Grove Lake Trout Rearing Station
Photos and text by Justin Wambold
Located north of Royal on the east branch of Verdigre Creek, this facility raises trout fingerlings in a park-like setting. Visitors are welcome to stop by and view the facility and can even feed the trout themselves.
On a warm, early-summer day at Grove Lake Trout Rearing Station, eight-year-old Hannah Higgins grinned as she popped the lid off an old butter container to reveal dozens of shiny, silver coins.
"She's robbed the change jar we had," joked her father, Rick Higgins.
Young Hannah, who had been to the rearing station before, knew that with each quarter she had in her container she could get one handful of fish food from the station's dispensers. This handful of food could then be used to send the thousands of rainbow trout circling beneath the surface of the nearby ponds into a frenzy. The thought of how many handfuls she would get this day made her beam with anticipation.
Meanwhile, the excited screams of "Fishy, Daddy, fishy!" broke through the serenity as 4-year-old Gage Canfield urgently pointed out a large trout lounging in the easy flows of East Verdigre Creek to his father, John. Soon Gage was off with his brother, Chase, and sister, Shae, to a nearby pond, where it seemed little was holding them back from jumping right in for a closer look.
The excitement exuded by these children is commonplace at this northeastern Nebraska attraction.
The rearing station, owned and operated by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, is a unique stop located 3 miles north and 1 1/2 miles east of Royal in northeastern Nebraska. Using the cool waters of East Verdigre Creek - one of Nebraska's only Class A trout streams - it is the state's only facility used strictly for raising trout.
Twice a year - once in the spring, and once in the fall - the station receives a load of four-inch-long trout fingerlings from the Commission's Calumus and Rock Creek fish hatcheries. Through careful monitoring and feeding, the trout are reared to nearly 10 inches, or one half pound. Once the fish reach the desired size, they are stocked in lakes and streams across the state. According to Dennis Bridge, a conservation technician at Grove Lake, this process usually takes five to six months.
"We get our first load in March or April, and they're ready to go by Labor Day," he said.
Growth rates fluctuate, however, depending on the water temperature or the desired growth - during the coldest months of the winter, when the water temperature drops to the low 40s and trout activity is down, the station merely holds the trout at their weight.
The facility uses a combination of technology and traditional, hands-on methods to ensure the trout are reared properly. Computers are used to generate growth projections based on feeding cycles and water temperatures, then technicians compare those projections against actual netted samples to ensure the growth is on target. The fish are fed twice a day by the technicians.
In all, the station raises approximately 130,000 rainbow trout annually and provides the main stocking population for the eastern third of the state. Many of the station's trout, 40,000 to 45,000, end up at Two Rivers State Recreation Area near Venice, but rainbow trout are also stocked on a weekly basis downstream from the facility.
Visitors are encouraged to stop by and learn about the rearing process or to merely enjoy a walk around the well-kept grounds. There is a visitor's booth, complete with maps, information and a brief video; and, as mentioned, food dispensers are located near the ponds for people to take part in the feeding process.
According to Bridge, the area also gets numerous school groups during the spring and fall, and even trout fishermen from above and below the station will come feed the fish.
Unlike other fish hatcheries, which typically have an industrial feel to them, the Grove Lake rearing station, with its spring-fed ponds, meandering stream bed and nicely groomed green spaces, creates an earthy, welcoming feel for visitors. The crystal clear water also makes viewing the fish easy.
"We like the peace and quite," said Cheryl Higgins, as she relaxed in the shade of a large willow tree located on the center of the property.
Though the station's welcoming landscape makes an attractive setting for a picnic, picnicking is strongly discouraged by the station's technicians. There is no running water for sanitation and no picnic tables. People interested in a picnic lunch are encouraged to go to the nearby Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which surrounds the station.
The WMA not only offers visitors a place to picnic, it also offers camping and fishing opportunities. Most notably, Grove Lake has good largemouth bass and northern pike fishing, as well as bluegill, crappie and channel catfish. Boats are allowed on the lake, but there is a 5-miles-per hour "no wake" restriction in place. In addition to the lake, East Verdigre Creek, which sustains the rearing station, meanders through the wildlife management area and provides fishermen with great trout fishing opportunities. The creek is stocked weekly with rainbow trout from the rearing station also contains naturally reproducing populations of brown trout.
The wildlife management area is not the only attraction within driving distance of the trout rearing station. Less than 10 miles to the northwest is Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, where visitors can view the fossilized bones of animals that roamed the Nebraska landscape nearly 12 million years ago. This geologically unique area is the resting place for the remains of numerous rhinos, horses, camels and other animals that were covered in ash and preserved after a volcanic eruption. Visitors can see the excavation site as well as walk nature trails that offer further insight into the area.
Niobrara State Park, located roughly 35 miles north of the station, is a full-service state park offering everything from tent camping to cabin rental. Situated at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers, the park gives visitors plenty of scenic vistas; numerous hiking, biking and horse trails; and great wildlife viewing opportunities. There is also boat access to the Missouri River.
"We made a three-day weekend out of it," said Grove Lake visitor Michelle Canfield, whose family was staying at a nearby private trout resort and had already visited Ashfall and Niobrara.
So if you are looking for a great addition to your northeastern Nebraska vacation, the trout rearing station is great place to visit. Lounge in the shade of a large willow and enjoy the sights of trout swimming in the crystal waters. Just don't forget your container of quarters.