At the Albert Powell Trout Hatchery these days, there's an air of great expectations, of blessed events -- approximately 200,000 of them -- about to happen. Any day now, 200,000 trout eggs will arrive -- not via stork but via plane and truck, packed in ice and cradled in styrofoam.
"The eggs are shipped after they're eyed -- you can see little black specks where the eyes are -- which means they'll hatch a few more days after they get here," says Roger Moore, manager of the hatchery, which stocks streams and lakes all over Maryland with trout every spring. According to Moore, 98 percent of the eggs produce rainbow trout that, after about 16 months, are about a foot long and ready for fisherman to catch.
In anticipation, water is already flowing through the stacked incubators in the small, dark room where the eggs will hatch.
"We try to make it like a natural stream condition," says Moore. "When a trout builds a redd -- a nest -- it's usually in a dark, shadow place."
About 10,000 pea-sized translucent eggs will go into each tray in the incubation room and water at a constant 54-degree temprature will flow over and around the eggs until they hatch.
"We'll come in and siphon off the egg shells with a glass tube attached to a rubber hose," says Moore. "When they've reached the "fry" stage -- after about ten days -- we'll put them in troughs in the next room. They'll stay there -- in 54-degree water -- until they're fingerlings. Then they'll go to the outdoor rearing ponds . . . They'll spend the rest of their lives in water that's about 54 degrees.
The water where the fish begin their lives flows from a limestone spring -- bubbling about 3,000 gallons of crystal-clear water into the hatchery's outdoor rearing ponds. According to Moore, the fast rate of flow keeps the water the same icy temprature all year round.
"In my time I've fallen in a couple times," says Moore. "Feel it. It takes your breath away. In the winter you can see this place from miles away, 'cause the water is 54 degrees and the air is colder, so mist rises off the ponds. People always ask me if the water freezes in the winter.I tell them they can put it in their car radiators."
Workers in hip boots are cleaning some of the rearing ponds with long brushes. In others, six-inch-long trout dart back and forth in constant, swift motion. Kids lean over the sides to throw scrapes of bread, which are fought over and quickly gobbled up. The fish also eat prepared trout food.
"It has 27 ingredients in it -- fish meal and soybeans and things high in protein," says Moore. "When the fish are first hatched we have to teach them how to eat, so we feed them ten times a day until they start to eat. By the time they get out of here, they're down to three meals a day."
In the outdoor ponds, fish are arranged according to size.
"We separate them with a grader," explains Moore. The big ones stay in while the little ones go through. If we didn't separate them, the big ones would eat the small ones. Trout are basically cannibalistic."
In one pond swims the real biggies -- trout as long as eighteen inches. These, says Moore, are the surprise bonuses for fisherman.
"These fish are two years old," he explains. "When we stock this year we'll put some of these in each stream. They're like icing on the cake."
Normally, fish are ready to leave the hatchery when they weigh about a third of a pound apiece. They're put in tanks of spring water in the back of a truck, and oxygen is pumped into the tanks. When the truck gets to a stream the state biologists say is clean and coold enough for trout, the fish are dipped into a net and carried by bucket to the stream.
"That's the toughest part of the whole operation," says Moore. "and the most important part. When we've gotten them this far, we don't want anything to go wrong."
The hatchery has had a few incidents of human vandilism, but racoons are a different kettle of fish.
"They just reach down and grab the fish," says Moore. "But our biggest problem is birds. There's a green heron around here that really eats a lot of fish."
As for Moore, he doesn't eat trout at all.
"I see them every day," he says, a bit apologetically."I handle them every day. I just don't eat them. Maybe someday I will. I eat haddock."