A lone rainbow trout swimming through clear water is enough to make an observer pause; the patterns, colors, and sleek lines alone are enough to account for the popularity of fly fishing. By contrast, the sight of thousands of trout swimming through the waters of a single pond is downright mind-boggling — it seems difficult to believe that so many fish could exist in a single county, let alone a body of water that could be hurdled by a long jumper.
The fish surge enthusiastically toward observers standing near the side of the pond, hoping for one of their twice-daily feedings. If the hand-flung scoops of trout chow do in fact rain down into the pond, the water shifts instantly into a surging silver-green mass of flipping bodies and gaping mouths; as hundreds of fish feed, the scene changes from tranquil to chaotic. For a brief moment, it appears that one could walk across the water on the backs of the frenzied fish, and then all is calm once more.
The 300,000 fish at Star Prairie Trout Farm in Star Prairie, WI live their roughly two-year-long lives in fresh, cold spring water that cascades from the side of a hill down through a series of ponds and finally out into the Apple River. “It’s 48-degree water year round,” says Star Prairie Farm operations manager Nate Wendt (left). “62 is ideal water [for rapid growth],” adds Wendt, “so the colder water makes for a longer grow time. But the flesh is firmer because of the colder water. 1,300 gallons a minute go through the ponds.”
The fast-flowing and big-volume nature of the water means that even as it works its way downstream through the farm’s 30 ponds, the hottest summer and coldest winter weather both have minimal impact on overall temperature. “In the winter, we’ll get a little skim ice on those 30-below mornings at the end of the farm, just a little around the edges,” says Wendt. “They don’t freeze.”
The fish — all female kamloops rainbow trout, a variety selected for rapid growth — are raised to be as close to natural as possible, save for a vitamin D-enriched food supplement that helps give their firm flesh a vibrant red coloration.
Harvesting of the trout is a spectacle unto itself. A seine (a net with floats lining the top and sinkers weighing down the bottom) is slowly inserted into the water along the perimeter of the pond. The circle is then pulled into an ever-tighter loop, corralling thousands of fish into an underwater holding cell. A hand-net is then plunged into the mass of fish, and six or seven convulsing fish are scooped from the water and graded for size; small fish go back into the pond, and sufficiently large fish are — if you’d like to be euphemistic about it — processed.
Operating in one form or another since 1856, Star Prairie Trout is now the second largest operation of its sort in the state of Wisconsin, behind only Rushing Waters Fisheries of Palmyra, WI, where Wendt previously did a six-year stint as production manager. “We’re not really in competition with them,” says Wendt. “They have Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison, and we have the Twin Cities.”
On an annual basis, Star Prairie sells about 80,000 trout to customers that include numerous Twin Cities-area restaurants, mostly via Coastal Seafoods, the farm’s single biggest customer. The farm’s location (a mere hour’s drive from the Twin Cities) and its volume of product make it a natural fit for area farmers markets and restaurants — eateries including Lucia’s, Cafe Brenda, Barbette, and La Belle Vie have featured the fish on their menus.
Asked why she puts Star Prairie trout on the menu, Barbette’s Chef Sarah Master replied: “Flavor for one — it’s the best. They don’t catch the fish before you order it. If you get the smoked trout, they smoke it the same day they catch it, so it has a fresh flavor to it — not fishy, as it can sometimes be [with other trout].”
“I compared it to a sample fish from Idaho,” she adds. “The flesh of the Idaho fish was mushy, and the flavor was off, by comparison.”
“When I bring these trout into the Cities, they were swimming the previous day,” says Wendt.
“I don’t buy much trout, since that’s the only kind of fish I fish for myself, but when I have had Star Prairie product, I’ve been impressed by the quality,” says Brett Laidlaw, a local baker and author of the local blog Trout Caviar. “I visited the trout farm once for Trout Fest a couple of years ago, and it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic spot… it was about 95 that day, but the place felt air-conditioned by all that fresh cool water.”
The business of raising trout by the hundreds of thousands is not without its hurdles. Weeds need to be constantly cleaned from ponds, and the grounds need to be maintained. Dogs are used to help ward off the blue herons and ospreys that would otherwise use the farm as the avian equivalent of a Hardee’s; even with canine protection, the farm periodically loses fish to ambitious predators.
Regulations and other red tape present an entirely different type of challenge. A recent letter from the Minneapolis office of the FDA upbraided the farm over its HAACP (food safety) procedures; a new regime of packing procedures is being developed in response to the concerns.
A shift in ownership in November 2006 moved the farm from the control of a couple who worked on site (Marcy and husband Charles “Mac” Graham) to St. Paul businessman Timothy Madden, leaving day-to-day operations in the hands of Wendt, who has overseen a recent increase in production. The number of eggs entering Star Prairie’s hatchery has increased over the past couple of years from three shipments of 60-80,000 eggs each per year to three shipments of 100,000 eggs each per year, requiring an expansion of the farm’s aeration system.
With growth has come opportunity. Star Prairie trout are now sold at three Twin Cities farmers markets, expanding this year from their initial foothold at the Mill City Market into the Minneapolis Farmers Market on East Lyndale Ave. N and the St. Paul Farmers’ Market at Golden’s Deli.
Those willing to travel to the Wisconsin countryside can visit the farm and tour it for a dollar; the fee is waived for those who wish to pay to catch their own trout. Visitors can borrow the farm’s tackle and have at it, guaranteed to catch their fill of regular or trophy-sized fish, which range all the way up into the eight-pound range. While not particularly sporting, the prospect has its appealing aspects — the grounds are clean and well maintained, and they are quite idyllic on a warm June morning. Visitors can also have their fish cleaned and / or filleted, a blessing for those not particularly handy with using a knife to transform a dead fish into a gourmet dinner.
For those casting about for the best way to cook the farm’s product, Wendt has simple words of advice: “People are hesitant to grill their own fish, but it’s not that hard to do,” says Wendt. “Just get a little tinfoil, and throw the fish on the grill. A couple minutes on each side, and you’re done.” Chef Scott Pampuch of Corner Table concurs with the low-key approach to preparing Star Prairie trout. “The more simply it is served, the better,” he says. “It has great flavor, but it’s very delicate… it can get lost if there are too many ingredients.”
400 Hill Ave.
Star Prairie, WI 54026
OWNER: Timothy Madden
May and September: Saturday and Sunday 11am-7pm
June through August: Tuesday through Sunday 11am-7pm
Off season by appointment
FEES FOR CATCHING FISH:
$6 per lb. live weight
Trophy fish (2 lbs. & up) $8 per lb.
Fish cleaned $2
Fish filleted $3