to do.”

The hatchery has a staff of 10.

“This is the way we have done it for 30 years,” Krueger said. “What you saw last week is the transition from old school to new technology.

The trailer can mark and clip 7,000 fish per hour.

“Years ago we used to mark hundreds of thousands of fish (by hand).”

Not all of the volunteers were from the Chicago area.

Bill Clayton, who got the nickname Downstate Bill, is from Bartonville.

He said he regularly travels from his central Illinois home to fish in Lake Michigan.

“My friends can’t understand why I travel four hours to the Northpoint Marina every other weekend,” he said. “I got hooked a few years ago.”

He said he is surprised at the number of anglers outside of Chicago who are unaware of Lake Michigan’s salmon fishery.

“They don’t even relate to it,” he said. “But it’s a great resource, and it’s not an expensive hobby.”


Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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