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Paddlewheel and fountain aerators help add oxygen to small ponds during extremely hot periods.

Paddlewheel and fountain aerators help add oxygen to small ponds during extremely hot periods.

Anyone who has ever had their breath taken away after sitting in a car that’s been parked in the summer sun will tell you that even a momentary drop in oxygen can turn things upside down. The same holds true for fish if the dissolved oxygen in a pond or lake crashes.
According to Eric Brinkman, district fisheries supervisor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in Hope, fish kills associated with low oxygen levels can be common in many small bodies of water during late summer.

“It can happen on any body of water or a section of a body of water, but the most common places we get fish kills like this are smaller ponds on people’s property,” Brinkman said.

Brinkman says the factors leading up to a fish kill because of low oxygen are more complex than the simple fact that hot water holds less oxygen.

“There’s a lot going on in summer,” Brinkman said. “Fish are cold-blooded creatures, so their metabolism rises with the temperature. A higher metabolism means more activity and more oxygen demand.”

The amount of fish in the system also is at its peak during the summer. Fish and insects that hatched all spring add more demand for the dissolved oxygen available.

“Summer also brings an abundance of vegetation, phytoplankton and zooplankton,” Brinkman said. “Which all use oxygen as well.”

Everyone who’s had third-grade science learned plants provide oxygen when they create sugars through photosynthesis, but plants also use part of that oxygen when they burn those sugars to survive.

“An abundance of fish, insects and plankton can consume a lot of dissolved oxygen, especially at night or during prolonged periods of cloudy weather, when photosynthesis slows due to lack of sunlight,” Brinkman said. “Typically fish kills from depleted oxygen will occur in the very early morning, just before sunup oxygen levels are at their lowest.”

Fish kills resulting from low oxygen also can happen during sudden events called “turnover.” During the hottest part of summer, water will separate, or stratify, into two distinct layers. The upper layer will be warmer and contain most of the oxygen. The bottom layer will be cold, and contains little or no oxygen. Most fish will be in the upper layer of the water column, often very close to where the two sections meet – called the thermocline. However, a cool rain or extreme cold front can cool the surface layer rapidly, which causes it to drop to the bottom of the pond, forcing the oxygen-poor layer to the surface zone holding the fish. The rapid drop in oxygen causes large fish kills, including all species present.

No matter the cause of oxygen loss, the best solution is aeration.

“Oxygen diffuses into the water from the surface quicker if there’s a lot of splashing and wave action,” Brinkman said. “On our hatcheries and on many farms with the proper equipment, a paddle-wheel aerator will get oxygen back into the system efficiently. A lower-cost option for ponds and small lakes is an aeration fountain to cause an adequate disturbance.”

Brinkman says once fish begin to go belly up, there’s not much that can be done, but investing in a fountain aerator definitely guards against oxygen loss and helps prevent the water from stratifying.
Another piece of advice for would-be pond owners is to limit the maximum depth of any small pond you build to less than 10 to 12 feet. Shallower systems do not stratify or turnover as easily.

“Many people think you should have some deeper water for fish to use as refuge during the hot summer months, but it’s actually a bad idea when you’re talking about smaller ponds,” Brinkman said.

Anything that adds nutrients to the system during summer also can increase the demand for oxygen. Overabundant fertilization, runoff from agriculture or sewage treatment areas and livestock waste all can increase the fertility of the system too much and eventually lead to a crash.

Telltale indicators that you may have a turnover occurring on a pond are an overnight change in the water color from relatively clear to a “chocolate milk” appearance, a foul, rotting smell and fish opening their mouths, or “piping,” at the surface of the water. These symptoms are much more prevalent in the morning just as the sun rises.

If a person sees a fish kill, they can call their local AGFC office and ask to speak to a fisheries biologist. They can walk you through a series of questions to determine whether the kill is due to oxygen depletion or if other factors are at play. A list of regional offices is available at http://www.agfc.com/aboutagfc/Pages/AboutRegionalOffices.aspx

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John Duncan with yoyoguideservice.com finds crappie deep in summer.

