Located off five miles of gravel and on a dead-end road, Big Spring Fish Hatchery in Elkader can be a very quiet place in the middle of the winter. Very few visitors brave the elements to visit the hatchery where its employees are known to wear blizzard-proof suites to hand feed thousands of fish twice a day. When things get really bitter, even trout have been known to freeze to the side of the wall at these hatcheries.
Big Spring Fish Hatchery was a private fish hatchery originally created by Mary and Otto Bankes during the great depression era. The hatchery functioned as a fishing club where people could gather and spend time outdoors together. The opportunity to catch a trout and have it personally cleaned lured people from 300 miles away. A cabin and campsites along the river added to the ambiance of the tranquil hatchery. By the late 1950’s, Big Spring was a successful regional business that had an annual membership of over 1,200 members. However, cleaning up after repeated floods took its toll on the Bankes’ and they sold the property to the Iowa Conservation Commission in 1961.
Today, Big Spring Fish Hatchery is managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The hatchery gets its name from having the largest coldwater spring in Iowa. Flows from the spring can typically range from 15,000 to 30,000 gallons per minute. Springwater is used to rear approximately 150,000 rainbow and brook trout until they are a catchable size (10-12 inches). Staff from IDNR then stock the fish into the Turkey River and 16 other local coldwater streams during April-October. In the winter months, Big Spring also stocks the fish in six urban lakes across Iowa. More information about winter trout fishing opportunities can be found here. Stuck in a winter funk, I took a recent visit to Big Spring Trout Hatchery to find inspiration.
I’m nearly to the hatchery when a sign prompts me to take a left turn onto a dead-end road. The last mile leads through the scenic Turkey River Valley. Flowing beside the road, the river is frozen except for a bend where a riffle trickles through the ice. Above the riffle, a primitive campground offers a riverside rendezvous in warmer months
I arrive at the winter wonderland of Big Spring Fish Hatchery as the dawn is breaking. The thermometer on the car reads -7 below. A blanket of clouds across the sky are turning lavender and peach. Pillars of steam rise from the trout raceways; more threads of vapor drift from the open water of the Turkey River. Cross country ski tracks follow the stream. Down on the river’s edge, a thick layer of hoarfrost is coating every branch, needle, and grass in sight. A half-frozen waterfall, coming from one of the springs, cascades down into the river. Any significant open water in a harsh winter makes for a wildlife utopia.
Several trout are congregated at the spring outlet where the warmer water dumps into the ice-cold river. Mink and muskrat tracks line the bank. An eagle soars overhead. Further downstream another eagle is putting sticks on a nest in a tall cottonwood tree. The raptors love it here as they have easy access to fish in the open water. Occasionally, swans can also be seen gracing the landscape. For a moment, I close my eyes to imagine their trumpeting calls and white bodies flying through clear blue sky. A tinge of cold in my fingers awakes me from the dream.
Big Springs Fish Hatchery is no Yellowstone National Park, but in the winter the hatchery contains the same palpable sense of magic that warms my body with awe and makes me want to visit again. Next time I’ll be sure to pack my fishing pole.