Something’s fishy in Wild Rose
Fish hatchery is state’s largest
By Greg Seubert
After more than a century as one of Wisconsin’s top fish producers, the Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Millions of fish – including trout, salmon, walleye, northern pike, musky and lake sturgeon – have been raised at the facility over the years before being stocked in Lake Michigan or inland lakes, rivers and streams.
Jesse Landwehr oversees operations at the hatchery, located just north of the village of Wild Rose in Waushara County.
“The Wild Rose hatchery is actually the biggest hatchery in the state,” he said. “It’s always been one of the biggest hatcheries in the state just because of the groundwater resource we have here.
“What’s unique is we raise both cold and coolwater fish,” he said. “We raise trout and salmon for stocking in Lake Michigan and we also raise walleye, northern, muskies and lake sturgeon for inland stocking. We stock lakes and streams throughout the state. Out of the 72 counties in the state, we probably stock fish in 40-plus of them.”
The hatchery is one of 11 hatcheries and rearing stations that the state Department of Natural Resources operates.
The Wild Rose hatchery is the only one in central Wisconsin.
“It’s nice because it’s centrally located and the fish don’t have to go far to reach other parts of the state,” Landwehr said. “The hatchery is situated where it is because of the great groundwater resource that we have in the area. We’re sitting on the edge of glacial Lake Wisconsin. There’s a really great aquifer underneath us and there were a ton of artesian wells here. They would build a pond and raise fish in it. As they needed more fish, they would dig more ponds and have more flow.”
Major facelift 2008-10
The hatchery underwent a major facelift from 2008 to 2010, according to Landwehr.
“The coldwater facility – the trout and salmon side – was rebuilt and opened in 2008,” he said. “The coolwater side was completed in 2010. It was a big, extensive renovation. It really wasn’t a renovation, it was a total rebuild.”
The former hatchery area still exists and includes a visitor center.
“The old hatchery is still here and you can still see that,” Landwehr said. “That’s where the visitor center is and you can tour the old facility. The new hatchery was built to fix a lot of groundwater issues because a lot of the artesian wells that were coming up weren’t legal wells. They were just a pipeline down into the aquifer so that if anything were to ever happen, it could contaminate that. They capped up all of the old wells in the facility to prevent anything from happening to that aquifer.”
The hatchery renovation also solved a major problem: predation of fish by wildlife.
“The old hatchery was all outdoors, so birds, otters and mink could get to the fish,” Landwehr said. “We were raising thousands of additional fish every year just because we had to plan for those predation losses. When they rebuilt the hatchery, it’s all inside and it’s all well water, so we can control our flows and temperatures. We’re raising the fish in a more healthy environment. They don’t have bacteria and things from the outside world getting into them. We can control that a lot better.”
The Wild Rose hatchery and the state’s other hatcheries are big reasons why Wisconsin has been a major angling destination for years, Landwehr said.
“Stocking’s a really big investment and it’s a very important part of fisheries science,” he said. “Stocking fish is critically important, just like all of our survey work to assess what the populations look like out on the lakes. Establishing regulations is important and habitat work that our crews do is important. I enjoy the fact that we’re putting fish out for the public to catch.”
Visitor center provides access
Raising fish has been going on for more than 100 years at the Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery.
A visit to the hatchery’s visitor center gives people an opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes at Wisconsin’s largest state-operated fish hatchery.
Trout, salmon, walleye, northern pike, muskie and lake sturgeon are raised at the hatchery before being stocked in Lake Michigan and inland lakes, rivers and streams.
Joan Voigt gives hatchery tours and also oversees its visitor center.
“The visitor center has two 300-gallon aquariums,” she said. “One is for our coldwater fish, which are trout and salmon. Right now, we have brown trout and steelhead, or rainbow trout in there. Those fish would have been spawned a year ago in January and they are about 6 inches long right now. The remainder of those fish are being stocked in Lake Michigan from Door County all the way down to the Root River in Racine.”