John Duncan with yoyoguideservice.com finds crappie deep in summer.

Each spring, anglers comb the shallows at DeGray Lake in Hot Spring and Clark counties, probing tiny jigs and minnows at any likely looking spot in search of crappie. Rarely do anglers leave empty-handed when the dogwoods are blooming and the fish are spawning. But once summer’s heat sets in and the fish move out of the shallows, most anglers hang up the jigging poles or use the same tactics as spring, leaving the lake with hungry stomachs and a bare live well.

John Duncan, owner of yoyoguideservice.com says catching crappie once the spawn has ended can be just as good as when they’re on the beds. Anglers just have to switch to deep-thinking mode. Once the water’s surface temperature begins to creep into the 80s, crappie seek the comfort of cooler water found a little deeper.

“If you just look across the surface, there doesn’t seem to be hardly anything to hold fish, but it’s a different world under the water,” Duncan said. “The Corps [of Engineers], the Game and Fish and some local anglers have sunk a bunch of brush piles throughout the lake, you just have to look for them.”

The latest electronics can be extremely helpful in finding brush piles made of branches and woody cover, but can be tricky to read when searching for brush made of bamboo or river cane, materials extremely popular with crappie anglers.

Brush piles made of cane or bamboo often appear better on standard 2D sonar instead of side-imaging or down-imaging units.

Brush piles made of cane or bamboo often appear better on standard 2D sonar instead of side-imaging or down-imaging units.

“If you’re using a side-imaging depth finder, wood will show up easily, but bamboo brush piles may only look like a shadow on the bottom,” Duncan said. “Sometimes you have to go right over it before you can really see what it looks like.”

Anglers who can’t afford high-dollar electronics still can find plenty of offshore options for crappie, it just takes a little more effort and elbow grease. A five-gallon bucket, some hand-cut bamboo and some fast-setting concrete is all it takes to create your own brush piles and place them wherever you want.

“Bamboo offers excellent cover, and lasts for a few years in the water, but it’s much easier to work with and not as heavy when it’s time to place your brush pile,” Duncan said. “Just be sure to cut the bamboo where a node or stem is coming off the main stalk so it stays firmly in the concrete for years.”

Duncan says he’s placed about 24 “crappie condos” in DeGray Lake in the last year, and many have turned out very productive.

“You learn as you go along about where to place them,” Duncan said. “If you see a shoreline with a lot of cover, there’s already plenty for the fish to congregate on. Sink your cover in an area with a rocky bottom but no trees or vegetation and it usually is going to produce much better.”

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has plenty of fish attractors in DeGray Lake to get anglers started, and all of them are only a click of a mouse away. Just visit www.agfc.com and click on the “Interactive Map” icon underneath the banner on the front page. Zoom in to DeGray Lake, or any lake you’re interested in, to get the locations of any fish attractors found on that body of water.

“As time goes by, some of the attractors deteriorate or are moved by currents or anglers,” said Chris Racey, chief of fisheries for the AGFC. “So you need to get the GPS coordinates for as many as you can to make a ‘milk run’ until you find a good one.”

Racey also says it’s important to contact the owner of a lake before placing any fish attractors.

“Some agencies do not allow sinking brush in their lakes, while others have restrictions on the materials fish attractors may be made of,” Racey said. “

When Duncan hits the water to fish the deep brush he or others have planted, he wastes little time with lure selection. A minnow suspended underneath a slip float gets the nod almost every time when he’s guiding and serious about catching fish.

A standard slip-cork rig using a no. 6 cricket hook baited with a minnow gets the nod when Duncan's serious about catching fish with clients.

A standard slip-cork rig using a no. 6 cricket hook baited with a minnow gets the nod when Duncan’s serious about catching fish with clients.

