Striped bass on the Atlantic Coast may travel hundreds of miles from the ocean to freshwater bays to spawn. 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.
Hatchery staff transported a load of striped bass fingerlings in early July from Watha, N.C. 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 brood stock caught in the three Arkansas lakes when the fish begin to make their spawning run. Although the stripers cannot reproduce successfully in state lakes, the spawning run places them in predictable areas for biologists to catch them using nets and transport to hatcheries and artificially replicate proper spawning conditions.
"We couldn't conduct the striped bass project last year because of social distancing precautions," said Ben Batten, Game and Fish chief of fisheries. "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."
Game and Fish 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 Game and Fish 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 brood stock 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."
Game and Fish put out a call for help. That call was answered by Watha Hatchery, owned by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's inland fisheries division. It had just shy of 220,000 striped bass fingerlings that were roughly an inch and a half long it was willing to give.
Batten said 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," said Laird, formerly manager at the Charlie Craig State Fish Hatchery in Centerton. "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 Game and Fish.
On the morning of June 27, two drivers, one from the Game and Fish Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery in Hot Springs and another from the Joe Hogan Fish Hatchery in Lonoke, drove east in a tanker truck, outfitted with gauges and supply lines to provide the proper amount of oxygen for fish.
"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," said Jason Miller, manager at the Lonoke hatchery.
Miller said the drivers stopped every couple of hours to monitor the status of their haul and make needed adjustments.
The work was far from over when they returned. 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.
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.
Once transferred, the striped bass made their final trip to lakes Beaver, Ouachita and Norfork 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 three hours to do that."