Georgia’s state fish hatcheries have had a great fish production year in 2020.While the Covid-19 pandemic required some changes in operating procedures, all seven warmwater hatcheries operated by the Wildlife Resources Division continued to actively produce fish this spring. As a result, we stocked over 500,000 Largemouth bass in West Point Lake this year and a combined 1.1 million in Richard B. Russell, Jackson, Allatoona, and other smaller lakes around the state.
How do we spawn Largemouth bass?
Largemouth bass are spawned in South Georgia hatcheries, where spring comes earlier and bass spawn sooner than they do in north Georgia. The first step is to collect brood fish. Brood fish are carefully selected from bass populations with a history of producing big, fast-growing bass. In recent years we have taken that a step further by selecting the fastest growing fish from earlier generations and raising them to maturity on the hatchery to use as broodfish. These bass also have a high percentage of Florida bass genetics (usually greater than 80 percent). Under ideal conditions, some Largemouth bass can grow as fast as three pounds per year. This growth rate is some of the fastest Largemouth bass growth ever documented in public waters. Brood fish are stocked in hatchery spawning ponds with fiber mats placed around the shoreline. The bass then spawn on these fiber mats allowing hatchery staff to collect the fertilized eggs and hatch them in tanks inside the hatchery.
What happens when the eggs hatch?
When the eggs hatch, the fry (tiny, one to three-day old fish) are stocked into production ponds and grown out to an average size of at least one inch before harvest. This usually takes three to four weeks.
When do we stock them?
Since bass do not all spawn at once or grow at the same rate, bass production season is truly a season. The first Largemouth bass “fingerlings”, or fish at least one inch long, were harvested from WRD hatchery ponds and stocked at West Point in March. Bass were then stocked somewhere in the state nearly every week until mid-May. Fish stocked at the end of this stocking period averaged more than two inches long.
Photos from left to right (1 inch, 1.5 inch, 2 inch Largemouth bass fingerlings. Photo credit: Georgia DNR)
Why do we stock small fish?
As the spring season progresses, the young bass in production ponds grow larger but mortality rates go up. Largemouth bass fingerlings commonly eat each other when confined in hatchery ponds once they outgrow their siblings, reducing the number of bass available for stocking. WRD’s strategy is to harvest some of our bass production ponds early in the year and stock these fish while production numbers are still high. These early season stocked bass have the advantage of getting settled in their new home before other species like spotted bass have spawned. This provides them with more food resources and a competitive advantage at surviving to adulthood. Some of these fish will even eat the spotted bass fry when they begin to hatch in the lake! While some of the small fish we stock will be eaten, experience has shown some will survive to adulthood and spawn. By stocking bass early and continuing through the season, we hope to capitalize on the best conditions with high numbers of small fish and later stockings with smaller numbers of larger fish.
What about the fish we don’t stock at one inch?
The fish not harvested at one inch remain in the production ponds to grow. They usually grow about one millimeter per day, or one inch every 25 to 30 days. Staff continue to monitor these fish and keep the food supply in the production ponds as high as possible to keep them from preying on each other. When water conditions are right and stocking trucks are available, these larger fish will be stocked.
What challenges are there?
Producing and stocking fish is not always an exact science. Conditions change from year to year, and even from week to week. Water levels fluctuate in the reservoirs. Cold temperatures from spring cold fronts can slow down growth in the hatcheries and can even kill young fish in hatchery ponds. The fish must survive predators and competition with other species once they’re stocked. Food availability is critical for the survival of young fish, and not easy to predict in large reservoirs and rivers. There is also the logistics of growing, harvesting, and stocking fish from our hatchery system, with a relatively small staff and limited resources to work with in the largest state in the eastern US.This year, we also had to learn to deal with social distancing, additional protective gear, and all the challenges of a worldwide pandemic.
WRD Fisheries Staff work long hours and drive many miles each spring to produce these fish to sustain and improve Georgia’s fisheries. It makes it all worthwhile when we see happy anglers with big fish, or a kid learning to fish and appreciate the great outdoors, or a family spending quality time together camping and fishing. We hope you get outside soon, take a kid fishing, and Go Fish Georgia!