Years of Stocking Fish in the Iowa Great Lakes

Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery Plays Vital Role in Area Fish Production
In the late 1800s, fish were so plentiful in the Iowa Great Lakes, people came with their spears and hooks to fish from miles around. 

“At the time, there were so many fish, people would catch and throw the ones they didn’t want up onto the shore. The lakes lost a lot of fish that way,” said Dickinson County Museum Historian Frank Christenson. 

Another issue that arose with fish populations is the lack of water flow back north. Early mills were built at different points around East Lake and Big Spirit, but they didn’t create a passage for water to flow back. 

“This meant fish went on down the river, but in 1878, a new law was passed that required new mills to provide a fish passageway,” Frank added.

Sportsmen continued to fish the Iowa Great Lakes for sport and for food, eager to bring fish home for the evening. The isthmus between Big Spirit and East Okoboji Lakes became the setting for one of the first two fish hatcheries, first in 1880 and then 1915, and now is the location of the current Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery, which attracts thousands of visitors every year.

The Building of the Fish Hatchery
The very first warm water hatchery in the Iowa Great Lakes area dates back to 1880, with the goal of populating the lakes with trout and whitefish, among other fish species. The builders of the Orleans Hotel provided 3.5 acres for the building of the hatchery, and the 20x30 space included a 12-foot sleeping room for the first fish commissioner A.A. Mosher. 

“The goal was to rear and stock these fish into the Iowa Great Lakes. At the time, the railroads were also taking off and other parts of the state were becoming interested in the fish eggs,” Christenson shared. “During those years, Moser only made $420 a year. He also raised ducks and pheasants on the grounds.”

In 1913, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources brought the first railroad car called Hawkeye to the area, which aided the transportation of fish travel and included fish tanks, an office, and living and dining quarters. 

“The new modern fish car called the ‘Hawkeye’ replaced the original aquarium car from 1876, and it served as the primary means of fish distribution throughout the state,” said DNR hatchery biologist Kim Hawkins. “The primary purpose was to distribute fish rescued from the Mississippi River backwaters.”

In the early years, railroad companies would haul the “Hawkeye” car and its crew free of charge. In 1913, “Hawkeye 2” took its place and was considered the best money could buy.

A few years later, a new hatchery building was constructed and then later expanded in 1927, before being torn down in 1963 to make room for the present structure. In the heart of Isthmus Park, which in the 1930s was considered one of the state’s first parks, the current structure was continuously upgraded with modern technology. In 1955, Bob Boettcher was one of the DNR's main engineers who built the sanitary sewer system from the old hatchery to the new building and around to the offices. In 1976, an addition was added to the back of the hatchery to provide concrete tanks for intensive culture and to hold broodstock in the spring. Two hatching batteries from the Clear Lake Hatchery were also added, raising the total number of hatching jars to 435. A “filter pond” was built to the south to hold water from Big Spirit before pumping it into the hatchery head tank.

By the 1970s, walleye had become the main focus of the fish hatchery. One of eight located around the state of Iowa, the facility has continued to collect, spawn, incubate and raise walleye for stocking throughout the state. Muskellunge and Northern pike are also raised at the facility.

The egg incubation tanks were upgraded during the winter months of 2021-2022, as high oxygen saturation in lake water caused over fifty percent loss of viable walleye eggs. This caused staff to net more fish and take extra eggs to meet requests.

Fish Production
All sorts of fish have made their home in the Iowa Great Lakes chain. In the early 1900’s, the unique paddlefish were common.

“Some called them a lake monster,” said John Smeltzer, a local historian.

The Iowa DNR states a paddlefish is distinguished from all other Iowa fish by its immensely elongated snout, extremely long gill covers and shark-like mouth. The species is considered a primitive fish that propagates in the Great Border Rivers, but it hasn’t been unusual for anglers to reel them in lower portions of the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa and Skunk rivers. 

The fish would come into the Iowa Great Lakes from the Missouri River via the Little Sioux. The largest paddlefish recorded in the Iowa Great Lakes took place in 1919 and weighed 210 pounds and was 6.5 feet long.

“They were found in our lakes until about the 1930s, before the dam was built at the outlet of Lower Gar Lake and this kept the fish from being able to come up the river,” Smeltzer said. “The paddlefish would lay their eggs in the current but would need moving water to hatch the eggs and they’d float downstream and develop.”

Now, the Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery is a walleye, Northern pike, and muskellunge hatching and rearing station. Production facilities include four egg incubators with a total capacity of 1,100 quarts, 20 indoor raceways, six non-drainable ponds and two natural lakes. Water is obtained from Spirit Lake and is discharged through settling ponds and then into East Okoboji Lake.

