Tis the season for experimentation at fish hatchery

Posted on: December 14, 2017 | Bob Frye | Comments

Once, execution of the plan was as simple as the plan itself.

Want fish for stocking? Hatch some eggs, throw the “fry” — or tiny, half inch or shorter fish — in a tank, add food occasionally and wait to see what survives.

Things are different these days.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission remains in the business of stocking fish – and not just trout – in waters around the commonwealth. But how those fish are produced is changing,

Necessity in the form of tighter budgets is prompting innovation.

Take muskies at the commission’s Linesville fish hatchery, for example.

Linesville fish hatchery manager Jared Sayers.

Linesville fish hatchery manager Jared Sayers in front of some of the raceways containing brown trout.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures

In years past, the commission spawned muskies in spring, cultured those eggs and stocked fish – to the tune of 80,000 annually — that same fall. They averaged about 7 inches in length.

Starting in 2018, it’s going to stock half as many fish, but all will be bigger. When they’re turned loose in June, they should be 12 to 14 inches, said Jared Sayers, hatchery manager at Linesville.

Better survival is behind the switch.

Jason Detar, a biologist with the commission, said previously that monitoring of stocked muskies – some are tagged – shows four times as many of the larger ones were still alive after a year compared to the smaller ones.

“It takes a pretty big bass to eat a 14-inch musky,” he told commissioners earlier this year.

That should lead to more fish and better fishing long-term, Detar said.

Getting muskies to those larger sizes is no simple feat, though. It means keeping them in the hatchery an extra eight months or so.

That’s where the experimentation comes in. At Linesville — part fish farm, part science lab – it’s all about tinkering.

“I’m a spreadsheet geek,” said hatchery manager Jared Sayers. “I’ve got data on growth rates compared to feed ratios, growth rates compared to the density of fish in a raceway, you name it. I’ve got more data than I can make sense of right now. But there are answers in there. It’s our job to figure it out.”

They’ve seen some success already.

Traditionally, raising muskies until they’re a foot or longer has meant starting them on dry feed – small pellets packed with protein and fats initially, then larger ones that are more filling if less nutritious later on – and then switching to live minnows.

But minnows are hugely expensive.

At Linesville, Sayers said, they’ve learned to get muskies to go from pellets to minnows and back to pellets.

That’s keeping costs down while still producing quality fish, he said.

“The addition of the minnows, even for a period of time, changes their behavior,” Sayers said. “It makes the muskies more tame to our presence here in the hatchery. But it makes them much more aggressive eaters, even of the dry feed. And that helps them continue growing.”

At Linesville, fish culturists are also experimenting with channel catfish.

A Linesville fish hatchery channel cat.

Can the Linesville fish hatchery grow large channel catfish for stocking? Some think the answer is yes.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures

Historically, the commission has stocked channel cats as fingerlings, meaning when they are just a few inches long. Sayers and his crews are holding some up to age 2, however, to see just how big they can grow them.

The payoff could be big, he believes.

The commission this year hosted two channel catfish programs aimed at families, one of them in North Park, the other in Philadelphia. It purchased channel cats to stock for the North Park one.

The plan is to do two more events in 2018, this time buying fish for both.

Sayers hopes to be able to supply those fish in-house eventually. He’s already got some pushing 10 to 12 inches, and hopes he might have some near 20 in time

“That would be a really nice fish for someone to catch,” he said. “And that’s what we’re about, trying to create excitement.”

Of course, lots of other fish pass through Linesville in a year’s time.

It’s home to brown trout destined for co-op nurseries and ultimately Lake Erie right now. Steelhead will make a brief appearance soon.

Later, the hatchery will get down to its real bread and butter. That’s walleyes. Crews will catch 7,000 or so adults – in anywhere from six to 30 days, based on conditions — and collect more than 500 quarts – or 90 million — of eggs. The end result will be about 65 million fish.

They’ll be in and out of the hatchery very quickly.

“Once those walleyes hatch, they have to be gone in three days,” Sayers said. “If you hold them until day six, you’ll have a string of walleyes the length of the raceway. There will be a walleye with the tail of another in its mouth, with that walleye having another by the tail, and that one having another by the tail, until they’re one big string of fish trying to eat one another.

“It’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s wild.”

After that, crews spawn muskies and then largemouth bass, all while raising panfish and minnows, collecting channel catfish eggs and more.

Things are going to get very busy very soon, Sayers said.

That’s why now, over winter, is when experimentation is king.

“We’re always looking for better ways to do things,” he said.

Brown trout and steelhead from the fish hatchery

Those brown trout started at the Linesville fish hatchery and raised in other facilities each year are turning into something special.

The Fish and Boat Commission began stocking brown trout in Erie to create a “near shore fishery” in 2009. The population has really taken off, said Chuck Murray, the commission’s Lake Erie biologist.

Anglers, he added, are reaping the benefits.

Browns of 22 to 24 inches are the norm, “but we do see some up to 30 inches,” Murray said.

Four of the five largest brown trout caught in all of Pennsylvania in 2016, in fact, came from Lake Erie.

Steelhead like those often started at Linesville are thriving, too.

The commission stocks one million or so steelhead smolts in Erie’s tributary streams each year. Catch rates remain good, sitting at 0.35 fish per hour most recently.

“Lake Erie has the highest steelhead catch rates anywhere in North America,” Murray said.

This year in particular has been a good one, he added.

And the best fishing – statistically speaking – is yet to come, too. Murray said that while anglers flock to Erie’s steelhead streams in October, they actually catch more fish per hour in January than any other month.

Walnut, Elk, Creek and Seventeenmile creeks are the most productive winter waters in most years.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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