Laura Dean Bennett
The story of the Edray Fish Hatchery – one of the most successful hatcheries in West Virginia – starts with something many Pocahontas Countians may take for granted – our pristine spring water.
All seven of West Virginia’s cold water hatcheries are located at high elevation, along a mountain ridge and at the base of springs.
One of those cold water hatcheries is the Edray Hatchery, located just up the road from Marlinton.
Its cold mountain water comes from two springs – Avrill and McLaughlin – which originate in Indian Draft and course through Elk Mountain.
The hatchery is situated just below the mouth of the two springs, whose water gushes out of the mountain and pours down the hill, bursting through the rocks in beautiful twin waterfalls across the road from the hatchery.
They pound hard and fast into a little creek that flows directly into the tanks of the lower nursery, the outdoor pools and ponds.
These springs are the reason the Edray Fish Hatchery was located here.
In the summer, the water pressure will be nothing compared to what it is in the spring.
The cold, clean water is nature’s perfect environment for growing young trout.
The Edray Hatchery was built in the early 1930s, and most of it’s original old stonework was laid by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Not far from the sprays of the Avrill and McLaughlin spring water torrents sits the manager’s residence – a small, but stately white house, which has been home to three hatchery managers over the years.
The last manager to live there was Bill Evans, who many Pocahontas County residents will remember. Evans managed the Edray Hatchery for an impressive 57 years.
Near the spring water stream sit dozens of pools, holding thousands of pounds of thrashing rainbow and golden trout, who seem anxious to be released into the wild.
And it’s not just the trout who are excited to get into the streams of Pocahontas County. It’s the anglers, too.
But even if you don’t like to catch fish, this is a good time to catch up on what goes on at the Edray Fish Hatchery.
West Virginia’s hatcheries and stocking programs go hand-in-hand.
Their purpose is to supplement our fish populations so West Virginia can provide what many say is the best trout fishing on the East Coast, without negatively impacting our native fish populations.
The hatchery and stocking program evolved in the early decades of the 20th century to enable the Department of Natural Resources to restore our native species.
West Virginia has an ambitious fish stocking program, and the largest is the trout program.
It’s probably one of the best, if not the best, in the Eastern United States.
West Virginia stocks more streams than any of the states around us.
That, and the fact that West Virginia has an open, year round fishing season, makes trout fishing here in Pocahontas County and other areas of the state a very popular sport, especially in the springtime.
It entices fishing enthusiasts from all over. Anglers come here and think it’s paradise. They say to residents, “I can’t believe you get to live here!”
On average, about a million fish are stocked statewide per year,
They call it “put and take.”
The trout are raised in one of the state’s seven cold water hatcheries, then stocked in our streams for anglers to catch.
Our only native trout is brook trout – it’s West Virginia’s state fish.
But thanks to the state fish hatchery and stocking program, there’s more than just brook trout in our streams. There are several varieties – brown, rainbow, golden and tiger trout.
Tiger trout are known to be especially hard fighters and are prized catches for anglers.
The Edray and Paint Bank, Virginia, hatcheries are the only two hatcheries that have tiger trout.
Jim Hedrick, West Virginia’s Hatchery Program Manager, said his agency stocks approximately one million trout annually, releasing the fish into more than 200 streams and lakes around the state.
The Edray Hatchery is probably one of the more successful in the state, and the trout fishing in Pocahontas County is some of the best in the state.
“Put and Take” catchable size fish are stocked in 40 streams and lakes in Pocahontas and surrounding counties – mostly counties to our south.
The Edray Hatchery also provides fingerlings to Trout Unlimited, a private organization.
The hatcheries start stocking trout in the streams early in the spring and, by the end of May, the stocking pools will be empty.
The smallest trout stocked are between one and one-and-a-quarter pounds, with the largest weighting five pounds.
Fishing is big business in West Virginia.
Hedrick says that when out-of-state anglers can’t fish in their home states, they can come to the Mountain State to satisfy their love of the sport.
“And they can land some prize catches here,” he said.
“We stock bigger fish than anybody.
“With the governor’s plan, we now have one of the best stocking programs in the nation.”
Edray Hatchery is responsible for stocking the 134,000 pounds of trout that have gone into the 70 streams here and in surrounding counties.
Watoga Lake in Watoga State Park and Seneca Lake also get trout from the Edray Hatchery in the spring.
The hatchery stocked all the brown trout for the entire state last year and most likely will do it again this year.
Although it’s possible to catch a trout in Pocahontas County at any time of year, summer isn’t usually the best time for fishing.
But last year, with all the rain we had, people were catching trout in the Greenbrier River in July.
Farming famous West Virginia trout takes time, expertise and patience.
No one knows that better than Edray’s interim hatchery manager Burl Burns, who has been at the Edray Fish Hatchery for 32 years.
Burns explains the aquaculture process and offers a fascinating tour of the facility.
The tour starts in the “lower nursery” where tanks of tiger and brown trout fingerlings glide around in the water and are seemingly, always hungry.
The upper nursery houses the eggs and the “fry,” the tiny baby trout who will grow into fingerlings.
The fry are hatched from eggs – which arrive at Edray in coolers to be hatched in hatching trays.
It takes a lot of patience, as well as some scientific knowledge and math skills to hatch the eggs and care for the babies in the fry tanks.
At just the right time, the fry are moved into the lower nursery.
When they are this small, they need to eat as much and as often as possible.
Depending on their size, the fry and the fingerlings need to be fed several times a day.
When they are large enough, the fish are moved to the outdoor pools and ponds.
The young trout are grown until they reach 18 months of age, and then they are ready to be transported by truck to various stocking locations.
When the trout are ready to be stocked, they are caught in a seine net held by two men, netted, weighed and loaded in 50 pound increments into the stocking trucks.
The hatchery’s three diesel freight liners are equipped with double hulled, insulated aluminum tanks, with oxygen and aerators onboard for safe transport of the fish.
They are equipped to carry 1,800 pounds of fish to stocking locations on a short haul or over a ton of fish on a long haul.
Burns said that in the spring, Edray Hatchery has two stocking trucks on the road every day – sometimes three.
Taking care of so many fish is a full-time occupation and there is someone on the grounds watching out for the fish 24 hours a day.
Storms and electric outages can play havoc with the delicate balance of oxygenation and temperatures in the nurseries and pools, so the hatchery keeps backup generators on standby.
Of course, humans aren’t the only animals who enjoy fishing.
The human caretakers of the fish in the outdoor pools must always be on the lookout for predators.
Some of the most persistent seafood shoppers at the hatchery include osprey, eagles, grackles, mink, otters and great blue herons.
The mink raise their young along the rock walls at the creek along the lower periphery of the property.
Sometimes, when they are teaching their kits to fish, mink leave piles of dead fish beside the pools.
While predators are discouraged, human visitors are welcome at the hatchery. You can just wander around and look into the outdoor pools, which, in the spring, hold swirling masses of shiny, large trout.
School groups, scout troops and 4-H clubs sometimes go there on field trips. It’s fun to stop by to look at the fish, rest on the rocky sides of the stream that runs behind the hatchery or witness the rush of the spring waterfalls.
But to get the most out of your visit, you should schedule a tour.
If you want a tour, call ahead to be sure that someone will be on hand to show you around.
But don’t wait too long. By the end of May, when the stocking is done, the stocking pools will be empty and the big fish will be gone.
The Edray Hatchery is located at 753 Woodrow Road. It’s open 7 days a week from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call 304-799-6461.