A Fine Kettle of Fish
At sunrise on a recent chilly January morning, the mist coming off the ponds at the SCDNR’s Cohen Campbell Fisheries Center created some neat photo ops, which made the pre-dawn drive from the Lowcountry totally worth it. I was at CCFC before daylight to meet up with SCDNR Hatchery & State Lakes Program Coordinator Leo Rose, Hatchery Manager Lane Hite, Assistant Hatchery Manager Brian Boyleston and a group of SCDNR fisheries technicians from CCFC and other hatcheries around the state to do something great – harvest two ponds-worth of redbreast fingerlings, fish that will, hopefully, eventually end up dangling from the business end of some lucky anglers’ beetlespin- or cricket-tipped fishing rig.
There are striped bass, which are awesome and powerful; there are largemouth bass, probably the most-pursued of all our freshwater gamefish; wily trout in mountain streams, the frigid waters of Lake Jocassee and the tailwaters of deep impoundments in the Piedmont and Midlands; not to mention a wide variety of other panfish; but somehow, for me, the brightly colored redbreast outshines them all. Maybe it’s because, having grown up in spitting distance of the North Fork of the Edisto, I’m just a sucker for the beauty of the narrow, blackwater streams where these flashy members of the sunfish family thrive. Whatever the reason, they are a joy to catch and behold, and even more-so to eat, breaded in cornmeal and deep-fried, of course, with copious amounts of canned pork & beans, tart coleslaw and slices of “light bread” at the ready for the occasional bone. Camped on a sandbar in a bend of the river after a daylong paddle and a refreshing swim in the middle of a blazing hot summer day if you can manage it. Now friends, that’s my idea of heaven!
So, among the among the goals of the hardworking scientists and technicians employed in the SCDNR’s Fisheries Section is helping to make that heavenly dream a reality for more anglers by providing an assist to Mother Nature via the agency’s fish hatchery program, which you can read more about here: http://hatcheries.dnr.sc.gov/. Briefly, there are six SCDNR-managed fish hatcheries spread out across the Palmetto State, and they raise a wide assortment of the aforementioned bass, sunfish and trout, as well as catfish and some other species, with the goal of meeting the fishery management objectives laid out by the agency’s senior fisheries managers and researchers. Or, in less long-winded prose – to help us all catch more fish!
Jacks (and Jills) of all Trades
Watching this crew at work is a privilege, and a master-class in ‘Git ‘er Done’-style practical applied science. Equal parts biology and engineering, the task of moving several hundred THOUSAND redbreast fingerlings from ponds into tanks where they can be sorted and counted before being loaded onto trucks bound for their final destination is a tough one. It involves a not inconsiderable amount of scientific know-how, but also a big helping of good old-fashioned manual labor, and with the sun easing over the tree-line, the crew gets right into it, forming a brigade line up the concrete steps at the base of the pond’s dam and passing five-gallon bucket after five-gallon bucket of fish up to the waiting trucks.
The steps lead down to a catch-basin at the base of the pond dam. The basin is called a “kettle,” Hite explains, and the particular style of kettle at some of the newer ponds at CCFC is a "Kansas kettle," an improved design that makes harvesting the fish somewhat. easier. Rose, Boyleston and Mitch Manis use specially-designed flaps and a seine net to corral the swiftly darting fingerlings in the "kettle" and transfer them to the buckets, while the rest of the crews carries them up to a waiting truck, fire-brigade-style. Then it’s on to the “fish house,” where the fingerlings are transferred from mobile truck tanks into stationary tanks refreshed by a constant flow of fresh water from the deep wells that feed the hatchery. The fish house itself is kind of an amazing place; the spare parts, pipe, valves and various tools in the main room let you know right away that the folks who work here – while they are indeed scientists in every sense of the word – aren’t nerdy guys and gals in pristine white lab coats. This is an endeavor that also requires practical skills such as carpentry, plumbing and electrical work to make it all go.
In the fish house, the fingerlings are sorted by size into tanks using nets with different mesh sizes. The brood fish that produce the fingerlings spawn every few weeks from spring til autumn, Rose explains, so the larger fingerlings – as long as three inches and already beginning to develop that distinctive bright belly – are ones that spawned early in the year, while the smaller ones are the more recently spawned ones. The fish are separated by size so an accurate count of just how many will be transported can be estimated. Buckets with a precise amount of water in them are filled with fish, weighed, and the fish counted. From this, a pretty accurate number of fish-per-pound can be extrapolated, and weighing each subsequent bucket gives you a grand total. Boyleston and Rose take turns recording the numbers from each bucket in a yellow, waterproof notebook. The numbers will later be added to the data kept for the hatchery’s total numbers for the year. When all is said and done, an estimated 214,000 fingerlings will be loaded into specially-designed and built tank trucks (there’s that practical engineering at work again).
In this case, the fish are bound for the Little Pee Dee River. A few hundred of the larger fish pulled from the ponds, along with the mature fish that were this year’s brood stock, are held back and will overwinter at the hatchery — ready for spawning when springtime rolls around next year. It seems like a tremendous amount of fish, but it’s really a small amount compared to the millions of spawn produced in the river naturally each year. Every little bit helps though, particularly in years where drought or other factors might hamper natural reproduction. It’s also just a portion of the annual goal for the Little Pee Dee system of up to a million stocked redbreast (more were released earlier in the year). Redbreast are also released into other blackwater systems in the coastal plain such as the Edisto. And that’s an SCDNR Fisheries Section program that anglers — not to mention numerous businesses that depend on fishing, outdoor recreation and tourism for their livelihood – are sure to appreciate.