It took a very special group of people who had the vision and the passion to create and sustain the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery on Fred Haight Drive in Smith River.
Rowdy Creek is a private nonprofit hatchery sponsored by the Smith River Kiwanis Club.
The project originated in 1968 with a proposal drawn up by Art Lawn to make sure the Smith River would always provide a lot of salmon and steelhead for fishermen on the river. John Fraser, Chopper and Hank Westbrook, along with fisherman Len Goodwin spearheaded this effort starting in 1970.
John Fraser actually won a seat on the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors in January of '70. John was able to contact two state senators, Randolph Collier, who represented Del Norte, and Jack Schrade, who represented southern interests.
It proved to be a long, tedious effort as the group's members flew to 10 different state Fish and Game hearings around the state. Finally with the state senators' support, they received a permit to build and run a hatchery under state Fish and Game guidance. Cash donations were the only source of funding at first, with other donations of material and labor.
Simonson Lumber Company's Leland Simonson was a contributor in those early days. The Kiwanis Club of Smith River had 15 members in the 1970s, including the key folks that I have recognized.
Another key was the local farmers who donated the old Del Norte Creamery site on Rowdy Creek to the Kiwanis for the hatchery. This was projected to cost $1.2 million for construction of five units, each containing four rearing ponds, 20 by 80 feet, and capable of holding 200,000 salmon fingerlings.
After extensive efforts to raise funds statewide, construction began on the first three units in 1973. By year's end, a third of the complex was finished and investments in money and labor approached $420,000.
In late 1972, Kiwanis volunteers netted salmon in the river and collected 53,000 eggs from mature female salmon. With fertilization, 90.4 percent of the eggs "eyed out" or hatched. Mad River Fish Hatchery raised the young fish until they became 6- to 7-inch fingerlings, which were then released in Rowdy Creek in November 1973. In 1974, the group was hard at work to complete a fish ladder, hold pond and egg-taking station by that fall. This structure housed the hatchery office.
The year 1974 was big for fundraising with the Kiwanis of Smith River, Crescent City and Klamath all combining their energy in publicizing the hatchery. Charlie Selig joined Art Lawn in publicizing the hatchery effort nationwide as a learning "Salmon and Steelhead Capital of the World."
The Smith River Kiwanis continued to raise money for construction and then operations with pancake breakfasts, a Kiwanis Festival in July, wine-tasting parties and then fishing derbies. On April 17, 1974, the members dropped the old project title and formed a corporation so that contributors would receive tax considerations. It was named Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery Inc.
In 1988, the board of directors of the hatchery was increased from three to seven members.
In 1993, the hatchery began a policy of marking 100 percent of steelhead fingerlings by cutting off the small adipose fin just forward of the tail on the top side of the fish. When these fish returned from the ocean you could identify their hatchery origin.
After Art Lawn retired, Bob Will became hatchery manager for many years. He previously worked at Mad River Hatchery for state Fish and Game. Bob brought a lot of knowledge to the position.
The current manager is Andrew Van Scoyk, who was hired as a fish culturalist after the closing of the Prairie Creek Hatchery. Andy received his education at Humboldt State University. After Bob Will's retirement, Andy took over as hatchery manager. This is his 20th year at Rowdy Creek and it's evident that he loves his job.
Judy Smith, a long-time friend, has worked as office manager at the hatchery for 17 years. Before that she and her husband Sonny, who passed away in 1996, volunteered for 10 years at the hatchery. Judy has been stalwart in her efforts to organize the derbies and make them successful. Kudos to Bob, Andy and Judy for their commitment.
The derbies became a foundation for raising funds for the hatchery. The first steelhead derby was started in 1983 and in 1988 was expanded to two, becoming the Chopper Westbrook and Hank Westbrook derbies. After Chopper was killed in a plane crash in Alaska, Bob and Steven Westbrook helped host all the derbies at Ship Ashore Resort and Recreation Hall. Contractor Mark Warner of Marin County also formed the "Perc Derby" for several years with proceeds going to the hatchery. A women's derby was held for a couple of years in late March.
Financier Jim Griggs from Carmel started the only salmon derby in November back in the middle-'80s and drew 20 or so teams each year. Jim and his family were devoted to help Rowdy Creek survive. All of these derbies were a three nights of dinners, drinks and camaraderie and two days of guided fishing on the Chetco and Smith rivers.
The Hank Westbrook Derby hosted Jim Otto, Ray Chester and several other retired Oakland Raiders. They always brought two Raiderettes each year. Dan Brattain also flew up Gen. Chuck Yeager each year to entertain the crowd with great stories.
Another highlight of my experiences with the hatchery and derbies was hosting Bob Treanor, executive director of the California Fish and Game Commission, to fish in six consecutive "Hank Derbies."
What a great, small independent fish hatchery Rowdy Creek has been over the years. We will be looking forward to the "Chopper Derby," Feb. 21-23, and the "Hank Derby," March 7-9, at the Ship Ashore Resort with Steven Westbrook and crew welcoming everyone for some real fun.