Big Spring's "Big Blue" by Art Michaels

NOTE: This is a reprint of a 1997 PA Angler & Boater magazine article. The Big Spring Hatchery closed in 2001.

The Fish & Boat Commission's "Big Blue" has nothing to do with college sports. It isn't a dog's name, an artillery piece, an earth-moving device, or a mountain.

Big Blue is about five years old and weighs a bit more than 21 pounds. It's a state record rainbow trout with one remarkable characteristic: It's azure-blue on the top and sides, fading to white on the bottom.

Big Blue is a mutation that occurs in hatchery production of rainbow trout. So far, this rare genetic glitch has occurred only in rainbow and brown trout. This past year at Big Blue's Big Spring Fish Culture Station home, some 30 rainbow trout were blue in a spawn of about four million eggs. One year, more blue trout might appear. Another year, fewer.

"We separate them early on from the other trout because they're weaker fish, and we don't stock them," says Big Spring Fish Culture Station Manager Terry Farner. "Unless they are set aside, during the first year the other fish usually eat them, or they succumb to the rigors of the hatchery's high-density environmental conditions."

Farner also says that blue trout don't reproduce. Neither the males nor the females develop mature reproductive organs.

"We've been getting blue rainbow trout and blue brown trout for some 30 years or more, as long as I've been with the Commission," says Bill Kennedy, Bureau of Fisheries Training Officer. "Years ago there was a concerted effort to produce a line of blue trout. But Dr. James Wright, a Penn State geneticist, determined that something was wrong with them physiologically."

Wright identified them as genetic anomalies, or mutations. He determined that blue trout probably suffer from a thyroid deficiency. A fish's thyroid gland produces hormones that affect its coloring during all its life stages. Thus, the hormonal mix-up lets these fish form only the bluish pigment.

"Blue trout are extremely rare," Kennedy says, "and they are not something we can selectively breed. Hatcheries keep them as show fish."

The Big Spring Fish Culture Station blues are among the largest the Commission has. Blue trout can also be found at Huntsdale, Bellefonte, Corry and Reynoldsdale Fish Culture stations.

Albino trout, like blue trout, are another rare genetic anomaly. Because of a different kind of genetic quirk, albino trout lack the ability to color themselves normally. Albino trout are different from blue trout in several ways: Albino trout are just as vibrant as other trout. They can also reproduce, but getting more albino trout is rare and unpredictable. All trout species can produce albinos.

On the other hand, golden rainbow trout and the related palomino trout are genetically manipulated fish. In 1954, the West Virginia Conservation Department discovered a single rainbow trout that was partly normally pigmented and partly gold. West Virginia developed the fully golden strain, and by the 1960s, that strain became popular among anglers. In the 1960s, the Commission began producing and stocking the gold-colored palomino trout. The Commission now raises and stocks a slightly different strain, the golden rainbow trout. The rarity of that one partly golden fish was just as uncommon as albino and blue trout.

Big Spring Fish Culture Station's largest blue brown-trout is about six years old and weighs 14.5 pounds. Both blue monster trout now live in a raceway among a few other blue trout and large golden rainbows. The normally pigmented fish won't pick on them now--they're too big.

Big Spring Fish Culture Station welcomes visitors. The hatchery is about three miles south of Newville, Cumberland County, on Big Spring Road. It's open to the public Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Check out Big Spring Fish Culture Station and cast your eyes on Big Blue and his azure buddies. They're an amazing sight.

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