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The King of North Dakota fish

Chinook salmon growing at Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery

Sean Henderson, Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, tosses feed to growing chinook salmon in one of the indoor raceways at the facility. Kim Fundingsland/MDN

RIVERDALE – Babysitting 400,000 kids is a pretty remarkable undertaking. That’s what Sean Henderson is doing, in a sense, at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. Henderson is tasked with rearing chinook salmon.

“We’ve had a good year. No real issues. Knock on wood,” said Henderson while watching thousands of young chinook, or King salmon, swim in unison in a raceway at the facility’s hatchery building. “We’ll inventory them at the end of this month but, based on what we’re feeding, I think we’re right on with our numbers.”

Salmon gathered by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department began coming into the hatchery Oct. 2, 2020, captured from nearby Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River. The final take of eggs was on Oct. 21.

“We just don’t have the water in North Dakota for them to spawn naturally,” explained Henderson. “So we intercept them and spawn them here on station and incubate the eggs. It’s fairly labor intensive but they are one of the more agreeable species to work with.”

Automatic feeders can be heard “clicking” at various times over several raceways full of three-inch salmon. The feeders dispense pellets of food into the water below where the salmon are eagerly waiting.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN These young salmon were hatched from eggs artificially spawned at the Garrison Hatchery in late fall 2020. They will be about 5 inches long when released back into North Dakota waters later this year.

“They’ve taken well to food,” said Henderson. “The temperature right now in the tanks is about 50 degrees. The warmer water encourages them to eat.”

Several generations of chinook salmon have been raised at the hatchery, making them “somewhat domestic” rather than entirely wild.

“Some of the wilder strains you can’t load into tanks like we do here,” explained Henderson. “I think there’s a little domestic side to these.”

The salmon are expected to grow to five or more inches in length by the time they will be released back into North Dakota waters, likely in late May.

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