HAWTHORN – Before junior reels in his first-ever trout catch, or before a group of lifelong friends decide to wade hip-deep into Red Bank Creek to wet a line, a group of local volunteers make sure there will be fish swimming around worthy of being caught on the opening day of trout season.
If you think all the work begins on opening day, think again.
The Hawthorn Rod and Gun Club started raising trout to stock Red Bank Creek more than 30 years ago, and the process begins anew early in June each year when the local club receives its delivery of “fingerling” trout from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
The four-inch long baby fish are brought to the club’s nursery unit along a small stream known as Cherry Run in Hawthorn. The nursery is part of the Fish and Boat Commission’s Cooperative Nursery Program, and is currently the only trout nursery in Clarion County.
The nursery is on the property of Terry Kunselman, and the cement holding tank structure was originally part of the old bottling plant in Hawthorn, and is more than 100 years old.
Kunselman, who has been involved with the club’s trout endeavors since the beginning in the 1980s, said that the four-inch long fingerlings that arrive in June each year develop over 10 months into the 10- to 14-inch trout that are released just prior to trout season each April.
The local club usually receives its fish from a state hatchery in Oswayo, near Coudersport, each year. The club receives 2,000 rainbow trout, with about 50 golden rainbows in the mix.
“The rainbows tolerate our water better,” Kunselman said, noting that brook trout usually don’t fare as well.
It takes just about 1 ton of food to feed the fish each year, at a cost of right around $2,000 for the club. The club also has costs of about $500 per year for the electricity to run the aerators in the tanks.
The costs are paid for by the club’s annual Trout Derby, which includes the sale of tickets and buttons, and awards prizes for lucky anglers who reel in the tagged fish. [For more on the Trout Derby, see the story in the “Trout and Turkey” special section included with today’s Leader-Vindicator.]
On a good year — and Kunselman said this has been a good year — the club releases about 1,900 fish into Red Bank Creek between the Mayport and Oak Ridge bridges in the days prior to the opening of trout season, which this year is this Saturday, April 13.
Kunselman said this year and last year have been among the club’s best ever for raising fish, unlike the effort two years ago which resulted in all the fish dying from a parasite.
“When the fish are sick and have a parasite, I know it,” Kunselman said.
It all pretty much has to do with the weather.
“It depends on the summer, and how warm it gets,” Kunselman said, noting that in hot, dry years, the water coming in from Cherry Run warms up too much for the fish, which increases the chances of disease and parasites.
The club’s facility is inspected three times a year by the state, Kunselman said, adding that they look at the water quality, temperature, oxygen levels, acidity and more. It was noted that the fish belong to the Fish and Boat Commission, and the club must stock them in areas open to the public.
When it gets too hot, Kunselman explained that he has to hold back on feeding the fish as much because it can stress them out. Sometimes he scales back from two feedings a day to just one; while at other times when it gets really hot, he may hold off on feeding altogether for days.
Extreme cold temperatures in the winter can also create problems for the nursery. Kunselman said that the tanks need to be monitored to make sure they don’t freeze up in places that prevent water from flowing in and out. When the tanks clog with ice or even sometimes with fallen leaves, the tanks can flood.
“It’s a fight sometimes to keep the water flowing,” he said.
Kunselman said that the Hawthorn nursery is one of the smaller operations in the state, with some other ones raising tens of thousands of fish each year.
“We don’t have the water to do that,” he said of the local nursery, noting that it is about at its limit with 2,000 fish.
That smaller scale allows the Hawthorn group to raise fish larger than those at many of the other operations, he said.
“We usually have the biggest fish they’ve seen,” he said.
Once fully grown and ready to be stocked in the stream, Kunselman said club members use nets to bring the trout from the tanks into portable tanks on trailers. The portable tanks are old milk tanks from local dairies.
The fish are taken to spots near the Hawthorn, Mayport and Oak Ridge bridges for release into Red Bank Creek. Kunselman said that some of the fish will stay close to where they are deposited, while others will swim a distance. Over the years, tagged fish have been caught as far upstream as Heathville in Jefferson County, and as far downstream as the dam area in New Bethlehem.
Kunselman said the club also stocks fish in the small Pine Run, but no longer places any tagged fish in that tributary. He said it is primarily designed as a fishing area for children.
“That leaves a lot more space there for the kids to fish,” he said of the decision to no longer stock tagged fish in Pine Run.
As for this year’s opening day activities, Kunselman said the club will stock the stream on Wednesday and Thursday, with tickets for the Trout Derby still on sale at area businesses and from club members. For full details, see the Trout Derby story in the Trout & Turkey special section included in today’s L-V.