It’s a sunny Friday morning on the Pigeon River when the bucket brigade assembles, five-gallon containers in hand. The stock truck has just arrived, making its way up windy U.S. 276 and down the equally squirrely N.C. 215, tanks loaded with fish and water.
A pair of fish culturists from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stands atop the truck as a line of bucket-bearers forms leading up to it, and the work begins. Each bucket received a splash of water and a dollop of flipping, fighting trout — rainbow, brown and brook all mixed together in one writhing mass.
A flash flood struck the Cherokee fish hatchery last week, pummeling fish in the raceways with a wall of water laden with mud, rocks and branches.
It wiped out hundreds if not thousands of trout and left a massive clean-up job for hatchery workers.
“We had dead fish all over the raceways,” said Robert Blankenship, manager of the Cherokee fish hatchery and stocking program. “A lot got washed out.”
Some were swept down stream and lived, based on fishing reports below the hatchery, but many others suffocated under mud or were struck by debris.
Blankenship estimated the creek the hatchery sits on swelled to four to five times its normal size. A worker who lives at the hatchery heard rocks tumbling down the mountain as the wall of water hit around midnight last Thursday, Blankenship said.
The flashflood flattened 75 feet of chain link fence surrounding the property in the Big Cove community. There is no data on the amount of spot rainfall the area must have received.
Just how many fish were lost won’t be known until clean-up is completed and workers can do an inventory.
Cherokee’s hatchery is a $1.2 million operation, raising 400,000 trout a year from eggs. The tribe’s waterways are the best stocked in the state — 13,000 trout per mile compared to only 800 per mile on average in waters stocked by the state of North Carolina.
And that’s not going to change, Blankenship said.
“We put out three big truckloads of very nice fish Friday,” Blankenship said. “We are going to continue to keep the river well-stocked.”
The hatchery will buy fish if necessary in order to keep pace with its stocking reputation, Blankenship said.
Cherokee is well known not just for its quantity, but size of trout. Blankenship makes sure trout bound for fishing waters are least 12 inches, but regularly stocks trophy trout over two pounds, some reaching nearly four pounds and up to 26 inches long.
Cherokee has worked hard to build its reputation as a top fishing destination in the Southeast — it’s a regular stop for fly-fishing TV shows and recently hosted the U.S. National fly-fishing competition — and will fight to keep that standing.
“The Cherokee fishing program is alive and well,” said Matt Pegg, director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “The team at the hatchery has worked very hard to restore the facility and will continue to do what they have always done to ensure the fishing program in Cherokee is strong.”
Steve Mingle, owner of River’s Edge Outfitter, has been fielding phone calls at the shop from people asking about the hatchery disaster but has put their fears to rest.
“I told them the fishing was still good,” Mingle said.
Each trout lost in the flash flood represents time, money and energy. It takes 10 to 12 months to raise a trout — from an egg in the incubation tank to a catchable fish.
Eggs are hatched in an indoor facility, and kept in tanks until they reach three to four inches. Those fish weren’t harmed, which bodes well for long-term production. It’s also good news for the five different fly fishing tournaments being held in Cherokee next year.
Meanwhile, however, the clean-up is ongoing. After hauling away piles of dead fish, hatchery workers are using track hoes to scrape a foot-and-a-half of muck off the bottom of the raceways.
That means lots of juggling trout around, shifting them from one run to another as each one gets a clean out.
The surviving fish had to be sorted out anyway though, Blankenship said. The hatchery keeps fish segregated by size, so when it’s workers can easily net liked-size fish on stocking days. But the flash flood overtopped the raceways, and fish of different sizes were mixed up.
“We got 2-inch fish mixed in with 12-inch fish,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship said he hopes the tribe’s insurance will cover the losses. They may also be eligible for federal farm disaster aid that covers crop losses.
“We are going to explore all avenues,” Blankenship said.
Students in Haywood County are on the front lines of an ambitious effort to reintroduce a slew of native species to the Pigeon River following decades of pollution from the Canton paper mill that destroyed the aquatic habitat.