“My boat is outfitted with enough rod holders to run 32 poles at once, but I rarely will put out more than two poles per person,” Duncan said. “On an older boat, I ran 12 poles with three jigs on each line, but one run-in with a school of white bass left me so tangled up it cured me of that chaos forever.”

One suggestion Duncan offers on the setup is to abandon the gold no. 2 or 4 Aberdeen crappie hooks often used with minnows. Instead, he uses the cricket hook popular with bream anglers in size no. 6. The smaller hook bends enough to free him of snags if needed, but doesn’t flex too much to let fish get away.

“Fishing brush in deep water can mean hitting a lot of brush piles until you find the one the fish want to be around, so I do everything I can to keep things moving quickly,” Duncan said. “A minute or two saved here and there retying can add up to hours of lost fishing time in the course of a month.”

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AGFC employees and inmates from the Cummins Prison harvesting largemouth bass fingerlings.

Hundreds of thousands of largemouth bass fingerlings will be paroled from Cummins Correctional Facility at this year’s Big Bass Bonanza, June 24-26.

The fingerlings are the result of an ongoing partnership between the Arkansas Department of Corrections, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas anglers.
Each year, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission works with tournament anglers to collect mature largemouth bass from the Dumas pool of the river during spring tournament weigh-ins.

“This year we collected our brood fish from a weigh-in of the Dumas Bass Club,” said JJ Gladden, biologist at the AGFC’s Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery. “In some years we may work with a few clubs to get the fish we need because of weather or poor fishing conditions, but we got enough at the first tournament this year to supply what we needed. The bass are transported to the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections and placed in ponds once planned for raising catfish.

Largemouth bass receive an early release from Cummins Correctional Facility.

More than 1 million largemouth bass have been released from Cummins Correctional Facility since 2001.

“Roughly 200 bass are stocked into the ponds,” said JJ Gladden, biologist at the AGFC’s Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery in Lonoke. “Our goal is to get about 200,000 fingerlings out of that.”
Colton Dennis, Black Bass Program coordinator for the AGFC says the partnership has produced more than 1 million largemouth fingerlings for the Arkansas River since its creation in 2001.

“Five of the 15 years suffered no measurable production because the river rose into the ponds before we could get the fingerlings out,” Dennis said.

Once ready, 100,000 fingerlings are seined from the ponds using inmate labor supervised by AGFC hatchery crews. The fish are loaded onto hatchery trucks and delivered to weigh-in sites for the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza.

“20,000 fingerlings go to each weigh-in location,” Gladden said. “As anglers come in to weigh their fish hourly, we give them bags of fingerlings to stock on their return trip.”
Dennis says the boat-side releases by anglers not only allows them to be part of the process, but increases the effectiveness of the stocking effort.

AGFC Hatchery Manager Jason Miller readies a bag of fingerlings at the Little Rock pool weigh-in site of the Big Bass Bonanza for anglers to take with them.

AGFC Hatchery Manager Jason Miller readies a bag of fingerlings at the Little Rock pool weigh-in site of the Big Bass Bonanza for anglers to take with them.

“They’re spreading out and placing the fingerlings in the backwaters and areas they fish,” Dennis said. “It’s going to be more favorable habitat than if we backed up a truck at a ramp and released thousands into an area with less complex habitat, less vegetation and more current to fight.”

Dennis says the last four years the ponds could be harvested have resulted in nearly 373,000 bass fingerlings stocked by volunteer anglers through the tournament. The additional fingerlings left in the ponds after seining are released directly into the Dumas pool of the river through the pond’s drainage pipe.

“There are usually 100,000 or more fingerlings left in the pond that go right back into the pool of river the brood stock came from,” said Gladden.

Stocking bass is not always the answer to improving a fishery, but in the case of the Arkansas River, Dennis says the stockings do make an impact.

