By Vickie Taylor
The Daily Times-Call

Weld County – A one-lane farm road east of Ault meanders the length of three farm fields to a secluded northern Weld County plot of land.

To the untrained eye, it looks like a common irrigation hole for nearby farmers.

Up close, that irrigation hole is actually nine ponds surrounded by tall, natural grasses and covered with wires to keep the local birds from feasting – or is it to protect the birds from being feasted upon?

The ponds are home to huge trout, trophies that only a select few ever will get to touch.

At any given time, Shannon Skelton, president of CFI, has 50,000 trout of 10 different varieties, weighing in at 5 pounds or more.

When it comes to football-shaped trout, CFI, with a home office in Fort Collins, is the place to call.

Skelton also has another 200,000 trout that are well on their way to reaching that 5-pound mark.

His specialty is 10 pounds and up, and he has a select variety, the Donaldson Rainbow, that has an average life span of nine to 11 years and will grow to 19 pounds. Most of his heavier trophy fish are at his facility in Albin, Wyo., about 45 miles northeast of Cheyenne.

"If you give a fish optimal conditions, water quality and habitat, it will attain optimal growth," Skelton said.

He estimated that his trout – growing in earthen, non-manicured ponds and feeding on natural aquatics – grow 1.5 inches per month during the spring and fall. "We can raise a natural 12-incher much quicker than our competitors," he said.

CFI caters to five-star trophy fishing lodges that are trying to fulfill the dreams of fishing enthusiasts – wealthy, avid fishing enthusiasts.

Skelton said he typically sells an average 5-pound trout for a little more than $20, and most clients buy 3,000 to 5,000 at a time.

Supplying high-quality, genetically superior trout to buyers is only 30 percent of the business, Skelton said.

Daily Times Call - Featuring CFI

The other 70 percent is designing and building fish habitats and providing environmental consulting for people interested in opening private facilities.

In recent months, ranchers from across the nation have contacted CFI for help in developing private streams, ponds and lakes into perfect fishing habitats for trophy trout. A struggling agricultural economy is forcing ranchers to find other way to make a living. Converting ranches to upscale hunting and fishing lodges is one way for those ranchers to stay in business.

 "If you give a fish optimal conditions, water quality and habitat, it will attain optimal growth."

- Shannon Skelton, CFI

Ranchers are finding out that with the help of CFI, they can transform sections of their rolling hills and valleys with streams or irrigation ponds into exclusive, recreational facilities that attract patrons who are willing to pay $1,000 a day for a minimum eight-day stay and the chance to catch a 19-pound lunker, Skelton said.

"The fish are more of a door-opener for us," Skelton said. Of 11 projects that he is currently handling, all are on ranches, he said.

CFI is also on the verge of introducing cold-water Rocky Mountain fishing to a tropical hideaway in Hawaii.

Skelton's company is currently designing a challenging habitat project complete with several recreational trout-fishing lakes in Hawaii. CFI next spring plant to fly 200,000 fingerlings (4 to 6-inch trout) to Hawaii for introduction into those lakes.

The Hawaii project hinged on the discovery of a natural spring that supplies water for the lakes at a steady 54 degrees.

Since trout are cold-water fish, they likely would hover close to the bottom of the lakes where it was cooler if no means existed to rotate the warmer surface water to the bottom.
After four years in the business, CFI is finding out that the big trout are in demand. The business is currently working on projects in Wyoming, Montana, Canada, Michigan and Utah.

Skelton said he was recently approached about creating a natural habitat for a shrimp-farming project off the coast of Belize, he said.

So does it take more than a passion for fly-fishing and an obsession with catching the biggest fish to make a business like CFI a success?

Skelton said the passion comes first. His staff of seven full-time and five part-time employees all love fishing. Yet, they are not without their individual expertise. He has biologists, a fluvial morphologist or river-habitat expert, even hydrologists who are experts in the field of water movement.

"There's a lot to doing habitat restoration on moving water," he said.

Skelton, originally from Oregon, got his start as a commercial fly-tier and professional fly-fishing guide. "It was obsession turned to passion, and finally an obsessive passion," he said.

CFI is one of the largest distributing manufacturers of custom lake aeration. They have more than 40 solar, wind and electrical systems to add oxygen evenly to lake or ponds.

"Our focus is creating and maintaining quality fisheries and stream restoration projects as well as maintaining our quality fish and keeping our production numbers up," Skelton said.