By Brent Frazee
“Move over, Mother Nature. We’ll take it from here.”
That could be a motto for the fish hatchery system of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Using innovative approaches, the hatcheries are not only maintaining fish populations, they are creating new opportunities like never before.
Walleyes, wipers, largemouth bass, blue catfish – they’re all thriving in Kansas thanks to hatcheries.
“We’re proud of what out hatchery system has been able to accomplish,” says Doug Nygren, chief of fisheries for Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
“A lot of times, the success rates of spawns aren’t real good in wild”.
“But in a controlled setting in our hatcheries, we’re able to produce many times more fry that will eventually be stocked back into our waters. There’s no question that’s making a difference in our fishing.”
The next time you catch a big walleye in Kansas, thank Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, not Mother Nature.
Surveys have shown that less than 10 percent of eggs laid by female walleyes in the wild will hatch. But that number climbs to a 70 percent success rate in the hatchery.
Each March, fisheries workers set nets along the dams of Kansas reservoirs and collect walleyes. They strip the females of eggs and the males of milt, then transport the mix to hatcheries.
The fertilized eggs are placed in aerated jars and they hatch 10 days later. Three days after hatching, most of the fry are stocked in large Kansas reservoirs. Others are kept and reared until they reach 8 to 9 inches, ensuring a better survival rate.
The Milford hatchery produces 45 to 60 million walleye eggs a year.
Of the fry that hatch, only a small percentage survive. But that total is still high enough to build a viable walleye population at reservoirs such as Cedar Bluff, Wilson, Glen Elder and others.
And a move to raise a portion of the young-of-the-year walleyes to intermediate sizes is helping survival rates even more.
When Wildlife, Parks and Tourism started stocking wipers (a cross between white bass and stripers) in 1990, it had a simple goal: to introduce a top-end predator to reduce the numbers of large gizzard shad.
Little did fisheries officials realize that advancements in their hatchery system would one day result in a nationally known fishery.
Wipers don’t reproduce naturally, so they are produced in hatcheries by crossing striper females with white bass males.
There was only one problem in Kansas: The state didn’t have a reservoir where it could consistently collect adult stripers. But eventually, hatchery officials at Milford devised a way to take the striper fry they did have and raise them to adult sizes, when they could breed.
The female stripers and male white bass spawn in a controlled setting in the hatchery, then the fry are pampered until they grow large enough to be stocked.
The process has been a big success and the Milford Hatchery no longer has to beg other states for adult brood stock.
In fact, Kansas is now the go-to state for others seeking to start wiper populations of their own.
Kansas has never been recognized as a bass-fishing state. But that may change if a new hatchery program continues to progress.
Patterning a system similar to successful programs in Florida and Texas; Wildlife, Parks and Tourism now spawns bass in its Meade hatchery.
In late winter, workers trick the bass into thinking it is spring. Almost two months ahead of the time when bass would spawn in the wild in Kansas, workers manipulate water temperature, length of light, and other conditions to get the largemouths to lay their eggs inside raceways.
The bass are then raised to fingerling sizes at the Meade and Farlington hatcheries and are stocked in reservoirs.
The advantages? The hatch rates are excellent. “We get three times the fry Mother Nature does in the wild,” says Jason Vajnar, who manages the Meade Hatchery.
The bass also get a head start of several weeks over their wild counterparts, and that makes a big difference.
Kansas fisheries biologists know that the program is working. DNA of the young bass is recorded for each bass that is stocked. When fish are found during population surveys, biologists take samples of the largemouth bass to see if the genetics match up with the DNA of fish that were stocked.
They have found that the stocked bass and their offspring make up the majority of bass sampled.
Fishermen are seeing the difference too.
In a state such as Kansas where largemouth bass populations in large reservoirs have historically been weak, bass fishing has dramatically improved at reservoirs such as Wilson.
Milford Reservoir is nationally known for its blue catfish, thanks to Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
The agency, known as the Kansas Fish and Game Commission at the time, first stocked blue cats at the reservoir in northeast Kansas in the 1970s with fish obtained in trades with other states, but it found little success.
That changed when Kansas found a strain more suitable for its reservoirs and started raising those blue catfish in its hatcheries.
Milford was one of the first reservoirs stocked with the new strain of fish and the population quickly took off.
Today, natural reproduction is enough to sustain the population and stocking is no longer needed.
Milford is not the only Kansas success story. Other reservoirs such as Perry, Clinton, Elk City and Melvern also produce good blue cat fishing due to stockings.
Photo by Brent Frazee
(Kansas hatcheries are producing great fishing for anglers such as Mike Harris, who displayed a wiper caught at Milford Reservoir.)