“The river has seen a dramatic decline in backwater spawning and nursery habitat the last few decades because of siltation,” Dennis said. “That, coupled with years when the river experiences high flows and flooding during spring when bass are trying to spawn, make programs such as this very important. A study conducted for us by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff showed that stocked fingerlings contributed between 10 and 15 percent to the wild population in the river.”

Stocking through anglers directly into good habitat shows much better survival than dumping huge quantities of fingerlings at one site.

Stocking through anglers directly into good habitat shows much better survival than dumping huge quantities of fingerlings at one site.

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Sixth graders, teachers, parents and high-school volunteers from Vilonia all enjoyed a day of outdoor learning at the Camp Robinson Firing Range in Mayflower Tuesday, May 10.

Sixth graders, teachers, parents and high-school volunteers from Vilonia all enjoyed a day of outdoor learning at the Camp Robinson Firing Range in Mayflower Tuesday, May 10.

Nearly 270 sixth-grade students from Frank Mitchell Intermediate School in Vilonia were the first anglers to enjoy the latest improvement to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s shooting range in Mayflower at their annual fishing derby Tuesday.

Jodi Brewer, a sixth grade teacher at the school who coordinates the derby with the AGFC’s Hooked on Fishing-Not on Drugs program, said the derby continues to improve each year.

“I remember fishing in a derby when I went to Vilonia, but it went away for a while,” Brewer said. “We started it back up about five years ago and have had the event ever since.”

Brewer says restarting the event took a lot of trial and error.

“The first two years, we brought the kids out and just fished with some cane poles,” Brewer said. “During our second year, the kids fished all day and caught maybe four fish and a stick. Some even mentioned that they would have rather been in school. That’s when we called Dawn Cook with HOFNOD to learn how to do it better.”

Cook, HOFNOD coordinator for the AGFC, said she has a lot of schools come to workshops and learn how to keep their students interested during these all day events.

“You have to have a lot of different activities to keep them interested,” Cook said. “But that takes a lot of people and commitment from volunteers.”

Coach Will Black gave students some last-minute reminders about casting before they hit the water.

Coach Will Black gave students some last-minute reminders about casting before they hit the water.

In addition to teachers from the school, close to 100 parents and 25 high school students volunteered to help with the many stations needed to put on the huge event. Some led fun exercises such as scavenger hunts and fish bingo, while others baited hooks, untangled lines and helped release fish. Some parents even set up a cleaning station to filet fish if the students wanted to bring home their catch.

Cook says one of the best things about setting up fishing derbies like this is that all the students stay busy having a good time while they’re learning about different subjects. Those stations disguised as bingo and scavenger hunts actually are teaching the students fish anatomy and regulations. Other stations have more obvious subjects, such as smoking prevention and alcohol and drug abuse awareness.

“All of our HOFNOD materials are aligned with state education frameworks,” Cook said. “So it makes it easier for teachers to meet their needs while letting the kids have some fun.”

The lessons aren’t only crammed into a one-day derby. Teachers at Frank Mitchell Intermediate School present materials from HOFNOD trainings throughout the school year to teach many subjects. Before the students load up on the bus, they’ve had at least a few basic casting lessons in their Physical Education class.

“We have a set of rods and reels for the class to learn on in PE class,” said Will Black, physical education teacher for fifth and sixth grade at Frank Mitchell. “We also spend a lot of time playing a backyard bass game, where students cast at and catch fish-shaped targets to collect points.”

Brewer says the derby also is an excellent team-building exercise for most students.

“We have some kids that have ponds in their backyard at home and fish all the time, and then we have some who have never learned to cast a rod and reel,” Brewer said. “What’s really neat is that here, you’ll see some kids that never really interact with each other at school work together to help each other out catching fish.”

The pond where the students spent their time also is the result of an ongoing work in progress. While the range has always had one pond that hosted derbies, the new pond features a central island, dozens of artificial fish habitats and a clean shoreline ringed with soft grass.

