Trout in trucks: Drought forces evacuation of San Joaquin Hatchery

Thousands of rainbow trout – about 80,000 pounds worth – got a rescue ride Wednesday from the San Joaquin Hatchery to the cooler waters of Shaver Lake.

Because of the ongoing drought, the water from Millerton Lake isn’t cold enough to keep the trout alive at the hatchery below Friant Dam. So to save the fish, about 130,000 pounds of trout all told will be planted in lakes in Fresno and Madera counties.

“We’re not completely evacuating the hatchery, but almost,” said Andrew Hughan, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It’s the first time fish have been evacuated from the San Joaquin Hatchery because of the drought, though a few hatcheries across the state, like the Nimbus on the American River, have gone through the process two years in a row.

The water from Millerton Lake is “simply too warm to raise trout in any condition,” Hughan said. “Once water reaches 68 degrees or 69 degrees, then we have to move. That’s the trigger because trout just won’t live above 70 degrees.”

It’s a one-two punch of the lack of water and hot weather that threaten the trout’s survival, and wildlife officials are doing whatever they can.

“The drought is having a devastating effect,” Hughan said, “but this is something we’re trying to do positively. … We’re really making an effort to save as many fish as we can and get them into cold water before it gets any warmer.”

Rainbow trout weighing as little as a half-pound were vacuumed out of the hatchery’s troughs while the larger, trophy-sized fish were caught with nets before being placed into water tanks for transport.

The first loads were taken to Shaver Lake, with the remaining 50,000 pounds of fish getting a ride to one of five or six surrounding lakes in Fresno and Madera counties. Hughan didn’t specify which lakes, but advised anglers to “just go to your normal lake and there will be lots more fish.”

Lanny Lewis, 63 of Visalia, was taking in the cool breeze along the Shaver Lake shore while waiting for a bite on his lines as giant tankers full of fish roared passed on the road above.

“It’s a shame,” Lewis said of the drought, “but what else are they going to do. At least it’ll be good for fishing.”

Angel Moreno: 559-441-6401, @anhelllll