SPRINGFIELD -- Five hundred million fish and counting.
That's the estimated number of fish stocked so far by the Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery's during its 30 years in operation.
Jake Wolf, one of three state fish hatcheries, is a well-kept secret tucked away in the middle of Sand Ridge State Forest in Mason County.
Built on top of the Mahomet Aquifer, the hatchery has a steady supply of cool, 54-degree water that allows its staff of 10 to raise 15 species of fish, including hundreds of thousands of rainbow trout, brown trout, steelhead, Coho and Chinook salmon to be stocked into Lake Michigan. By Chris Young. The (Springfield) State Journal-Register.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources also operates the Little Grassy Fish Hatchery in Makanda and the La Salle Hatchery near Marseilles.
"We work with the district fisheries biologists to provide the species they need, the sizes they need - and the fishermen need - at the proper time they need those species and sizes so we can improve and maintain recreational fishing in Illinois," said hatchery manager Steve Krueger.
It's not as simple or as straightforward as it sounds.
Every day - 365 days a year - hatchery staff have to fill feeders and clean tanks to prevent growth of fungus and other organisms that could cause disease.
Raceways and start tanks could hold from 15,000 to 30,000 fish, so technicians have to scrub the sides of the tanks with a scratch pad and remove any dead fish and waste each morning.
"They do an amazing job," Krueger said. "I cannot stress enough the physical nature of the work they do."
The hatchery has seen its staffing numbers decline in recent years from a high of 26 to 10.
Jean Sliwa, a volunteer with Salmon Unlimited based in the Chicago area, said Illinois is fortunate to have a facility like Jake Wolf.
"I've been to other ones, including a hatchery in Alaska, and they are nothing like this one," she said. "This is beautiful; so sophisticated."
"It is a very difficult job, but culturing the animals, it is the most important job we do here," Krueger said. "Right now all the Salmonids that will be stocked in Lake Michigan are in this room."
That all adds up to 105,000 rainbow trout, 157,000 brown trout, 341,000 Coho salmon and 275,000 Chinook salmon.
The fish rearing cycle starts in the fall.
"In October, we send guys up to Michigan to help the Michigan DNR spawn Chinook and Coho, and they bring back about a million eggs of each species," Krueger said. "We get rainbows, browns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - they come in boxes of eggs we put in incubators - and we get steelheads from Indiana."
On March 8, steelhead fry were moved from incubators to tanks.
Assistant hatchery director Tom Hays, and fish culturists Tom Blessman and Brenda Hays moved steelhead while Mark Sarti put fertilized northern pike eggs into jars for incubation.
Earlier in the day, Wayne Herndon, a fisheries biologist with 42 years of experience, brought in northern pike from Spring Lake for spawning.
"He knows more about northern pike and muskies than anyone in the state," Krueger said.
Muskies weren't quite ready because water temperatures have to be about 50 degrees.
The late spring was putting off musky spawning, but some northern pike were ready to go. Herndon netted 25 females and 10 males.
"Ten females had eggs coming out of the vent, which is a really good thing for us," Krueger said.
Hatchery personnel squeezed eggs from females into shiny metal bowls where they will be fertilized with milt from the males.
"Add sperm, water, and voila, baby pike," he said. "It is a very cool process."
First the eggs are allowed to sit in the bowl briefly without air or water, then the milt is added, stirred in gently with a turkey feather - a fish culturist's tradition.
"Even though we've added the milt, it needs water - hydrostatic pressure - to activate it," Krueger said. "As soon as we add water, Katie, bar the door. Then we've got about 90 seconds. Millions of sperm cells are trying to fertilize the eggs."
The milt runs out of energy in a minute and a half and the process is finished.
In all, 21 females were spawned, producing almost 29,000 eggs per spawn. About half of those eggs will be viable.
Krueger estimates about 80,000 fry will survive to the stage where hatchery personnel will be feeding them.
`You can be the dad'
Muskies are much larger fish and harder to handle.
Hatchery staff members wear rain gear and work together to control the big fish.
"The muskies are so much bigger, it sometimes takes two or three people," Krueger said. "It can be exhausting. You wouldn't think it would be that difficult."
Those who visit Jake Wolf could end up with thousands of progeny by the end of the tour.
"Sometimes we will have kids show up on tours and we will wave them down, put a raincoat on them, and say, `C'mon, you can be the dad of 50,000 muskies."'
For northern pike, the eggs are incubated in jars for 10-12 days.
By March 18, some already have hatched and the tiny fry cling to a mesh net where they ingest the yolk sac. That way, they absorb nutrients without having to burn too much energy fleeing from predators.
"They know exactly what they are doing," Krueger said.
Anglers pay for most of the work at Jake Wolf and other state hatcheries. About 1 million people buy fishing licenses in Illinois each year. In a state of 13 million, that's one out of every 13 people.
That money is deposited in a special fund where it is matched with federal dollars from an excise tax on sporting goods.
People have been rearing fish in the United States since the mid-1800s.
And while the goal of providing fish for commercial or recreational use hasn't changed, techniques and equipment have.
"It's akin to agriculture," Krueger said. "Instead of growing things in soil, we're growing things in water."