A Day in the Life of a...
Freshwater Hatchery Manager
Please note the publication date of this article. Statistics and seasonal information were accurate at the time of publication. Check links provided for the most current information.
By Larry D. Hodge
Published in Texas Fish & Game, May 2005
If you fish in public fresh waters in Texas, you have benefited from the work of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department hatchery biologists. Fish production at state-owned hatcheries is one of the management tools for inland fisheries public water management. Fish may be stocked to supplement natural production, add a new sport fish species (such as Florida bass or striped bass) or restore populations hit by drought or toxic alga. In the case of community fishing lakes, catchable-size fish are stocked into small impoundments to provide fishing opportunity. In any case, those fish are produced under the direction of a hatchery manager.
Jake Isaac, Jr., is TPWD’s senior hatchery manager. He is in charge of the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery in San Marcos, a place where he started work in 1979 at the very bottom of the ladder. “I worked here assisting in raising smallmouth bass, blue catfish, Florida bass and rainbow trout. Fish hatcheries were pretty primitive then—we didn’t have oxygen meters or computers. The gooseneck trailer they’d just gotten to haul fish with was the new technology.”
Much has changed in the 25 years since then, but one thing has remained constant: Job One is still to raise the kinds of fish needed for stocking into Texas public waters most efficiently and maximize production. “Hatchery folks work pretty hard to produce fish for public waters,” Isaac says. “One of the things I think makes fish hatchery work enjoyable is we have a tangible product. If fish are going out the gate into a lake, we’re doing a good job.”
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. A typical day begins with an informal staff meeting in the break room, where Isaac reviews what everyone is working on and advises them on what’s coming up. “We’ll probably be moving largemouth brooders into the raceways for spawning next week,” he tells them during my visit in mid-February. “We won’t be trying to spawn them right away, though, because the weather forecast calls for cooler temperatures late in the week. But they’ll be able to get accustomed to the new surroundings.”
Isaac has been raising baby bass for most of his career. After a brief stint at A.E. Wood, he transferred to the Tyler Fish Hatchery (now closed), a facility with 27 ponds covering 14 acres, where he and one other person worked under David Campbell. “Tyler was dedicated to raising broodfish, primarily Florida bass,” Isaac recalls. “We had bass from Florida, Texas, California and Cuba. We raised fish to adult size and were the exclusive source for Florida bass brood stock in Texas.” Isaac also got in on the beginning of the (now) Budweiser ShareLunker program while at Tyler.
In 1989 Isaac applied for a biologist position at the newly renovated San Marcos hatchery and returned to A.E. Wood. “It was a really great time. It was madness trying to get a new hatchery going. For the first time the hatchery system had large raceways that had ample amounts of water for production. Tyler had small raceways compared to A.E. Wood, so the plan was to spawn Florida bass in raceways. Largemouth bass had been spawned in raceways, but they were northern largemouths in other states. We tried it in the spring of 1989 and got zero spawns. We regrouped and did some studies to see what kind of nest material preference they had. We were able to find a material they liked and produced two million fry in 1990.” (Today A.E. Wood produces anywhere from four to eight million fry a year.)
The mat material Isaac and coworker Vernon Staats came up with is a black, fibrous synthetic mat originally manufactured for bus seat padding and air filters. It takes the place of cured Spanish moss, which fish culturists have used in baitfish production for a long time. “Somebody noticed this stuff looked a lot like Spanish moss. We decided to try it, and they spawned on it like mad,” Isaac says. The material is still used for spawning.
Part of the job of a hatchery manager is to design and carry out research projects that answer specific questions. “We did another study a couple of years later, marking bass and observing them spawning so we could see who was spawning with whom,” Isaac says. “We watched 40 pairs of bass spawn and answered some questions people had had for some time. For example, we observed that only one male paired with a female to spawn. Males seemed to spawn multiple times more than females, and we found that a relatively large percentage of the fish contributed to spawns. This was important because we needed to know if raceway spawning was giving good genetic diversity.”
A tour of duty as hatchery manager at the Possum Kingdom Fish Hatchery from 2000 until 2004 required Isaac to learn some new skills. “When I first moved there, the hatchery was undergoing renovation,” Isaac recalls. “In addition to major repairs to ponds and the water distribution system, we also renovated the hatchery residences. I really moved from being a fish hatchery biologist to being a general contractor.”
That experience serves Isaac well in his present position, which he assumed in May 2004. “One of the most challenging things about this large and complex facility is keeping up with all the diverse things that go on here,” Isaac explains. “The hatchery manager has to insure that water leaving the hatchery is of excellent quality—we discharge into the San Marcos River—and meets Texas Commission on Environmental Quality standards. To do that, we have a filtration plant that filters all the water we use. We are filter plant operators and have to fix the equipment when needed. We also have to be able to replace motors, make sure everything operates, keep up with TPWD personnel policies, manage the staff, make sure they are going in the right direction and have all the stuff they need, abide by all purchasing regulations. We also have visitors and school tours and kid fishing events, so we have to meet the public. On top of that we take care of 118 acres of grounds and all the associated mowers, trailers and equipment.”
The road from technician to hatchery manager is hard and long. It took Isaac 28 years to get to his current position. However, there is no shortage of people wanting to work in the aquaculture field. The day I visit, Isaac spends the afternoon on the phone giving bad news to unsuccessful job applicants. “We just filled a position for a fish and wildlife technician, an entry-level job that requires a high school degree and no work experience,” he says. “We had 137 applicants, more than half with a college degree, and at least a third had a degree in a related science. Several had a masters degree in a related science. If people want a job in hatcheries, they need to realize that jobs are becoming more specialized. They need to focus on aquaculture and get as much training and experience as they can.”
While monetary rewards are not great, Isaac says there is a great deal of job satisfaction in hatcheries. “One of the best parts of the job is liking the people that I work with, and I also like to work with fish. Plus there’s quite a bit of variety in this job. You rarely do the same thing two weeks in a row. You may be raising fish, or driving across Texas to stock those fish. Sometimes you have to raise different kinds of fish and have to do research to solve problems in a way that can be replicated.”
In a job he describes as a mixture of art and science, Isaac never forgets who pays the bill—Texas anglers. “One of our strengths is the ability to produce a high quality, high volume product,” he says. “We can do it consistently at a competitive price. The anglers of Texas are getting a pretty good deal.”
Visit our hatchery pages for a closer look at fish production in Texas.
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