Meanwhile, the center’s coolwater aquarium includes walleye, northern and yellow perch.
“We have a lot of hands-on exhibits,” Voigt said. “There is a mock fish tech lab, so you can be a fish tech for the day. You can sort eggs and do some calculations as to how many survive. We have a microscope-type of scope where people can look at microscopic insects and eggs.
“We also have a sturgeon exhibit, which talks about the sturgeon story and history and how that species almost became decimated,” she added. “Our hatchery is the only hatchery to raise lake sturgeon. We’ll spawn them down by (Wisconsin) Dells once the water temperature is warm enough. We bring them back here and raise them. They will be stocked the following year in Merrill and we’ll work our way down the Wisconsin River to Baraboo.”
The center also has a mock fishing pond, Voigt said.
“The kids love that,” she said. “They can catch a fish and try to identify them and determine if they’re invasive or native. We have an invasive species display. There are many aquatic invasives that disturb the natural habitat for our native fish. We have a record wall of fame with 26 fish and people can try to guess what that fish is based on their shape.”
The hatchery has held open houses in the spring and fall, but this year’s spring event has been put on hold.
“We just reopened back up and we weren’t certain how quickly we’d have authorization to open up and have the public here,” Landwehr said. “As long as everything holds up, we’re planning on doing our fall spawning migration open house again.”
COVID-19 affected the public’s access to the facility, Landwehr said.
“It was tough to see the visitor center not used for a year,” he said. “We opened for a while last year for a short time and closed up for the winter. This spring, we opened back up again at the beginning of April, so we’re back to our regular schedule again.”
Summer hours begin Memorial Day
The center’s summer hours begin Memorial Day weekend and continue through Labor Day.
“We have a really great visitor center with a lot of educational displays for students,” he said. “We don’t allow the public into the buildings because we’re trying to keep bacteria and disease out. We have a video that we put together a year or two ago that shows the inner workings of the hatchery. On the tour, Joan will take you up to our coldwater building where there’s an observation room with windows so you can see what’s going on without actually getting inside the hatchery.”
“We are open on all three summer holidays, including the Fourth of July, and we are open Wednesday through Saturday,” Voigt said. “From 8 to 3, people can wander around the property and the building will be generally open from 9 to 2.”
Voigt gives guided tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Tours can be scheduled by contacting her at 920-622-3527, ext. 209, or [email protected]
“I give a 10-minute video introduction of what we do here,” Voigt said. “Then, I’ll take them to our nursery where they can see inside a viewing window where the little fish are raised. If you have a group you’d like to bring in at a different time, just give me a call a week ahead of time so I can arrange an appointment for them. If there’s a group of 20 or more, I do request that they call ahead to make reservations so I can give them my full attention.”
The public can also spend time along raceways that the hatchery raised fish in before a major renovation from 2008-10.
Large brown trout still swim in the raceway, which are a big hit with students that visit the hatchery in the spring and fall.
“We have a lot of old broodstock brown trout that are probably 10 to 15 years old,” Landwehr said. “They’re pretty good sized and kids always like seeing the fish. It’s neat to see where the hatchery came from and then go up into the new facility and see how far it’s advanced over the years.”
“They get really excited and we let them feed the fish,” Voigt said. “We have a feed dispenser at our picnic shelter that takes quarters. The fish will jump and go crazy for the food.”
“The historic hatchery is always open,” Landwehr said. “There are some education displays down there and people are always welcome to come and check that out during the day if the gates to the hatchery are open.”
The visitor center gives the public a chance to see what happens at the hatchery, Voigt said.
“It’s really important to share what we do and people are usually amazed to see what it takes to raise fish,” she said. “Wild Rose is one of 11 hatcheries that help maintain a balance in the lakes and rivers. Some fish don’t reproduce well. Sometimes, they’re overfished. We help maintain that balance and keep a healthy population for anglers to have a great opportunity to catch fish.”