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Hatchery opens to community

Right front to back, Carsen Nykanen of Maple, Andrew Thompson of Brule and Dylan Peterson of Maple fish for tiger trout during the Brule Hatchery’s family fun day Saturday. (Maria Lockwood)

The Brule Hatchery’s family fun day had a little something for everyone. Children created one-of-a-kind shirts, took aim with bows, put out a mock fire with a hand pump, tied bits of feather and string into flies and then put them to the test to land tiger trout.

“I’m glad we came,” said Trisha Nelson of Poplar who spent a few hours at the June 7 event with her family. “It’s a good, outdoors day.” Along with the shirts, flies and goodie bags, her son Tyler, 8, won some lures in the raffle. Every station offered bug spray and the family kept their hoods up, so mosquitoes weren’t much of a problem.

“We will be back next year,” Nelson said.

This marked the third year Shannon Peterson of Maple attended the event.

“The kids just have a really good time fishing,” Peterson said.

Her son Dylan, 12, tied a fly with volunteer Mike Zicus of the Brule River Sportsman’s Club. Then he dipped it in the tiger trout pond. After being caught a few times earlier in the day, however, the wary fish refused to bite.

Mike Khalar, 7, of Highland had an important question for the volunteers.

“What kinds of flies do walleyes, northern and bass like?” he asked. With their help, he was able to make a fly to take on his upcoming walleye fishing trip.

Lexi Aumann-Mihalak, 7, of Poplar bit her lip in concentration as she turned a paint-covered fish over to press it onto a shirt. Although she likes fishing, Lexi said, the arts and crafts were her favorite.

The archery tent was the place to find Adam Thompson, 10, of Brule. It has been his favorite station every year. He estimated he shot more than a thousand arrows last year. Saturday, he took a break to help his 6-year-old sister Emily draw and shoot.

“We come every year,” said their mother, Katie. “It’s on our calendar. They look forward to it.”

It’s a day that almost wasn’t.

Two years ago, members of the community rallied to support the Brule fish rearing station, known locally as the Brule Hatchery, when the state considered shutting it down. There were letters to the editor, calls to legislators and a public hearing in Brule.

“We were very impressed at some of the testimony,” said Bill Gobin, hatchery foreman. “Obviously Madison was impressed, too. It was great to see.”

“It’s one of the most powerful hearings I’ve been to,” said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, who coordinated the event with Reps. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, and Nick Milroy, D-South Range. “The testimony was so heartfelt.”

The DNR reversed course, opting to re-allocate money so the hatchery would continue to operate.

“We heard loud and clear from the community there,” said John Gozdzialski, northern region director for the DNR. “They really wanted to keep it going, not just to raise fish but for educational purposes, a place to come see how a hatchery operates.”

The facility, built in 1927, is also a connection to the historic Brule River, where five presidents and generations of families have fished for trout.

“It’s kind of a destination for people who come up here,” Gobin said, and there’s a lot of local ownership and pride in the facility.

Hatchery staff released the final 150,000 of their wild brown trout into Lake Superior this week. By the end of July, they’ll be stocked to the gills again, this time with 401,000 small fry. Most of the fish raised will be released in Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

Although the facility was spared in the last budget, people are keeping it on their radar. Groups, organizations and businesses have been holding regular meetings on the status of the hatchery, which has two full-time employees and one part-time seasonal worker. The informal friends group has provided support in myriad ways — volunteering time at events, helping clip fins on the thousands of fish before they are released and donating money. Anyone interested in helping can contact the hatchery at 715-372-4820.

“You get a chance to interact not just with us, but biologists,” Gobin said. “It’s a way for them to be more hands-on, more involved.”

That support could factor in if the fisheries budget tightens again.

“The bottom line is we need to have a long-term chain of support in place,” Gozdzialkski said. “It’s all about working together.”

Another way to support fishing on a statewide scale would be to back proposals for increases in fishing licenses and fees, said Jauch.

“If we’re going to keep our hatchery program vital, we must be willing to pay for it,” he said. The fish raised in Brule have played an important role in restoration of lake populations, and at one point, helped repopulate steelhead trout on the Brule River itself.

People can also monitor the hatchery on a statewide level by tracking the budget process.

“A lot of people don’t connect the fact that when state budgets are set, they have (local) consequences,” Milroy said. Keeping lines of communication open with legislators is a good way to keep abreast of how the budget will affect Douglas County, he said.

Jauch encouraged people to drop by the hatchery and chat with the employees. There are no current plans to close the facility. But it was on the chopping block once and, if no new money is pumped into the fisheries program, it could be again.

The annual family fun day, which took place last Saturday, is one way those who care for the hatchery say “thank you” to the community.

“It’s our way of giving back,” said Gobin, and to let people know their support isn’t taken for granted.