"This year it has been crazy with temperatures fluctuating up and down affecting fish spawning along the ACF. I will keep you updated."
This message didn't come across as a positive one. I had checked in with Carlos Echevarria, Hatchery Manager at Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery, knowing it would soon be time for annual stocking along the Chattahoochee River. Carlos had promised me last year I could follow along and document the process...but now it sounded like it might not happen due to the unusually cold spring.
8 days later a much different message landed in my inbox. Carlos had 800,000 striped bass fry coming up from a Florida Hatchery in a few days and if I could be in Warm Springs on Friday night I could get a look.
Fry are baby fish. They begin as eggs and hatch into larvae which carry around a yolk-sac for nutrition. When the yolk-sac goes away and the fish are able to feed themselves, they are called fry. Quickly showing my naivete, I was shocked to discover 800,000 fry easily fit in the back of pickup truck.
Water quality parameters are checked and the bags holding the fry are removed from the boxes and left to float in the ponds for about an hour so the water inside the bag gradually warms to the water outside of the bag. From the bags the fry are slowly introduced to the pond by way of a trash can with holes in the bottom. The rising water from the bottom of the can gently finishes the adjustment process and after an additional hour the fish are released to spend the next month swimming, eating, and growing. Once scales and fins are developed, the fish are considered fingerlings and are ready for release.
A few weeks later I get a text from Josh Simmons, a biologist at the hatchery. "We are harvesting our last four ponds tomorrow morning and then after we clean them up half are going to Blackshear and the rest are headed your way Friday morning."
Friday morning there's a break in the weather and I get another text, "Chad will be there between 9 and 10." True to their word, a Fish and Wildlife dually pulling a tanker trailer rolls into Lake Oliver Marina about 9:30am. Chad clearly enjoys his work and is extremely accommodating to being followed with a camera while he informs us of the process. Water is released from the tank as river water is pumped in, allowing the fingerlings to adjust to any differences before being released. Water quality parameters are measured and adjustments are made. Quicker than expected, the gate is opened and 40,000 striped bass fingerlings are dumped into the reservoir.
Hatchery programs are never without controversy and striped bass aren't always a crowd favorite but the fish are native to our watershed and this annual program is maintaining a fishery that would likely not exist otherwise. Being anadromous, meaning they migrate between fresh and salt water, striped bass originally entered the Chattahoochee River from the Gulf of Mexico, swimming upriver to spawn. The construction of dams along the river basin caused fish to be landlocked in the reservoirs. These landlocked fish will still migrate upriver in the spring, traveling north until blocked by a dam or a geographic feature.
The native range of stripers is the majority of the Atlantic and Gulf coast and the species has been introduced across the central U.S. through hatchery programs as far west as Arizona. Stream flow of a distance of about 50 miles is a requirement for a successful hatch so most reservoir populations are not sustainable without hatchery stocking. Lake Eufaula along the Chattahoochee River is potentially an exception because the fish are able to travel as far north as the Fall Line in Columbus.
In April we started with 800,000 fry. Hatchery managers expect about a 20% survival rate over the four weeks the fry are growing into fingerlings. Of the 40,000+ fingerlings released into Lake Oliver this year, it is unknown how many will survive to adulthood. If we stick with the 20% rule, that equals about 4 striped bass per acre. In researching other hatchery programs across the U.S., 4-5 fish per acre is the general goal to maintaining a balanced system. As always, this will be too many for some and not enough for others.
A big thank you to Carlos, Josh, Hale, Chad, and everyone else at the Warm Springs hatchery for being so accommodating.
For more information on the fisheries program: https://www.fws.gov/fisheries/
The Warm Springs hatchery is open to visitors and is family friendly. https://www.fws.gov/warmsprings/fishhatchery/
The title is derived from a quote by John Buchan, "The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope."
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