While visiting my friend Ted Priebe on Waushara County's Lake Napowan when we were 13, his mother dropped us off at the nearby Wild Rose Fish Hatchery to entertain us for a couple of hours.
If math and memory are correct, that was 1969, which means the hatchery had already been state property for 61 years. When walking around the hatchery this past week, and reading why the Wisconsin DNR has launched a three-part $34.4 million upgrade on the facilities, I realized my nostalgic mind wasn't imagining things. The hatchery really hadn't changed much the past 37 years; nor the past 98, if historical photos are accurate.
As I walked between raceways holding trout of various ages, the ground in this former wetland was just as soggy as I remembered, despite our dry summer. And when I gazed at mature trout cruising within feet of my damp shoes, I realized my priorities hadn't changed much either. I still sized up the fillets each fish would render, just as I had done in 1969.
The current facilities are often described as the state's workhorse in manmade fish propagation. Of the fish stocked in Wisconsin waters each year, Wild Rose produces 27 percent of the trout and salmon, 64 percent of the northern pike, 100 percent of the lake sturgeon and 100 percent of the Great Lakes spotted muskies. Of those salmon, 94 percent of them go to Lake Michigan.
While at the hatchery 37 years ago, I was unaware this central-Wisconsin hatchery was about to help transform almost every community along Lake Michigan's shorelines. Trout and salmon raised there would not only help control the unsightly and smelly problems created by Lake Michigan's explosive alewife population, they would hatch a multi-million-dollar tourism draw for fishing families throughout the Midwest.
Starting about 25 years ago, the Wild Rose hatchery also became the state's only stocking source for restoring lake sturgeon to waters where dams or pollution once stopped these native fish from naturally reproducing. For instance, sturgeon from Wild Rose were recently reintroduced to the Milwaukee and Manitowoc rivers.
And nearly 20 years ago, the hatchery became Wisconsin's sole stocking source for restoring the Great Lakes strain of spotted muskies to Green Bay after its water quality improved enough for the big fish to again live. Since then, these muskies have also been stocked in the Winnebago System; Little Lake Butte des Morts; Sturgeon and Little Sturgeon bays; and the Fox, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers.
The future of such programs required an upgrade at Wild Rose, but for years it wasn't a priority for some folks. I guess it's a sign of our times that such projects require lots of politicking, multiple revenue sources, and creative budget cobbling at every turn.
It's not enough to show that fundamental facilities were deteriorating from 100 years of use at Wild Rose, and that an ancient water-supply system hasn't met the state's environmental standards for nearly a quarter-century.
And it's not enough to show that this "workhorse" hatchery is vital to the state's $2.3 billion fishing industry, which includes 26,000 jobs and $90 million in tax revenues for state and local governments.
No, you still need citizens, state biologists, conservation groups, local governments and elected officials pushing as one to assemble $15.9 million for the first of a three-part renovation.
Forty percent of that budget, $6 million, is from environmental restoration settlements paid by Fox River paper companies; $3.6 million is federal funding from excise taxes on fishing and boating gear; $2.1 million is from sales of Great Lakes Trout and Salmon stamps; and $4.2 million is from general hunting- and fishing-license fees.
Conspicuous by its absence is general tax dollars. None will be used.
Maybe it's just me, but every time I hear that no taxpayer money will be used to help fund something that provides huge, undisputed public benefits, I want to shout: "Are you bragging or complaining?"