Mark Oliver, the longtime chief of fisheries for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, retired Friday with a ceremony at Tyler Bend Recreation Area on the Buffalo River.
It was an appropriate site for Oliver's sendoff because he is passionate about stream fishing. It's a bond we've shared in an 18-year friendship that goes back to his days as the regional fisheries biologist in northern Arkansas.
Reporters aren't supposed to be close with the people they cover, but it's unavoidable when you've known somebody for so long.
Oliver and I hit it off immediately when we first met in 1997. I was a freelance writer doing a story for Arkansas Wildlife magazine about tiger muskies in the Spring River. I was very late arriving at the Spring River trout hatchery for our interview, and Oliver stayed past closing time to meet me.
He wasn't angry that I was late. It was stormy, and he was worried about my safety.
The tiger muskie was one of Oliver's pet projects, but he doesn't consider it a career highlight.
"I did like the tiger muskie project, but the trout didn't like the tiger muskie project," Oliver said.
Tiger muskie, a cross between a muskellunge and northern pike, thrived in the Spring River with an unlimited supply of rainbow trout and smallmouth bass to eat.
"I was a little too willing at times to stock non-native species without thinking about their effect on other species, but they were successful," Oliver said. "We produced a 22-pounder in less than six years."
Even if it was a dud, Oliver had a lot of high points both as a biologist and chief of fisheries. He graduated in 1976 from Henderson State University with a degree in biology, then went to work with the AGFC in 1977 as a fish culturist at the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery at Lonoke.
Oliver participated in a now-defunct biologist training program that produced other Game and Fish stalwarts like Don Brader, Stuart Wooldridge and Steve Filipek. Mike Freeze, a former member of the commission, was also in that program.
After two years in Lonoke, Oliver transferred to north Arkansas, where he conducted creel surveys on the White and North Fork rivers. He remained in that part of the country until 2005, when he came to Little Rock as assistant chief of fisheries.
During his time with the commission, Oliver has contributed generously to Arkansas's status as a world-class fishing destination, especially for trout. He was also instrumental in improving habitat at Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes in the 1980s and 90s, when they desperately needed a boost.
"That took a lot of people, and it was one of the biggest habitat projects ever done in freshwater," Oliver said. "There were very few other ones that were bigger."
By organizing partnerships with fishing clubs, sportsman's groups and the Corps of Engineers, the AGFC sunk hundreds of thousands of trees at 600 sites to create fish habitat in static reservoirs that were long past their fish-producing prime.
"Some of those structures were 300 feet long that might have 150 trees, and Corps was good enough to let us do it," Oliver said.
One of Oliver's talents was an ability to bring disparate groups together to benefit fish resources.
"You can't get anything done just by yourself," Oliver said. "You need people getting together and combining resources to get anything done on any scale. Arkansas is well known for being willing to put aside self interests to work together for a common cause."
Forming partnerships and establishing consensus was especially vital on the trout streams. Oliver said there was considerable conflict between the various user groups on the White and Norfork rivers. Getting those groups together to forge palatable solutions created fisheries that everyone could enjoy.
"I wish that fishermen recognized that nobody wants world-class fishing in Arkansas more than the people who work for the Game and Fish Commission," Oliver said.
Oliver got a lot of joy from his work and often marveled that he actually was paid to have so much fun.
As a retiree, Oliver said he's looking forward to being a consumer and excited about learning to fly fish.
He also bought a couple of fancy kayaks for himself and his wife, and he said he intends to scuff them up in our streams.
Who's to say there isn't one last tiger muskie hiding out somewhere in a deep pool on the Spring River?
It would be fitting for Oliver to put it on his wall.
Sports on 05/31/2015