NORTH OGDEN, Utah - Shaylie Stoker shrieked in delight as she struggled to grab the sleek, glistening creature flopping on the ground at her feet.
"It's really slippery," the 6-year-old kindergarten student said after she finally got a good enough grip on her first-ever trout to place it in a bucket along with her classmates' catches, many of which were also firsts for the young anglers.
Such experiences define the essence of Cold Springs Trout Farm, an 85-year-old family business that is thriving once again after some turbulent times in recent decades.
As northern Utah's only privately owned fish hatchery, Cold Springs serves as a welcome spring, summer and fall respite for families looking for a unique and relatively inexpensive way to get outdoors and get children excited about fishing. Visitors pay for the fish they catch based on size: the larger the fish, the higher the price.
Fourth-generation owner Neal Barker said people could probably go to the grocery store and pay less for a trout dinner, but catching it for oneself is worth something beyond mere sustenance.
"It's the whole experience," he said. "Watching the kids get so excited - it never gets old."
While Cold Springs is known as a training ground for future expert anglers, its main business these days is supplying trout eggs and hatchlings to commercial and private customers around the West, including other hatcheries.
Altogether, the farm generates about $200,000 in annual gross sales. Barker said it will produce about 125,000 hatchlings this year.
"It's a steady market," he said.
In addition to the rainbow, brook and brown trout commonly found in Utah's natural waterways, Cold Springs is also the only hatchery in the state that sells tiger trout eggs and hatchlings.
The hatchery also has experimented with hybrids and other varieties, including one called the blueback rainbow, aptly named for its almost fluorescent-blue appearance in the water, and the mosaic trout, which loosely resembles the Japanese koi fish.
Cold Springs doesn't sell trout meat directly to grocery stores. Barker said larger operations in Idaho and elsewhere make it difficult to compete in that market.
The farm has seven ponds fully stocked with rainbow trout known as catch-out ponds, meaning no fish caught from them are to be released back into the pond out of potential disease concerns.
Six years ago, Cold Springs started a catch-and-release fly-fishing pond that is now producing fish weighing up to 8 pounds or more.
"Now the adults can learn as well as the kids," Barker said.
The key to Cold Springs' success in any given year starts with the winter snowpack. Its water comes from springs originating in Coldwater Canyon and percolating underground down the hillside to the hatchery, so adequate snowfall is crucial to the health of his fish, just as it is to those in nature.
Barker said this year looks like it will be very successful, with plenty of water, but that hasn't always been the case.
Six years ago, the farm lost nearly 100,000 young trout after an unusually dry winter, which resulted in sparse spring flows and water too depleted of oxygen to support the fish.
"We thought that might be it," Barker said. "We put the place up for sale, but looking back, thank goodness it didn't sell."
The fishery has since made a full recovery, he said. It also had a brief scare with whirling disease in the 1990s. After that incident, Barker covered up the spring to protect the water source from contamination, and has had no significant disease issues since.
He said it's hard to tell whether the current state of the economy is having an impact on his business. While the number of visitors appears to be down slightly, more people seem to be raising their own fish as an economical food source, he said.
While he doesn't see explosive growth in the future, Barker believes he has a strong, steady business with the potential to last many more generations.
"We hope to stay here another 85 years," Barker said.