Arkansas Game and Fish Commission hatcheries produced and stocked more than 9.3 million fish in 2019 to improve fishing conditions for Arkansas anglers, according to the Jan. 15 Arkansas Wildlife Weekly Newsletter.
Laird coordinates the efforts of four warmwater hatcheries and one coldwater hatchery operated by the agency.
“The flooding we saw in some parts of the state eliminated the contribution from some of the nursery ponds on some lakes,” Laird said. “But in high-water years, boosts to natural reproduction from the thousands of acres of additional spawning habitat can often outweigh the shot-in-the-arm our nursery ponds may give, so that’s not entirely a bad thing. In a lake with abundant habitat and stable water levels, Mother Nature can produce many more fish than our hatchery system.”
Fluctuating temperatures also played havoc on the hatcheries’ abilities to get certain species to spawn.
“Our Florida bass broodstock did not get good spawns last year, and we were worried about meeting our production goal,” Laird said. “We did get some younger bass to spawn late and stocked our growing ponds at lower densities than usual. To our surprise, we saw much higher than normal survival rates of those fish as they grew in the ponds.”
Laird explained that only 40 to 50 percent of Florida largemouth fry that goes into a hatchery pond actually make it to fingerling size. The rest are typically eaten by larger fry from the same spawn. However, with the lower stocking rate, the hatcheries saw survival rates of 60 percent and higher, which allowed them to surpass their stocking goal of 1.4 million Florida largemouth bass stocked in the state.
“It was a good learning experience and may play into future hatchery management as we move forward with our Florida bass program,” Laird said. “We are increasing production of this species, and this lesson may pay off in the long run.”
Strictly looking at the numbers, threadfin shad made up the largest amount of fish stocked in Arkansas last year, and stockings of forage species have been well received by anglers throughout the state. However, there’s more to the stockings than overall numbers. The sizes at which the fish are stocked play a key role in the survival and contribution that stocking may play in a lake or river.
Laird says channel catfish and rainbow trout likely represent the best survival rate, as most of them are near 10- to 12 inches when they are released for fishing derbies and seasonal fisheries to get anglers hooked.
“These two species can be fed commercial feed and raised to larger sizes,” Laird said. “They’re also good choices for introducing a new angler to the sport with inexpensive gear.”
Stocking is only part of fisheries management, but it often is the first solution that comes to mind for anglers.
“We have to use our resources wisely and concentrate our efforts where they have the best chances of success,” said AGFC Fisheries Chief Ben Batten. “Simply throwing more fish into a lake with a habitat problem won’t create a great fishery, but stocking can play a key role in some waters that have issues with inconsistent reproduction.”
Batten points to one study in 2004 where 17 percent of fish found in the backwater areas of the Pine Bluff pool of the Arkansas River were identified as having previously been stocked. This is probably a best-case scenario on a year when natural reproduction was not very successful due to high river flows.
“Those results are not typical,” Batten said. “But they do show that stocking can be beneficial on the Arkansas River in years when prolonged high flows through spring and summer reduce the spawning success and survival of native spawned fish.”
Number of fish stocked per species in Arkansas during 2019: Florida Largemouth Bass 1,526,869; Northern Largemouth Bass 648,834; Smallmouth Bass 24,338; Striped Bass 660,415; Hybrid Striped Bass 84,200; Bluegill 98,051; Redear Sunfish 126,715; Channel Catfish 567,526; Flathead Catfish 13,431; Threadfin Shad 2,936,206; White Crappie 7,150; Black Crappie 197,097; Walleye 338,354; Saugeye 124,861; Golden Shiners 205,340; Grass Carp 28,619; Fathead Minnows 185,000; Brook Trout 32,695; Cutthroat Trout 98,786; Brown Trout 95,951; Rainbow Trout 1,497,992; Total 9,498,430.