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Sandwich Fish Hatchery Turns 100

If you love to fish trout in Cape fresh water, chances are you are hooking fish bred out of the Sandwich Fish Hatchery, which celebrates its 100th year of state ownership.

I watch four brown trout the color of seaweed, square of tail, fat as my arm, hanging out together, moving slowly as befits their age. Somehow they remind me of motorcycle gangs, slightly menacing.

In the raceways down toward the end of the hatchery, fingerlings between two and four inches swim, tentative, orderly, while the medium-sized adolescents, averaging about 10 to 14 inches, frisk about, appropriately restless and chaotic.

The eggs, fry, fingerlings, broodstock and eventually the fish that the Sandwich Fish Hatchery produces are works of science, art, and love. There are more man-hours to produce a single trout than go into writing some books.
Craig Lodowsky has managed the hatchery—a facility of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife—for seven years (working there for thirteen prior), along with his young assistant manager Adam Davies, and two techs. From a long line of fish mentors before them, they raise unique fish.
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The hatchery is one of the oldest in the country, beginning as a private venture in 1860. It was authorized by Alvah W. Morse, treasurer of the Sandwich Trout Company, for sale to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for $9,000 on April 18, 1912, thus becoming one of the original state run fish culture facilities in the U.S.

The new state hatchery owned 21 acres in Sandwich, and 4 ½ in East Sandwich. In addition, the state rented the nearby Nye farm and its waters for $225 a year. The first superintendent of the hatcheries was Frank Hitchings, former head of the Sandwich Trout Company, who conveniently lived at his family farm, which was also rented by the state. He received a salary of $1,200 a year and worked with a staff of six; the budget for the year 1914 was just short of $13,000.  There was a small meat shed (fish were fed sour milk, meat, sometimes liver); a 20- by 60-foot hatchery house, which was overhauled and electrified around 1919; a workshop with a water wheel; and two spawn tank buildings.

When purchased, both the nursery pools and rearing pools for fry, fingerlings and age-graded adult fish at each property were in poor condition—earthen and sided with boards and failing cement. By at least 1914-15, “up to date” concrete rectangular shaped rearing pools had begun to replace the older ones at both areas. In 1915 “Cape Cod (a magazine),” described a series of pipes and troughs running from the pool (now hidden at the back of the property in the woods) to the fish holdways. Another pipe was embedded near the stream and it gushed ground water from an artesian well, over the roadway and into the fish ponds. In 1919, 15 more new nursery and 5 or 6 new brood ponds were commissioned at Sandwich—while new wells and ponds were also constructed in East Sandwich. Many raceways were 50½ feet long by 6 feet wide by 4 feet deep. Some were 200 feet long.

Setbacks and small budgets resulted in disrepair. From time to time fish threatened escape, pools got polluted (possibly causing a 1920 epidemic which destroyed 20,000 broodstock and 250,000 of the 3-inch fingerlings)—and needed to be drained and re-lined.

Lodowsky shows me the old handwritten log book: Electric bills in the 1920s were about 5 to 9 dollars a month for the whole operation. Hatchery workers could rent rooms in the Nye house for 5 to 17 dollars. In the 1930s, the FDR years, the WPA built long “raceways” and a new roadway for cars. In 1940 they put up the big wooden “garage” where the staff offices still are and some equipment is stored. The date is commemorated in paint on a wall.

Lawrence “Bing” Hollings, who grew up in Mashpee with a small population of other mostly Wampanoag residents on his grandmother’s 26-acre farm, was hired by the hatchery in 1956. He worked 35 years for the Commonwealth (the last five of which he tested water for acid rain), remembers the old groundwater-fed pools. “There were natural banks reinforced with wooden sides. We would drive down a well, and water would wash out to form a pool. In those days, there were trees all down through there to keep the pools cool in the summer.”

In the early 1960s, more old pools were updated to newer raceways. In 1970, the mud, gravel and silt of the old raceways from the 1930s were still being hauled away.
In 1992 the hatchery almost closed due to electrical failure and faulty equipment. “Word went out to sportsmen that the hatchery and the state needed help,” says Don Moberg, who retired from Ma Bell in Grafton, Massachusetts and moved to Sandwich 20 years ago. A “Geezer Brigade” formed. Moberg built wooden walkways; others did cement and concrete work. By 1994, renovations were complete, and the state saved “a ton of money, while we really enjoyed the camaraderie,” according to Moberg.

Vernon “Silent Drum” Lopez, chief of the Wampanoag, now 89, has similar memories of great teamwork when he worked there. “I got there in ’79. I had been in Brockton for 30 years after leaving the Service in 1945,” he says. “The chores were pretty much the same then as now: cleaning, feeding, stocking.” He was put in charge of the Nye house, then still part of the hatchery (and attached state game farm). Other Wampanoag worked at the hatchery, and there was a youth program for young tribe members.

