At 95, Hatchery Sticks With What Works

By Beacon Staff

SOMERS – A two-headed brook trout is preserved in a jar of alcohol at the Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery south of Somers. Next to it sits a letter from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks confirming the bizarre creature died on April 13, 1914.

The hatchery is full of history, some encased in glass and much of it employed in daily work. Amid the rapidly changing times of the Flathead Valley, the hatchery is nearly the same as it was when it was built for $9,000 in 1912. This spring completes its 95th year of operation.

“The only things that have changed are the colors and the employees,” said Brian Strohschein, the hatchery’s fish culture specialist.

The troughs and baskets holding fingerling kokanee salmon are exactly the same, and the incubation methods basically are as well. The manager, now Mark Kornick, still lives in a nearby bungalow also built in 1912. Strohschein, who has worked at the hatchery for 24 years, is proud to still collect eggs from the wild, as opposed to using eggs from domesticated fish “brewed in ponds or concrete raceways.”

“The less we mess with the fish the less their stress rate will be and the healthier they’ll be,” Strohschein said. “These are about as wild of cultured fish as you’ll find anywhere.”

In the early 1900’s an underground wood pipe system, part of which is seen here, carried water into the Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery.

Strohschein said the hatchery’s reliance on traditional methods is partly due to an effort to preserve the past and stay in touch with fish culturing roots. But the foremost factor is simply that the old ways work best. Using traditional methods of hand netting the fish, hand squeezing the eggs from the fish and incubation, the hatchery operates with only two employees: Strohschein and Kornick.

“The materials have changed but the methods are pretty much the same,” Kornick said.

The main advancement employed at the hatchery is formulated fish food. Before food was readily available in packages, hatcheries around Montana ground up the livers, hearts and lungs from sheep, cows and horses.

“That was a mess,” he said.

Strohschein points to a worn circular piece of wood with steel wrapped around it. It’s an old pipe from a water system that supplied the hatchery with underground water for decades before being replaced by a modern PVC system only 12 years ago. Strohschein said he used to find cracks in the pipes where tree roots had grown through the wood. He would have to remove the roots and pound objects like Mason jar lids and nails into the openings to block them. There are still yards of wood pipe tucked underneath the earth near the hatchery.

“Someday,” Strohschein said, “somebody will be up there digging with a backhoe and find some old memories.”

The hatchery primarily focuses on kokanees, but also deals with Arctic grayling, westslope cutthroat trout and a unique hybrid trout out of Ashley Lake. The hybrid is a mixture of the westslope cutthroat, the Yellowstone cutthroat and the rainbow trout.

Today the hatchery has little to do with Flathead Lake despite its convenient location on the lake’s shore, mostly because the kokanee population in the Flathead is near extinct. In the early 1980s, mysis shrimp drifted into Flathead Lake from surrounding bodies of waters. Mysis shrimp competed with kokanees for their main food source, plankton, and bolstered the lake trout population at the same time, a lethal combination that contributed to the demise of kokanees in the Flathead.

One day in 1986, Strohschein said he netted enough salmon from the hatchery’s backdoor to gather about a million eggs. By 1988, only a few salmon were trickling up to the shallows behind the hatchery.

“Since then, nothing. Gone,” Strohschein said.

The Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery continues to use the antique glass containers to incubate fish eggs, demonstrating how the original way of raising fish has not changed.

The hatchery provides eggs for other hatcheries around the state and rears its own fish. Overall, about 2 million kokanees each year originate from Somers, whether through eggs or reared fish. Once the salmon that are reared there reach about two inches in length, Strohschein and Kornick will stock them in lakes, transporting them by car, horseback or helicopter when necessary. None of the fish will go into mysis-rich Flathead Lake.

Until stocking time, which will be around May, Strohschein and Kornick will run the day-to-day affairs of the hatchery. When there’s time, Strohschein will continue thumbing through old FWP papers. He loves dredging up the past.

“There’s a lot of history in this old barn,” he said.