“Due to the issues with gas supersaturation during egg incubation and the addition of aquatic invasive species (AIS) in the lakes, in 2021, the old incubation system was demolished, and a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) was built in its place,” Hawkins explained. “The system utilizes dechlorinated city water as its water source, providing an AIS free environment to hatch eggs. The system increased the efficiency of the hatchery by increasing the hatch rate of all species produced,  and provides an AIS free product to stock into the lakes in Iowa.”

For instance, the 1917 hatchery production included walleye, lake trout, and Northern pike. By 1948, the hatchery was producing bullheads, walleye, largemouth bass, catfish, minnows, bluegill, yellow perch, shiners, northern pike, black crappie, and white crappie.

In 1963, the hatchery streamlined its process to mainly concentrate on walleye, musky, tiger musky, and Northern pike. Walleye fry were stocked into surrounding shallow lakes such as: Pleasant, Prairie, Welch, Virgin and Elk to grow until fall.

“The hatchery was really used for the development of fish and game management in the state. It grew with the development of the railroad and other fisheries,” Smeltzer explained. “Many fish and game laws were advanced early because of conservation work being done in the Iowa Great Lakes.” 

Rearing Fish in the Iowa Great Lakes
Once the first hatchery was built in 1880, it only took a year before it collected 200,000 trout eggs from Superior Lake and another 500,000 white fish eggs ready to be hatched. Mosher experimented with spawning native fish, including black crappie, perch and walleye.

From 1893-1911, there was no fish production taking place. In 1911, the hatchery was renovated, and new breeding ponds were built. Fish production started back up again in 1917.

The hatching period begins in late March or early April, once ice cover leaves the lakes. Adult fish are collected as they travel the shoreline to spawn and captured with gillnets. Fish spawn at varying times, based on a combination of water temperature and photoperiod, which is the amount of daylight hours. Northern pike are one of the first to spawn.

The female fish are sorted into two groups – ones ready to spawn (“ripe”) and those that are green (not ready to spawn). Eggs are expressed from the “ripe” females, fertilized, and then placed in hatching jars. After eggs or milt are taken from the adult fish, the fish are returned to the lake in which they were captured. 

Prior to the construction of the raceways in 1976, spawning took place on the shorelines of the Iowa Great Lakes. One of the stripping stations was near The Ritz in East Lake Okoboji and another location was Smith’s Bay. Eggs would be stripped from the female, fertilized, and placed in milk cans to be brought back to the hatchery.

Ed Thelen worked for the DNR and was a part of the gillnetting process of stripping eggs. 

“The water temperature was cold, maybe 43 degrees. We would set the nets at night and pick them up twice a day,” he said.

There would be two ten-man teams that went out on each lake. Gillnetting would last from five to 25 days, depending on how many fish were being caught in the nets. 

Incubation takes place in special jars that allow fresh water to flow over the eggs, supplying oxygen to the eggs and preventing them from suffocating. Walleye eggs are also collected from Storm Lake and Clear Lake and transported to the Spirit Lake Hatchery and Rathbun Hatchery for incubation. 

Because the ice went out so late this year on the Iowa Great Lakes, 2023 was the first-year walleye gillnetting did not take place in local waters. The ice left Clear Lake and Storm Lake much sooner, so the DNR filled the incubators at the Spirit Lake Hatchery with walleye eggs from these lakes.

“These particular lakes were already at 45 degrees when fish began to spawn, while there was still ice covering the lakes in Dickinson County,” Iowa DNR Kim Hawkins said. 

In 2023, hatchery staff collected 257 northern pike on the evening of April 9 in the outlets of the sloughs flowing into Big Spirit Lake. The broodstock produced over 2.4 million eggs and were stocked into Iowa’s shallow lakes. The Spirit Lake Hatchery is the only hatchery that produces Muskellunge in Iowa; on May 17, local staff netted for one day on Big Spirit and East Okoboji to collect enough muskellunge broodstock to meet egg quotas. 

Once hatching takes place in the incubators, fish are stocked as fry in Iowa’s lakes and rivers or reared to the advanced fingerling stage. Muskellunge fry are fed a commercial diet at the hatchery, while walleye fry are stocked in one of the nearby nursery lakes where they eat natural foods.

Each year, over 80 million walleye fry, 100,000 six-inch walleye fingerlings, 1.5 million northern pike fry, 25,000 four-inch muskellunge fingerlings, and 4,000 11-inch muskellunge fingerlings are produced at the hatchery.

The hatchery is open year-round Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. All year, there are jars of interesting finds and different displays to observe. Spring months provide the most activity, as visitors can view the spawning and incubation process of the different fish, before they are placed in nearby holding ponds or leave for area lakes.

For more information, call (712) 336-1840. The Spirit Lake Hatchery is located at 122 252nd Ave., near the Spillway and by the bridge.