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Hatchery a happening place in Erwin

A field of cosmos blooms on the ground of the Erwin National Fish Hatchery.

By Connie Denney

The flowers still made a colorful showing, but the leaves on the ground around the picnic table spoke of fall. Crisp air and calming views seemed right for an October day as I turned off North Main Avenue. The Erwin National Fish Hatchery grounds welcome the visitor just wanting to connect with nature for a spell — or, perhaps, disconnect from the world represented by nearby traffic.

Be sure, though, work of local, state, regional and national importance goes on here and has for more than a century.

But, first, the flowers. They are among plantings intended to attract bees and other insects.  Hatchery Manager Tyler Hern explains that many pollinator species are in decline around the country and the world.  He feels it is important that we all aid in the recovery of these species.  In 2019 they began a program to provide habitat and food for them.  Plans call for the acre currently maintained as habitat to double next year.  The butterfly bushes, varieties of milkweed, as well as mixes for attracting bees and butterflies have drawn comments from visitors and offered photo ops.

Monarchs are among the butterflies that flutter by.  Tyler pointed out their interesting migration behavior, as the trip is not completed by the generation starting it. But, that is a discussion unto itself. Their sheer beauty is enough to make us humans grateful we are in their flyway!

There are bees, two hives at present; and, I hear the honey is “really good.” They will be adding another two or three hives.  Also, more native plantings, such as asters, brown-eyed susans and mustard, will be used, as they are considered more valuable to natural pollinators.

As this program is evolving, so has the work of the hatchery itself. Hern explains that recognizing the need for conservation measures to maintain good fishing in our public waters, Congress authorized construction of Erwin National Fish Hatchery in 1894.  

He says, “Over the years the hatchery has changed roles many times but has always served the nation as a primary producer of rainbow and brook trout.”  Today it operates as a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) National Broodstock Program, sending out around 16 million certified disease free rainbow and brook trout eggs a year to hatcheries across the country “to help preserve this tradition for present as well as future generations of Americans.” It is one of three primary egg-producing facilities and Hern calls it “vital to the success of recreational trout fishing programs for a large portion of the Southeast, as it provides the majority of eggs to federal and state hatcheries that eventually become catchable-sized fish stocked for the fishing public.

Retired broodstock trout are often stocked in local waters, with the majority being used to stock public waters in Tennessee.  The hatchery has worked closely with the state’s wildlife management agency, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for many years on this and other programs, a partnership Hern says is “vital” to success.

Interesting notes: The Erwin facility works with other USFWS offices and state agencies in recovery of imperiled species, such as lake sturgeon, freshwater mussels and southern Appalachian brook trout. Also, it works closely with tribal hatcheries in Arizona, New Mexico and North Carolina to help with their trout program.

Far reaching? Yes.

Hern, who came to manage the hatchery in 2018, appreciates its history. He reflected on how the free-flowing spring, which still provides 1,000 gallons per minute constant 55-degree water for operations, and the railroad nearby were important to the site selection back in the 1800s.  Although they have a number of historic photographs, he would like to see any available. Anyone with pictures they would like to share may contact him at the hatchery, (423) 743-4712.

Times have changed since the days the transportation mode was a rail car to the day when FedEx may make a pick-up!  Over the years the facility adapted to meet recognized needs, including being part of a farm pond program during the “New Deal” age.  Operations converted to the broodstock and egg-taking operation in 1976.

Information including a printed card visitors may take for a self-guided tour are available at the hatchery visitor center.  It notes the Unicoi County Heritage Museum and Clinchfield Railroad Museum (open seasonally) on hatchery grounds.

COVID-19 has impacted programs and visitation, which normally includes lots of school groups, who can see how this fascinating process works and enjoy the grounds. Hern looks forward to doing more environmental education when times are better.  He says they have lots of ideas.

On a personal note, Tyler is from a small West Virginia town and has always been drawn to the outdoors, especially fishing, his entire life. Earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and master’s degree in biology, he worked summers and after graduate school in related jobs before joining USFWS as deputy manager at White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery in West Virginia, before coming to Erwin.

Not surprisingly, when not at work he enjoys the outdoors, as does his wife, Lila.  Hunting, fishing, trapping, gardening and camping are on the agenda. They live in Limestone Cove with their dog, Gravy. Just for the record, he “absolutely loves” living in rural Unicoi County.

As you are out and about, be safe. Stay safe.