2009-07-09 / People

Randolph Center Fish Farm A ‘Low Profile Operation’

By Martha Slater

Randolph Center Fish Farm A ‘Low Profile Operation’ By Martha Slater

Louis Warlick gets ready to feed some of his mature trout in one of many ponds on his Randolph Center property. (Herald / Tim Calabro)Louis Warlick gets ready to feed some of his mature trout in one of many ponds on his Randolph Center property. (Herald / Tim Calabro)

If you want to hear an interesting fish story, just ask Louis Warlick of Peak Pond Farm in Randolph Center, who knows a great deal about the care and feeding of freshwater fish.

Warlick’s fish farm, which he and his wife, Patty Akley-Warlick, started 25 years ago, is the oldest privately-owned fish hatchery in the state. Accompanied by his faithful pair of 12-year-old chocolate labs, Kobe and Jack, Warlick recently gave the Herald a tour of his operation.

Warlick does most of the work on the fish farm by himself, with occasional help from family and friends. He buys eggs for brook and rainbow trout from the state in September, and hatches the eggs in the middle of the winter.

As he leads his visitors through the fields across from his house, Warlick noted that he goes to the hatchery in Salisbury and brings the eggs home in jars of water, then transfers them to his hatching troughs, where a gravity-flow system, fed by several natural springs and ponds, supplies water to the long narrow metal troughs and a number of circular black plastic rearing tanks, all housed in a structure that resembles a greenhouse.

As with human babies, fish babies have to be fed often, and Warlick explained that a fish’s appetite depends upon the temperature of the water. They like it best between 50-60 degrees.

“If the water’s too cold, it slows their metabolism way down and they don’t want to eat,” he said. Right now, he’s feeding them tiny brown pellets that contain vitamin-enriched fish meal, grain, proteins, and fat.

“The feed we use is the same thing used to feed the salmon you buy at the store,” he added.

One tub will hold 900-1,000 fingerlings, which is the sixth of seven steps in the fish growth cycle. The eggs become sac fry, fry, swim up fry, and advanced fry, before attaining fingerling status, and ending up as stocking fish. He sells the fish to be stocked in ponds by fish and game clubs and for fishing derbies, primarily in the spring, which is his busiest season. The fish, which can grow to an average of 6-8 inches in length in a year, are sold at many stages. Orders are filled for a certain size and number of fish.

“With small fish, the typical order is for 100-200 fish; with bigger ones, it’s 50-100,” Warlick explained, “although I’ve had orders of anywhere from five to 1,000 fish at a time.”

Warlick’s operation has to be licensed by the state and inspected annually by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, under an inspection program funded by the state agriculture department.

The fish operation takes up about 5-6 acres of Warlick’s 41-acre farm. He bought the property 28 years ago, and he and his wife raised their three daughters there.

“Originally, we had a pick-your-own strawberries operation here and after I dug a pond to irrigate the berries, I was told by a soil conservation engineer that I had more water than the Pennsylvania state hatchery,” Warlick recalled. “My old friend, Hank Hewitt, used to belong to the Sunny Brook Trout Farm, a club that was open to the public, and he suggested that I get some fish and put them in the water troughs I had for the draft horses. From there, I borrowed some money, dug ponds, and learned as I went along. Jack Hardy, who owned a hatchery in Plainfield, helped me by taking me around to a lot of hatcheries, and was very generous with his time. I read a lot on the subject for the first four or five years, and mostly just sold fish to Jack.”

In addition to being a fish farmer, Warlick works as a carpenter and property caretaker. The work on the fish farm slows down in the winter, but he explained that, “the troughs don’t freeze because the water comes out of the ground warm enough and keeps moving.” Of course, he notes, he does have to keep paths open and clear snow off the top of the greenhouse, “so, at midnight when it’s snowing, I’m down here shoveling!”

His plans for next year include putting a new plastic roof on the greenhouse and rearranging the tank setup.

Warlick, who has passed along the help he received by mentoring several others who have started hatchery businesses, says that one of the secrets to his success is that “I’m blessed with really good quality water for raising fish. It’s all gravity-flow spring water—as good as it can get.”

Besides, he adds, “I have no electricity, no heat and no employees to pay—that’s how we’ve survived so long. We’re a low-profile operation!”

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