“The pond actually is the borrow area from when the range’s berms needed to be rebuilt years ago,” said Grant Tomlin, range development program coordinator for the AGFC. “Clifton Jackson, former Family and Community Fishing Program Coordinator wanted to make it a location for that program, but it was surrounded by a thicket and a lot of people didn’t even know it was here.”

This was the first derby held at the new pond and the first class to attend Vilonia's new middle school after the school was demolished by a tornado in April 2014.

This was the first derby held at the new pond and the first class to attend Vilonia’s new middle school after the school was demolished by a tornado in April 2014.

AGFC staff worked to clear all the thick brush away and establish a more inviting shoreline. They also moved a culvert to build up a walkway around a low section of the pond that was always too swampy to walk around. But the pond still had a few problems.

“Each summer, the pond would just about evaporate away,” Tomlin said. “We’d get a dry spell and the water would just seep out, but at the end of last year, it was still holding a little water.”

Thanks to an extremely wet early spring, the new pond is actually a foot or two above its target level. Tomlin hopes the pond has established a firm enough bottom and will continue to be a great attraction to the range.

“It is open to youth 16 and younger whenever the shooting range is not operating,” Tomlin said. “Mondays, Tuesdays and any time after 4:30 p.m. the rest of the week.”

Visit http://www.agfc.com/hofnod for more information about Hooked on Fishing — Not on Drugs.

For information on the Camp Robinson Firing Range in Mayflower, visit www.agfc.com/aboutagfc/Pages/AboutFacilitiesRobinsonFR.aspx.

High school students volunteered to help bait hooks and teach about conservation at the derby.

High school students volunteered to help bait hooks and teach about conservation at the derby.

 

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Stocking Threadfin shad

Threadfin shad are a vital component of the food chain in many lakes. AGFC image.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has initiated a project to bring excellent fishing back to Greers Ferry Lake, and it all starts with what’s on the menu.

Early in 2015, many predator fish species in Greers Ferry Lake were exhibiting poor condition.

“It was evident in the crappie, largemouth bass, walleye and hybrid striped bass we sampled that there was not enough forage to support the predator population,” said Tom Bly, fisheries supervisor at the AGFC’s Mayflower office. “There are many minnows and bream species in Greers Ferry, but gizzard shad and threadfin shad are the dominant forage species. Just about everything eats them.”

AGFC Fisheries Biologist Tom Bly stocking shad into Greers Ferry. AGFC image.

AGFC Fisheries Biologist Tom Bly stocking shad into Greers Ferry. AGFC image.

Bly says threadfin shad are the most preferred food of many predator fish because their maximum size is still easy for most predators to fit in their mouths, but they’re fragile.

“Threadfin shad are a subtropical and southern temperate fish that prefer warm water,” Bly said. Water temperatures in the low 40’s can cause significant mortalities in threadfin populations and the winters of 2014 and 2015 caused surface temperatures in Greers Ferry to plummet to less than 40 degrees for several weeks.”

Bly says shad in lakes as large as Greers Ferry can usually find refuge from the cold in deeper water. The species is very prolific and it does not take them long to recover from winterkill if enough survive to reproduce.”

Biologists became alarmed when intensive sampling of Greers Ferry last year failed to produce the first threadfin shad. Since you can’t make something from nothing, the AGFC developed a plan to reestablish the population through stocking.

Biologists stocked approximately 37,000 threadfin shad in late April to reestablish this important forage fish in the lake. This species is not readily available for stocking, nor is it raised in the AGFC hatchery system, so biologists purchased the shad from American Sport Fish of Montgomery, Alabama, a commercial facility with a long history of culturing threadfin that meets all of Arkansas’s disease testing and monitoring requirements for importing fish. Some of the fish were stocked directly into the lake, while many went into a nursery pond to grow and reproduce before being released.
“Threadfin typically spawn more than once a year and young produced in the first spawn, April or May, will be mature enough to spawn by August or September,” Bly said.
Bly says the entire management strategy for the lake will shift to bolstering the forage base. Direct stockings of threadfin to the lake will continue until the lake’s shad population shows signs of recovery. The lake’s nursery pond will be used to culture minnows, bluegill and threadfin as well to supplement the direct stockings.

