A Rainbow Springs Trout Ranch Narrative

By Anne Putnam, Durango

(Editor’s note: This story was written May 27, 2006, and updated in January 2017.)

Norm and I dreamed of inviting our Yuma Arizona teacher friends to spend vacations with us in our Colorado mountains, so we started looking for a summer cabin in Durango. Just before Christmas of 1970 my Dad invited us to join him in buying the Rainbow Springs property, farmhouse and all – over the phone!

In the late winter of 1974 our magic spring water and the pinion-juniper mesas called us to become full-time fish farmers. We were naïve 35 year olds, who embarked on our new career by buying a Springer Spaniel pup for our son, John, and resigning our teaching positions in Yuma. By the time we left Yuma, at the end of May 1974, we had tripled our number of children by adding twin girls, age 5. No turning back now.

The next eight years were an adventure we could never have imagined. With the mentoring of our senior partner we ran a herd of mother cows, subdivided off the least productive land, and added a second trout farm to our fish production property. We set up a catch-out pond and a dressed trout business. We fabricated our own metal tanks for fingerlings, and built more earthen raceways. We hauled recreational trout into New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Utah. Work and play were indistinguishable.

Trout sold for $1.25 per pound plus a nominal hauling fee in 1974. Our equipment was used and patched together. Our little 1930s farmhouse was basic. One double electrical outlet in the kitchen; the refrigerator plug took half of that. We didn’t spend money on vacations, entertainment, extra clothes or furniture. On the other hand, each week we were able to buy 7 gallons of milk at $1 each from our neighbors. The milk was about 25 percent cream, which produced homemade butter and ice cream. Added to this was our garden produce and farm raised beef and trout. Our life wasn’t about money. It was about creating a life style.

By 1982 we were hiring help, particularly in the summers. We raised and marketed 50,000 pounds of trout a year. All three children had attended the country school. Our girls, Patty and Paula, were finishing the seventh grade in town, and John was preparing to become a high school junior. He was a good student and athlete, and the proud owner of a driver’s license

We were starting to enjoy the good results of successful business years. Our last subdivision was completed. We bought out one of our two original partners, remodeled and added on to our house. We were looking forward to an easier pace following our upcoming busy summer. Memorial Day weekend, our busiest time of the year, changed all that, when our son, caught up in an emotional teenage episode, died from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Our loyal and dedicated employees kept the fish farm going while Norm and I staggered along, trying to keep from drowning in heart breaking questions. The five years between May of 1982 and May of 1987, when our daughters graduated, was the roughest period of our lives and the toughest time for the trout business. We closed the catch-out pond and limited the dressed trout business. We bought the dream mountain cabin (at Electra Lake) and spent healing time in that spectacular setting. Norm returned to coaching football, as part-time therapy.

What energy we could muster was put into the trout business and the cattle. The demand for recreational stocking trout was escalating throughout our stocking region. Dude ranches and resorts needed trout as well the private lakes and private stretches of trout streams. Our daughters were away — beginning their adult lives. Both daughters married in 1991.

Norm and I focused on Rainbow Springs Trout Ranch. We sold the cattle, paid off the senior partner and began planning the exiting strategy, which would be necessary in the next years leading up to retirement. My Dad, John W. Zink, the senior partner, became ill and died in 1992.

We began discussions with our major competitors in Colorado’s southwest corner aimed at selling our trout farm to them. Taking a surprising turn, we decided, instead, to merge their facility with us. Thus, in 1993 and 1994 we operated their trout facility on the Florida River in addition to ours at Rainbow Springs. Southwest Aquatics, as we were called, was selling more than 100,000 pounds of trout annually. The price per pound was up to $2.40 with 80 cents per mile hauling fee. We remained one of a half dozen large trout facilities in Colorado. The challenges during that time included Florida River drought and water issues and a major forest fire west of Rainbow Springs. We faced escalation in government regulations and rapid growth in county population. The Florida River unit came down with Whirling Disease.

During the next few years we hired full time trout culturists who were able to provide more of the management. I did some of the office work, but I retired from feeding fish and driving truck. I had a wonderful opportunity to serve Colorado when I was appointed to the State Board of Agriculture. In 1990 I was elected to the La Plata County Charter Commission and served as the Chair through the duration until 1992.

Norm was diagnosed with cancer in April of 1998. He was determined to have the concrete raceway project finished at the North Unit. We sold off parcels, including our house, so that by summer of 1999 we only had the North Unit and the South Unit. Norm hauled fish through May and then faithful friends and faithful crew helped continue operations.

We spent two weeks at our beloved cabin before we were able to move to our new home where Norm died three weeks later. That fall the Colorado Division of Wildlife offered to lease the Rainbow Springs Trout Ranch as a way to increase trout production while state hatcheries wrestled with Whirling Disease. Both parties worked on the agreement during that winter. Right before Christmas, 1999, I suffered a maddening and frustrating major theft and trashing of work equipment and office equipment. The final blow came in June 2000. Two weeks before the lease was to go into effect, Rainbow Springs showed up positive for Whirling Disease. After many years of great health certificates and wonderful customer relations, my trout operation became inactive.

I bought out the remaining Southwest Aquatics partner. My only bonus from that business venture was the friendship I continue today with the lady, (Sherwood McGuigan died in January, 2012) who was my partner.

Many months later I began to think about starting a new chapter in my life. The drought caused people to begin hauling water. I spent 2002 and 2003 trying to get a water hauling operation approved. The opposition to this project prevailed. I continued to believe in the spring water, but did nothing further. A buyer came forward, in 2004, and bought the North Unit.

Thus, I was left with the beautiful Lyman Springs at Rainbow Springs, South Unit. I looked into raising razorback suckers. I spoke with CDOW experts about restarting the trout operation, but continued to vacillate. Finally, in 2005 I began to seriously study and plan the feasibility of raising trout again.

And here I am at another Memorial Day weekend. The WD exemption process is moving forward. Lyman Springs is producing pure spring water rising up from the earth like a sparkling fountain of life. Nurturing the water resource IS the next chapter. And, thirty-two years after that 1974 Memorial Day I know the future for the spring water is promising.

As I finish this narrative I am struck with another very fitting milestone. Patty, the 5-year-old, now the 37-year-old, daughter will arrive any moment. She has just completed her first bicycle race, the Iron Horse Classic, racing 50 miles over high mountain passes to beat the train to Silverton. Her husband and two children, proud fans, will be with her. It is Saturday, May 27, 2006. And I have but one grand question – What will the future bring?

EPILOGUE – One week later the joyful beginning of the next chapter has been initiated. A new generation trout grower and I signed a lease to the trout production facility at Rainbow Springs, South Unit. The future is in great hands!!