The hatchery, located a good stone toss from I-26 west at 520 Federal Hatchery Road, has been in continuous operation since 1897 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, one of the original five hatcheries constructed by the federal agency. The hatchery’s role is to produce disease-free Rainbow Trout eggs and ship them to local and regional fisheries. In Erwin, they do it with an amazing degree of organization. The results are the kind of trout that can get a fisherman’s pulse pounding in anticipation. It’s a role John Robinette, current hatchery general manager, and his staff take very seriously.
"We are a brood stock hatchery and provide eggs for other federal, state and tribal hatcheries," said Robinette. "Last year, we shipped 14 million eggs to 18 states from Arizona to Maine."
It isn’t just about taking the eggs and shipping them off (in coolers with ice and via FedEx next-day delivery) though. The hatchery also releases the stock into area streams and rivers from August through mid-April.
The process is amazing, but even if you don’t consider yourself a fisherman, a visit to the Erwin National Hatchery is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.
There are two museums on site. There's the Unicoi County Heritage Museum, located in a house built in 1903 for the hatchery superintendent, and a picnic pavilion, which was also the site for the hatchery post office. Now there’s the new Clinchfield Railroad Museum. The Clinchfield Railroad played a huge role in the development of Unicoi County and the hatchery. At one point, there was a train stop at the hatchery, making the new museum a natural addition.
The Heritage Museum features beautiful rooms full of antiques and history. One of the highlights is the Blue Ridge Pottery room. It features pottery made in Unicoi County by Southern Potteries, Inc., the largest hand-painted pottery business in the nation until it closed in 1957. Also featured in the museum is a 1900s kitchen complete with an ornate cast iron cookstove, antique cabinetry and a washing machine from the era.
The Clinchfield Railroad Museum, built to resemble a train station from the 1900s, celebrates the link the railroad and the region share. Once housed as a room in the Heritage Museum, the new facility opened in 2011.
Though there are non-fishy ways to spend the afternoon, the lure is the trout and the hatchery. Housed in raceways (long concrete runs), the trout raised here have a good life. Each raceway has cool, clean running spring water, polypropylene-mesh covers to protect the trout from predators and canvas tent-like covers that add to the predator protection and help keep the hot Tennessee sun from frying them before their time.
In addition to the eggs the hatchery ships to others, they keep less than one percent of their annual egg production to produce their future brood stock. They grow three strains of rainbows from undeveloped egg to fingerling trout and beyond. They keep the fish for two years - the age a trout first produces eggs - harvest the eggs, then release the two-year old fish out into the local waters.
"Our fish are between 2 1/2 to 3 pounds when we release them," Robinette said. "It’s one of the biggest reasons we produce trophy fish."
The Erwin National Hatchery welcomes visitors for tours, but Robinette requests groups call two weeks ahead of their trip, especially if their group is 20 or larger. Guided tours are available 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. There is no admission to the hatchery, but there is a $3 for adults ($2 for students) admission to the museums. The hatchery is open seven days a week and year-round. The museums will only be open on the weekends from 1 to 5 p.m. through the end of October, and then will be closed until mid-April. For more information or to schedule a hatchery tour, contact 423-743-4712.
Once you go, don’t be surprised if you have the urge to grab a pole, a license and spend the rest of the day trying to catch one of those trophy Rainbows in the nearby Nolichucky River.