While the East Sandwich part of the facility and the use of the Nye property ended more than 20 years ago (as did the game farm as such, now a 133-acre nature preserve), the main part, currently of 35 acres off Route 6A in Sandwich, has stayed in use to today. But in many ways, not much has changed. There is still a huge amount of labor done by hand and strong back.

The reason the area has had such a long run for fish culture? “It’s the water here,” says Lodowsky. “It seeps up through the ground in artesian springs, and it is perfect for fish: Clear, clean, and varying in temperature from a low of 44 to a high of 62.” I cup some of the water surging out of a spring through a tube, and it is delicious.

Both Lodowsky and Davies love being outdoors, and they love to come to work. Both came to trout culture in similar ways as young wildlife volunteers, high-school to college age, manning salmon counts, counting fish, helping with pheasant stocking. After Davies went electro-shocking with MDFW personnel at fourteen, he knew what he wanted to do with his life, pursued a degree in wildlife management at the University of Massachusetts. Like some of their predecessors, both got noticed by wildlife professionals who offered them work.

Lodowsky started his job with his wife-to-be two weeks before Hurricane Bob hit. He never had time to finish the last two credits of a degree. But like old school recruits to wildlife management, he got on-the-job training. That, added to Lodowsky’s passionate inventiveness, helped him to design some of the rebuilt raceways (there are about 52 of them), pick their state-of-the-art aerators, and cull disease out of fishes by breeding it out of the gene pools.

The hatchery breeds its own brook, brown, and tiger trout. Sandwich is the only hatchery in the state producing the tiger variety. Bred from a female brown and male brook, the sterile tigers are a new favorite to fish, famous for their feisty strike and fight. (Their splashy markings make them appear more like leopards than tigers, however.)

Rainbow trout eggs are provided annually through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s national hatchery program.
Sandwich also shares their brown and brook eggs and fry with other MDFW hatcheries. “Stocking trout helps takes the pressure off the limited remnants of Eastern Massachusetts wild brook streams,” according to Steve Hurley, the southeast district fisheries manager.

Hurley tells me the original intention of the hatchery was to produce brook trout fingerlings for stocking rivers and streams. Brook trout, or sea-run trout, also know as “salters,” had especially suffered—as do all trout to a degree—from development such as mills, dams, factories, and the cutting of trees, all of which contribute to siltation, warming and pollution of waters.

Through the 1950s, brown trout was favored. Salmon was experimented with intermittently. Brook trout are fairly docile and easy to catch, whereas the rainbows and browns (both of which were introduced to Massachusetts in the late 1800s) give sportsmen a better fight, but browns are notoriously elusive, and tend to outcompete and push out “brookies.” After World War II, influenced by changes in fishing gear as well, increasingly the fish of choice for anglers became the rainbow trout (a west coast sea-running species, meticulously bred to be land-locked.) 

The males of all species of trout tend to be slim and brilliantly colored in mating season; the gravid females are wider. (Lodowsky notes that the browns jump when they are spawning, as they do obligingly in a springy torque when I am visiting.)

I ask Lodowsky if he fishes his own trout. “Are you kidding? That would be like eating your own children.” But fish he does, pretty much every day at the Canal for stripers in season, recently snagging one over 32 pounds on 50 lb. test with a butterfly jig. He will fish freshwater for salmon and lake trout which his purview does not guide to adulthood. What is his favorite brand of trout? “The brookie, because they just look awesome.” (They do, with gold and red medallions on their bodies and streaks of neon blue on the fins and tail.)

They keep one of the water courses open and stocked with fishes for osprey, gulls, and many species of herons. They used to get under the nets to eat, so staff figured ‘why not let them do it more easily?’ Predation goes way back. In 1918, a black crowned night heron was shot, and they found 92 fingerlings in its stomach.

Trickster otters have managed to get into the water too, leaving fish heads down the center of the runs in a seeming taunt. (The new metal bird netting is deterring them). The most ambitious thief was a genius young female seal in January of 2009. She apparently swam from the bay up a tidal creek, through a miniature golf course, under the road, and up the brook adjacent to the driveway. She left mucky tracks in the snow, as she paused in front of the exhibition trout, before swimming to broodstock, where she gorged. She was eventually caught and left on West Dennis beach, the video of it shows a frown which must be seen to be believed. The seal was flipper-tagged, but no one has seen it again.

The hatchery stays open 365 days a year and must be tended rain, blizzard or shine. Grand leafy trees arc at the sides; arborvitae canopy the driveway. The grass is mowed daily, and in the summer time, the staff plants flowers all around. In 1917, the Sandwich Hatchery was one of the most frequented sight-seeing attractions of the Cape.

There is nothing quite like it, especially for fish fanciers. You can purchase fish feed for 25 cents, and watch the fishes jump into future history.

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