State fish hatchery prepares for upcoming fishing derby

By Tristan Bennett

CORNING, Ark. — A local fish hatchery prepares to celebrate as National Hunting and Fishing Day approaches.

For the first time, Donham State Fish Hatchery, along with the other five state hatcheries, will host a fishing derby to celebrate National Hunting and Fishing Day.

The holiday began as a day of thanks for sportsmen who contributed to conservation and sustainable use of fish and game, according to the National Fishing and Hunting Day website. President Richard Nixon first proclaimed the holiday in 1972 as a day to enjoy the outdoors and encourage proper management of natural resources.

This year, National Hunting and Fishing Day falls on Sept. 28.

The employees at Donham hatchery work year-round to ensure derbies such as this one go off without a hitch. They must plan ahead each year to ensure each derby site gets the proper amount of fish.

Robert Zimmer, left, and Erik Jordan pose by fish vats. Photo by Tristan Bennett

Mark Harness, hatchery manager, said, “In January or February, I’ll know how many fish I’ve got to produce for the whole year.”

Preparing these fish is no small task. The technicians keep themselves busy taking care of the fish and helping maintain the hatchery itself.

Robert Zimmer, senior technician, said, “We do everything from mowing to cleaning the bathrooms and everything in between.”

In the fall, the employees rework the ponds by draining them and mowing the grass in them down as well as work on their second round of fish harvesting for the year. In the spring, they put fish in spawning nests and usually begin harvesting by June or July.

“Checking all the oxygen levels is the first thing we have to do every morning,” said Erik Jordan, a technician at the hatchery.

The technicians keep a close eye on oxygen levels to ensure the fish are in a healthy environment. Fish must also be fed and checked on regularly to confirm proper growth.

When the time comes to send those fish out into the community, the hatchery employees harvest the ponds using a method called dragging.

“We have a seine that reaches across one of our 1 1/2-acre ponds, and we’ll drag the whole pond to a corner and slowly pull it in,” Harness said.

From there, they take a sample to get an approximate weight of the fish.

“Let’s say these fish are one pound,” Harness said, “that means one fish weighs one pound, so if we’ve got to have 500 fish, we know we’ve got to have 500 pounds.”

Then, technicians load the fish onto trucks and take them to their new homes for communities to enjoy.

Harness’s hatchery stocks catchable catfish, one pound or over, in many of the Family and Community Fishing Ponds in Northeast Arkansas. Several of these ponds will hold derbies throughout the summer and fall.

Family and Community Fishing Ponds get stocked with catfish in April, May, June, September and October. Trout come to the ponds in November through February. Lakes and ponds get stocked according to what the biologist wants, so it varies from year to year.

Zimmer said, “We may stock Lake Charles this year, but we may not stock it next year.”

The biologist is in charge of deciding how many fish and of what species a lake needs.

The hatchery’s job does not always stop there. Donham holds its own derby at the hatchery every year as well as the National Hunting and Fishing Day derby, which will take place on the Arkansas State University campus.

“We are not doing it here (at the hatchery) because we reach the local people with our derby in June. So, we are going to move to Jonesboro with this one to see about getting a different group of people,” Harness said.

Hatchery employees will be there working educational booths and a casting contest to teach people how to cast correctly. The A-State American Fisheries Society will also be there with information on endangered species. In the past, Donham hatchery has also done a BB gun range, a knot-tying station and kayaking at their derbies, Jordan said.

Admission to the derby is free, and anyone is welcome to fish from 8 a.m. to noon at the Pavilion Pond on the A-State campus. Family and Community Fishing Program rules apply, so someone could even go by themselves to the derby. There is a three fish limit per person.

“It’s designed to get families back to fishing or even get the young kids interested in fishing,” said Harness.

National Hunt and Fishing Day is all about enjoying the outdoors, and Harness hopes this derby will provide Northeast Arkansas with a chance to do so as well as learn about conservation and wildlife.

Editor’s Note: Featured photo shows hatchery staff reworking ponds in preparation of spawning season. Photo by Tristan Bennett