The Business Report
By Sarah Asmus McCarthy

AULT – Shannon Skelton doesn't need to fish around for business. His company, CFI, has grown dramatically since its inception two years ago.

"We're about 150 percent above in sales where we were at the close of business last year," Skelton said.

CFI not only creates and restores prime fish habitats, but it also raises the trout to fill them. The Fort Collins company sells trophy-quality fish to high-end ranches and fishing lodges. "Their clients fly in from out of state and pay $1,000 a day to fish for our fish," Skelton said.

        "Once they see our fish, they know
             we know what we're doing."

                    - Shannon Skelton, CFI

Colorado Fisheries' client list includes more than 100 lodges, resorts and private trophy fisheries in Colorado, Wyoming, eastern Utah and northern New Mexico.

"People come to us when they want to buy an extremely 'clean' fish," Skelton said. "Our fish have all their fins and are genetically superior. They are healthy, and their bodily proportions are right."

Trout that have all these characteristics are hard to find when buying stocked fish, Skelton said. If the fish are raised in too close quarters, they could be missing fins. Clients also notice the difference.

"Shannon's young and fairly new to the business, but he does grow nice fish," John Ziegman, who manages Buffalo Creek Ranch in Rand, Colo., and has been buying fish from Skelton for a couple years now. "All the fish I've gotten from him have been top-quality."

Colorado Business Report - Feature report on CFI Problem: Fish available for stocking ponds and lakes on ranches were of inferior quality.
Launch your own fishery, focusing on quality and refusing to cut corners.
If the fish are raised in concrete ponds, not only could the trout get damaged, but they also don't know how to find their own food. CFI raises their eight species in earthen raceway ponds. Earthen raceways have several advantages over concrete, Skelton said.

"Earthen adds to quality," he said. "Concrete rubs fins off, and we get natural aquatics."

The CFI ponds are full of shrimp, midges and other delicacies on which the trout can feed. This way, not only are they healthy and well fed while being raised, but they also know how to feed themselves once they relocate to a private resort.

"Our fish are educated foragers as well," Skelton said. "Nowadays, a lot of fish are raised only on pellets. Earthen is tougher to maintain, but the benefits just totally outweigh the repercussions."

CFI uses pellets to supplement the natural aquatics, and each pond has an automatic feeder in it. The fish learn that by bumping a wire hanging from the feeder, food will fall into the water.

"Our fish are at an inch a month in growth at this facility," Skelton said. "A lot of that has to do with water quality."

The earthen ponds are fed from the five irrigation wells on the property. The temperature of this uncontaminated groundwater is fairly consistent year-round, and the fishery can regulate the temperature if necessary.

Pond populations differ depending on the size of the fish. The ponds with the smaller fish, or fingerlings, are home to about 20,000 trout.

Aerators pump 750 gallons a minute through the ponds to provide enough oxygen. After the water is circulated, it is pumped out to a "tail" pond and then used for crop irrigation.

The company started in Wyoming and still has a location in Albin, northeast of Cheyenne. It opened the Colorado location about a year ago this month.

The fishery is located on 12 of the company's 80 acres east of Ault. Colorado Fisheries has six ponds at this location, with plans to expand.

Right now, after the fish grow to about a pound, they are usually moved to the Wyoming facility. Skelton plans to add four ponds and a hatchery in Colorado. The additional habitat will make it possible to keep the fish here as they mature.

The trout are sold by the pound at different ages, depending on the needs of the client. CFI doesn't sell any trout that are under a pound. The average is three to five pounds, but some 4-year-olds have gotten up to 14. All together, the company sells more than 200,000 fish in a year.

Trout sales are only about 30 percent of the business, however. Habitat design and restoration make up the rest. Having high-quality fish shows clients that Skelton knows what makes trout thrive. "The fish are a foot in the door," Skelton said. "Once they see our fish, they know we know what we're doing."

Skelton has worked with fish for a long time. He was a professional fly-fishing guide and fly tier for years. As a guide, he worked with some of the high-end ranches. He started helping them to develop good fish habitat, and that led him to raising trout.

"When we would go to stock, we were not happy with what we were getting, so we decided to raise our own," said Skelton, who was featured on the cover of the January 1998 Fly Fisher's Guide to Colorado. "That's one of the nice things we bring is that we come from not only the fisheries side but the angling side."

CFI has done a lot of work for cattle ranchers looking for other ways to bring in revenue. Many times, the ranch was in the family for generations, but it's become more difficult to make a living off of it.

"A lot of ranchers are turning to us to create trophy fishing for vacationers, and we're finding it's very successful," Skelton said. "Seventy percent of the habitat work we do is with ranchers trying to save their ranch."

A lot of the business is acquired through word-of-mouth advertising. Many clients are repeat customers and refer CFI to others in the business.

"It's not just the fish, it's the knowledge and the service," Skelton said. "Once people open the door to us, it stays open. They see our philosophy and see that a lot of what we do we'd do for free if we didn't have bills to pay."