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Farming fish: Hamilton couple continues operation of Bitterroot Fish Hatchery
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Farming fish: Hamilton couple continues operation of Bitterroot Fish Hatchery

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As Becky Brandborg eases her net into one of the giant rectangular concrete water tanks behind her home, she braces herself and turns her head as far as she can. She knows what’s coming – she still has her jacket on.

The water boils and churns violently, throwing a spray across the room, and suddenly she has five 15-inch rainbow trout thrashing and twisting in her net.

“In this line of work you get splashed every day,” she says as she drops the fish back in the tank.

These are just a few of the nearly 50,000 rainbows that Becky and her husband Dan will deliver to private pond owners all over western Montana this spring and summer. The couple have owned and operated the Bitterroot Fish Hatchery since 1996, located on a bucolic spring-fed ranch southeast of Hamilton near Skalkaho Creek.

“It’s incredibly labor intensive,” Brandborg explains. “But it’s a wonderful niche agricultural business in the Bitterroot.”

The Bitterroot Fish Hatchery was originally built in 1919 by Marcus Daly II, the son of the founder of Hamilton. In its early days, the hatchery had a capacity of 7 million large rainbow, cutthroat and goldeneye trout, sockeye salmon and 11 million minnows. Daly Jr. used the fish to stock the streams and lakes of the Bitterroot Valley, as well as local supermarket shelves.

“He was an avid hunter and fisherman, and he just wanted to make sure all the high mountain lakes and streams in the valley were going to have fish,” Becky explains. “They would put fingerlings in milk cans, load them onto mules, and tote ‘em up on to the lakes. We no longer stock lakes and streams. It’s all natural and native at this point. But that was his goal.”

The key to the whole operation is a natural spring a few miles up the road near Skalkaho Creek, which supplies a large volume of clean water at a constant temperature range of between 45 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Marcus Daly Fish Hatchery was eventually bought by the state of Montana and became the Bitterroot Fish Hatchery, and then was sold to a private owner in 1967. In 1996, the Brandborgs sold their business, Sunelco Solar in Victor, to buy the hatchery.

These days, the couple raises only rainbow trout because customers who want to stock their ponds have to have a permit from the state, and rainbow permits are the most common.

“Rainbows grow fast, they’re beautiful, and they’re a good fish,” Becky says.

The Brandborgs replaced all the wooden piping that Daly Jr. used to get the spring water to the holding tanks, but they still use the original concrete tanks and the original wooden building. Every year around Christmas, they get a shipment of fertilized eggs from the state fish hatchery and raise them to adulthood.

When the fish are big enough, they transfer them to specialized holding tanks and drive them to customers all over the state. They usually sell about 20,000 10-inch fish, 3,000 15-inch fish, and 25,000-30,000 fingerlings.

“It just depends on what people want to do with them,” she said.

The fish have to have conditions that mimic their natural environment: cold, clear water that is aerated by pipes. The state sends inspectors every year to test the fish to make sure they are disease free. They have to be fed every day, a high-protein diet, and the tanks have to be cleaned often. Then when they are ready for shipment, the fish have to be seined (netted) from the ponds and loaded for hauling. They have to be meticulously counted before each shipment because they are sold by numbers, not weight. Every year, they sell out.

Whenever they have a surplus and the fish have to be moved to the outdoor ponds on the property, the couple has their hands full battling great blue herons, bald eagles, osprey, great horned owls, raccoons and other predators who love an easy meal.

It’s hard work, but Becky says she and her husband have never looked back on their career choice. They never imagined that life would take them from the business of solar energy to the business of raising rainbows, but they haven’t regretted a minute of it.

“I always think of the Joseph Campbell quote, ‘We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us,’ ” Becky says with a grin as she drops some feed pellets to another tank of fish, turning her head to avoid the spray.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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