Sandlapper Society

Wahalla Fish Hatchery

Where Trout are on the Rebound

by Daniel E. Harmon

The Walhalla State Fish Hatchery is just off S.C. 107 in Oconee County near the North Carolina border. It’s open to the public at no charge from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Christmas.  For more information, call 864.638.2866 or visit hatcheries.dnr.sc.gov.

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Hairpin curves, ear-popping heights and clean, cool air make for exhilarating excursions through South Carolina’s northwestern extremity in the Blue Ridge. If the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery is your destination, the outing will be not only fun but unforgettable. Besides the beautiful drive, you’ll become acquainted, up close, with the fascinating wildlife species to which the hatchery is devoted: brook, rainbow and brown trout. Half a million are produced here annually, most of them destined for release into upstate waters.

The Oconee County facility—one of five hatcheries operated by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—is at one of the highest, coldest locales in the state. Water temperatures range from the 30s in winter to around 70 degrees in late summer—the upper limit of tolerance for trout.

“The high elevation and the pristine water are important for trout production and growth,” says Robby Lowery, assistant manager, explaining why the federal government selected this site for a trout hatchery 75 years ago. He adds that local water is “soft” in chemical content, “which has a dramatic effect on trout production and how they grow.”

The Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps built the first circular rearing tanks, which soon were replaced by elongated raceways. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service turned the hatchery over to the state DNR. Four full-time and two temporary technicians maintain the hatchery. Scott Poore, manager, also is the staff biologist.

Hatchery operations have changed little through the decades, except for the use of newer equipment. The most important addition is a liquid oxygen tank; by boosting the oxygen level in the water, it results in higher fish yields.

The hatchery keeps a reserve of adult brown trout to produce eggs. It obtains brook and rainbow trout eggs from other state and federal hatcheries. “We work on a year-and-a-half schedule, from an egg to a stockable-size fish,” Lowery says.

A “stockable” length is 9 to 12 inches. In peak stocking seasons—spring and autumn—as many as a dozen truckloads of young fish go out from the hatchery every week. Most are placed in Oconee, Pickens and Greenville county rivers and lakes, including Lake Jocassee, noted for its trophy trout. Some are taken as far below as the tail waters of lakes Hartwell and Murray. Helicopters deposit trout in the wilds of the Chattooga and Chauga rivers.

The main objective is to support the trout population for recreational fishing. Without supplements from the hatchery, trout in South Carolina streams would be sparse because of low alkalinity.

The DNR’s other hatcheries produce warm-water fish species: large- and smallmouth bass, striped and hybrid striped bass, bream, and channel and blue catfish. Only the Walhalla operation is cool enough year-round to support trout breeding.

An estimated 40,000 visitors come to the remote site each year to examine the teeming schools of trout of progressive sizes. They’re encouraged to bring a picnic and to hike through the shaded river habitat. Fishers test their skills in the East Fork of the Chattooga that flows through the property.

Trout have inhabited the region’s highland waters for at least 11,000 years, biologists believe. A century ago, they were in sharp decline because of damming, logging, residential development, farming practices and heavy fishing demands. Thanks to the Walhalla hatchery, their future appears secure. 
 

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