Whether angling for stress relief, or to fill more free time, thousands of central Albertans have been casting fishing lines into lakes and ponds during this pandemic.
The stocked rainbow trout they are reeling in from water bodies were likely raised at the Smoky Trout Farm in Red Deer County.
In 1997, former oilfield worker Dan Menard bought a former chicken ranch off Highway 11 A, but had no interest in raising chickens.
Instead, he and his son, Max Menard, looked into turning their love of angling into a business.
Hooked on the idea of starting a fish farm, Max left his computer-aided drafting job in Fort St. John, B.C., and took an aquaculture course offered by the provincial government.
Max and Dan installed large tanks in former chicken barns and co-founded their business in 1998. They ordered fertilized trout eggs from the Seattle area and began what’s since become Alberta’s largest private aquaculture operation.
The family business, which now also involves Max’s brother, Ray Menard, specializes in lake and pond water management.
But trout are the farm’s mainstay. Max said about 200,000 rainbow and brown trout are raised a year to stock private, municipal and provincial water bodies, such as Red Deer’s Heritage Ranch, Hansen’s Reservoir near Eckville, and various water retention ponds in Calgary.
“We sell anywhere from 25 trout to a farmer who wants to stock his dugout for his grandchildren,” to 2,500 trout that were recently introduced to the 100-acre Hasse Lake in an Edmonton-area provincial park, Max added.
The fish are raised in seven large tanks, and four seven-foot by 36-foot concrete “raceways.”
Max admits the complicated process requires the right aeration systems, good water quality and a consistent temperature of about 14 C.
Algae and vegetation growth need to be mitigated. And bio-security measures have to be taken to prevent disease — such as allowing in no outside water that could lead to a spread of pathogens.
Fast-growing rainbow trout and slow-growing brown trout are routinely tested for such things as parasitic whirling disease — and Max said the tests have always been negative.
Since trout are carnivorous, usually feeding on insects and other small aquatic creatures, the Menards must regularly separate the big fish from the little ones to ensure the runts don’t get eaten.
But the biggest challenges come from external factors. Max said the business is dependent on the provincial economy.
People have to have a reasonable amount of disposable income to want to spend money on stocking a fish pond, he explained.
This pandemic year, however, has been fantastic for angling, considered a safe, outdoor, socially distanced activity.
The province has seen a 30 per cent jump fishing licenses sales, leading to 250,000 licensed adult anglers in Alberta.
Recreational fishing is estimated to be contributing $600 million to the provincial economy.
But the personal benefits are most familiar to Max, who as a boy, loved to go fishing with his dad.
“I’m a very passionate advocate for there being enough opportunities for people to fish.”