“We also will not stock any predators until the forage population recovers,” Bly said. “This includes largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass, walleye and hybrid striped bass. Once the forage recovers, we will stock these species in a manner that lends itself to a more sustainable fishery.”

Threadfin shad will repopulate quickly once reintroduced into the lake. AGFC image.

Threadfin shad will repopulate quickly once reintroduced into the lake. AGFC image.

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Bullfrog season runs April 15-Dec. 15 each year.

Bullfrog season runs April 15-Dec. 15 each year. Photo by Mike Wintroath.

April 15 marks one of the most stressful deadlines in America – tax day. It also marks the kickoff to one of the most exciting summer pursuits in Arkansas bayous, the opening of bullfrog season.
Bullfrogs can be found across Arkansas, but the heaviest concentrations usually are found along the many ponds, slow-moving streams and fish farms in the east half of the state. It may take some door-knocking and asking for permission, but many small, private ponds can prove worth the effort once you break out the gigging gear.

Fish farms and small private ponds make up the bulk of Arkansas's frog hunting destinations. Photo by Mike Wintroath.

Fish farms and small private ponds make up the bulk of Arkansas’s frog hunting destinations. Photo by Mike Wintroath.

Some froggers don waders or rubber boots to ease along the banks as quietly as possible, but many slide silently along in an aluminum johnboat or kayak, using only an electric trolling motor or a sculling paddle to get close to the easily spooked amphibians.
It’s possible to sneak up on a frog or two during the day, but the real action takes place at night, when spotlights and headlamps come into play. The reflective eyes of bullfrogs will shine brightly at the water’s edge, and the beam will daze the frog enough that a careful sneak can get you within arm’s reach. Then a fast stab with a gig or a quick grab of the hands will nab the fat frog before it can hop or swim away.
It’s usually a good idea to scan the bushes along the banks before making an approach on a frog as well. Plenty of spiders set up shop along the shore’s edge to catch their prey, and the webs can be a bit of a nuisance. More than one snake also has fallen into an unsuspecting frog gigger’s johnboat, causing him to nearly walk on water trying to get to the shore. Most water snakes are harmless and should be left alone, but that doesn’t make you feel any safer when they slide off a branch and thump down in the bottom of your boat.

A long gigging pole comes in handy when chasing frogs from a boat. Photo by Mike Wintroath.

A long gigging pole comes in handy when chasing frogs from a boat. Photo by Mike Wintroath.

Gigging frogs is more akin to hunting than angling, but participants need an Arkansas fishing license to participate. The limit is 18 bullfrogs per day, which runs from noon to noon. Along with grabbing them by hand and gigging, frogs may be taken by hand net, hook-and-line, spear or bow and arrow. Firearms and air guns may not be used.
Most folks who fry up a mess of frog’s legs may use the old “tastes like chicken” phrase to get a newcomer to try the delicacy. It usually doesn’t take any further prodding to get someone to eat more once they’ve tried them. Col. Sanders can’t compete with the tenderness and flavor of fresh frog’s legs done right.

 

 

 

 

Frog giggers may take up to 18 frogs per night and must have a valid fishing license. Photo by Mike Wintroath.

Frog giggers may take up to 18 frogs per night and must have a valid fishing license. Photo by Mike Wintroath.

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The tailwater below Greers Ferry Dam was home to the world-record brown trout for nearly two decades. Just because that record was broken doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of big fish and big action to be had on the Little Red River. Check out this “Talkin’ Outdoors” segment of anglers chasing the big bite on the Little Red.

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