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Hatchery production focuses on forage

by JIM HARRIS ArKansas Game and Fish | February 23, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission hatcheries produced 17.6 million fish. But rather than producing more hungry, grown-up fish to stock in major lakes, biologists have concluded that the lakes are well-populated with adults who need forage to grow.

Game and Fish still raises many hundred thousands of mature fish for stocking lakes, streams and ponds, but the total fish production in 2020 at Game and Fish hatcheries leaned toward baitfish, said Tommy Laird, assistant chief in the fisheries division over culture.

“We produced a large percentage of baitfish for the state including shad, golden shiners, bluegill, redear and fathead minnows. Over half of what we produced went into the state waters as bait-fish, about 60%, to provide forage for predator fish,” Laird said.

The second most produced and stocked fish in 2020 was largemouth bass. Game and Fish produced and stocked a record 2.5 million Florida-strain largemouth bass last year. Along with northern strain of largemouth bass, plus stocking smallmouth bass, the overall black bass stockings reached 3 million. Florida-strain largemouth bass were stocked mostly in warmer south Arkansas lakes where biologists are trying to maintain or establish a healthy Florida bass population.

Tiny baitfish make up a huge number of fish produced, but they don’t account for the most weight. Fisheries staff realizes there are human mouths to feed as well, which is why such species as catfish and trout are grown to table-ready size for stocking in specific locations. They’re stocked for fishing derbies and to boost the population where a species such as rainbow trout doesn’t reproduce.

Channel catfish production numbered 472,000. That’s small compared to forage stockings of such species as shad and minnows, but in total poundage topped 250,000 pounds, or 40% of the total tonnage produced at the hatcheries in 2020, Laird said.

The coronavirus pandemic changed the way Game and Fish stocked catfish. In a typical year, Laird noted, catfish would be stocked throughout the state on a weekly basis through the spring and into summer. But changes in hatchery work structure and the cancellation of all of the usual spring and summer fishing derbies in Arkansas led Game and Fish to stock the table-ready-size catfish in two major stockings.

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