Little Grassy manager learned sound of fish

Makanda, Ill. — The nights of waking up to blaring alarms at any hour are over for Alan Brandenburg. Brandenburg, who managed Little Grassy Fish Hatchery since 1983, retired on March 31.

Little Grassy produces about a million fish per year, on average, including channel catfish, blue catfish, largemouth bass, bluegills and redear sunfish. Most of the channel catfish produced by the state come from Little Grassy.

For a fish hatchery manager, retirement means more than just ending a career. In Illinois, both managers and assistant managers live at the hatchery, so retirement also means moving out.

“My wife [Carol] and I knew we wouldn’t live on the fish hatchery forever,” Brandenburg said, noting that, with that in mind, the couple purchased a place in Carbondale a few years back. Still, moving on was not easy.

Retirement also means leaving behind an alarm system that is wired into the on-site homes of both the manager and assistant manager, triggered anytime the hatchery’s systems sensed something could be wrong.

“The horn was so loud I would have to put arms over my ears to answer it,” said Brandenburg, recalling the alarm system that was in place when he first arrived at the hatchery. Thankfully, it was eventually replaced. “I would fall asleep dreading that I would hear it again.”

Any number of things can go wrong at a fish hatchery and cause fish to die, so the alarm system is a fact of life for hatchery managers.

“Under Brandenburg, Little Grassy turned from an old-fashioned fish hatchery to the modern fish hatchery that it is today,” DNR assistant fisheries chief Dan Stephenson said.

Stephenson praised Brandenburg for his years of dedication, noting that hatchery managers take their work home with them.

And Brandenburg still considered the hatchery a serene place.

“During a snowstorm, it was a beautiful place to be,” Brandenburg said. “I would cross country ski through the area. It could be very quiet.”

But not too quiet, and it didn’t take long for him to tune into the different noises the hatchery made.

“After a while, some of the different sounds, water running for instance, became reassuring because you knew everything sounded OK,” he said. “Quiet is not good. We had oxygen generation purging nitrogen. You hear that going and you know it’s working.”

He had only one neighbor the entire time, Rick Smith, who started at the hatchery a couple of years before he did. Smith moved onsite in 1986, after living quarters for the assistant manager were constructed at the hatchery. Brandenburg called him a good neighbor.

Smith, who is acting as hatchery manager since Brandenburg left, said the two never got in each other’s way, and communicated well.

“If we needed each other, we knew where the other was,” Smith said.

And when those middle-of-the-night alarms sounded, both men would answer the call.

“Sometimes, it took both of us to figure out what was going on,” Smith said. “It wasn’t always obvious.”

Smith said Brandenburg was a good boss.

“He was easy to work with,” Smith said. “He let us have a lot of freedom to do the daily schedules as we wanted. It was a cooperative venture with everybody. We worked like a team from top to bottom, so we were all on the same page of keeping everything alive.”

Both Brandenburg and Smith started working at the hatchery at a time of transition. Renovations at the hatchery, which first opened in 1959, began in 1979 and were completed just ahead of Brandenburg’s arrival in 1981, when Smith first arrived.

It took a couple of years, but Brandenburg said with the help of Smith and the rest of the staff, the kinks were worked out of Little Grassy.

That allowed the two managers to sleep better, since, initially, there were often two or three alarms sounded per night.

“We had what we called a seminal moment,” Brandenburg said, noting that the alarms sounded less frequently once a hole was cut in a screen that filtered water running into the hatchery, which was fed by gravity.

“The water was clean enough,” Brandenburg said. “After we did that, it solved a lot of the alarms and we started to raise more fish.”

Brandenburg said living at the hatchery wasn’t the best for a social life, but it didn’t prevent him from finding a partner in marriage and it was a good place to raise his children.

“[Carol] said she always wanted to live by the water, but she had no idea it would turn out to be a fish hatchery,” Brandenburg joked, mentioning that his kids, daughter Katie, 16, and son Billy, 14, loved watching wildlife, fishing, hiking and doing bug collections in the fish ponds.

It was a satisfying career for Brandenburg.

“It was rewarding to me personally to help out fishermen,” Brandenburg said. “Fishing in Illinois is really good now. … Fishing has improved after we got the fish hatchery system going and, at different times when we were able to hire more biologists. Fishing gets better when we hire more biologists.”

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