July 7, 2021
Randy Zellers Assistant Chief of Communications
SPRINGDALE — Striped bass on the Atlantic Coast may travel hundreds of miles from the ocean to freshwater bays to spawn, but thanks to the efforts of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologists, some landlocked stripers in Beaver, Norfork and Ouachita lakes can claim a spawning run measuring thousands of miles. Last week, hatchery staff transported a load of striped bass fingerlings from Watha, North Carolina, on a 2,200-mile road trip that lasted nearly 72 hours from start to finish.
Typically, striped bass stocked in Arkansas lakes come from broodstock caught in those lakes when the fish begin to make their spawning run. Although the stripers cannot reproduce successfully in Arkansas lakes, the spawning run places them in predictable areas for biologists to catch using nets and transport to hatcheries to artificially replicate proper spawning conditions.
“We couldn’t conduct the striped bass project last year because of social-distancing precautions due to COVID-19,” Ben Batten, AGFC chief of fisheries, said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck sort of operation for a few days and nights, and we needed to maintain safety for our staff. We were able to complete the project this year, but we were still below normal in Ouachita, Norfork and Beaver lakes, our three main striped bass-fishing opportunities in the state.”
The AGFC also was looking for some new genetics to help keep the striped bass populations in Arkansas lakes healthy.
Tommy Laird, assistant chief of fisheries over the AGFC’s hatchery system, said the health of fish can weaken over many generations in the absence of genetic diversity.
“The striped bass collection process we normally use is catching broodstock from the same body of water where they will be stocked,” Laird said. “After long periods, we want to increase genetic diversity to prevent undesirable characteristics, such as crooked spines, underdeveloped mouth parts and other genetic issues. We were looking for a shot in the arm to add some diversity to our striped bass lakes in addition to making up the shortcoming from 2020.”
Oklahoma pitched in earlier this year to help with Arkansas’s striped bass, but survival of those fish was extremely low.
“We believe we had some water chemistry issues that caused nearly all of those Oklahoma fish to die before reaching stocking size,” Laird said.
The AGFC Fisheries Division put out a call for help. That call was answered by Watha Hatchery in Pender County, North Carolina, owned by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s Inland Fisheries Division. They had just shy of 220,000 striped bass fingerlings that were roughly an inch and a half long they were willing to give.
Batten says sharing excess fish with other states is nothing new for hatcheries throughout the country.
“Fisheries management biologists try to keep fish populations in lakes and rivers balanced. At the end of the year, you may have some excess that could serve another state. And in some years they may have some extra fish of another species that your anglers could benefit from. It’s a great partnership that’s been going for decades.”
The North Carolina fish may have been free, but shipping and handling was on the AGFC.
On the morning of June 27, two drivers, one from the Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery in Hot Springs and another from the AGFC’s Joe Hogan Fish Hatchery in Lonoke loaded into a tanker truck, outfitted with special gauges and supply lines to provide the proper amount of oxygen to the fish.
“They took turns driving in shifts to make sure each one had the proper amount of sleep and road time to maintain safety,” Jason Miller, AGFC hatchery manager, said. “They left early on Sunday morning and arrived in North Carolina to load the fish, caught a few hours of rest and then headed back early Monday morning, driving in shifts the whole way back.”
Miller said the drivers stopped every couple of hours to monitor the status of their haul and make needed adjustments.
“They called me when they left at 6 a.m. and arrived back at Lonoke just before midnight,” Miller said.
The work was far from over after that second leg of the marathon. The fish had been in tanks so long that transferring them to a holding tank and waiting until the next day to begin moving them was not an option.
“Our longest haul is normally only 4 hours or so,” Miller said. “These fish had been on the trucks for 16 or 17 hours. We needed to get them to their destination with as little extra handling as possible.”
Three trucks with additional drivers were waiting for the first crew to arrive with their cargo to transfer them and immediately leave to stock them that day.
“We transferred using a siphon to minimize the amount of contact we had with the fish,” Miller said. “They’d already spent more than 16 hours in the truck’s tank and had been in a holding tank in North Carolina for at least a day or two before that. At this size, scaled fish are a bit trickier to handle than catfish or something that doesn’t have scales.”
Once transferred, the striped bass made their final trip to Lake Ouachita, Norfork and Beaver lakes, about four hours away. Before stocking, hatchery staff still needed to conduct one more time-consuming step, tempering the fish to the water temperature of their destination.
“The truck tanks had water that was 62 degrees,” Laird said. “But the water temperature of the lakes was in the 80s. We had to allow the tank water temperature to rise slowly to prevent shocking the fish when they were transferred. It took about 3 hours to do that. We had a lot invested in these fish, so we wanted to do everything to make sure as many survived as possible. It was 7 in the morning before the drivers and trucks returned.”
All told, 16 staff members from four different AGFC hatcheries came together to put in hundreds of hours of manpower to complete the 2,200-mile road trip for Arkansas anglers. That doesn’t include the efforts of the North Carolina staff to produce the fish.
“I can’t say enough about our staff and the help we received from North Carolina in this project,” Laird said. “We’ve helped them with fish in the past, and you can bet if we can ever help them we’ll be happy to return the favor.”