A Fish Story

A Fish Story

Season 1 Episode 2

Jonathan Gray Holding Rainbow Trout

Episode Transcript

Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.

We receive additional support from the Sport Fish Restoration Program, which provides funding for the management and operation of Texas’ state fish hatcheries.

Never tell fish stories where you know the people… and especially don’t tell them where the people know the fish. I’m paraphrasing Mark Twain. Today’s podcast features fish stories…the stories of how channel catfish and rainbow trout end up in Texas water bodies and in neighborhood fishin’ ponds throughout Texas for you to catch…

By the way…I reeled in these stories from people who do, in fact, know the fish.

But, you should have seen the ones that got away.

Be sure to stick around until the end of the podcast when we check in with Cassandra and Christopher Neve. They’re the siblings we’re following as they spend the new year reconnecting with the outdoors. They have a fish story of their own to share.

[Christopher] So, I’m happy to try to catch fish hopefully bigger than Cassandra’s.

[Cecilia] Is this a competition for you Cassandra?

[Cassandra] It is now.

A family fish fight? Keep listening…

From Texas Parks and Wildlife…. this is Under the Texas Sky…a podcast about nature…and people…and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.

On a cool, misty October morning I traveled to San Marcos, Texas. My destination: the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery, where all summer long channel catfish from that location had been distributed throughout Central Texas to create robust fishing opportunities for anglers. Texas has five inland fish hatcheries, and all stock fish in their regions. In a month’s time the A.E. Wood hatchery would being its transition to rainbow trout.

The sun was barely over the horizon when I arrived, but the hatchery staff were busy at work. I imagined that from above, the series of fifty ponds looked like a kind of checkerboard, each separated by a system of narrow gravel roads.

I was cautious as I exited my vehicle, concerned I might take a step too far and tumble down the embankment of an adjacent pond. I do things like that. As I negotiated the muddy gravel road on foot, I came upon trucks, a crane and the hum of humanity…then I caught a whiff of something familiar…

[Cecilia] At first it smelled like the ocean, and now it just smells like worms.

[Mike] It’s actually algae that you’re smelling.

On the banks of pond 23 I met up with hatchery manager Mike Matthews. He told me when the catfish arrive at A.E. Wood from Missouri, they are about nine inches long. Hatchery staff grow them out in their ponds until the fish are a catchable size.

[Mike ] We’re harvesting our 12-inch catfish for our NF program, which is our neighborhood fishin’ program…

Texas Parks and Wildlife stocks fish year-round into Neighborhood Fishin’ Lakes across the state when the fish are big enough to catch and to keep. In spring and summer, it’s catfish and in winter its rainbow trout.

We’ll learn more about rainbow trout later in the podcast.

Meanwhile, the hatchery makes its fishy deposits every two to four weeks during summer and winter seasons.

Three hatchery staff and one volunteer were on hand that morning to ensure the successful harvest and distribution of the fish.

[Mike] Chris Thibodeau. He’s what’s called the kettle man. We have one guy down there moving the fish around. That’s Ryan—he’s running the crane. Andy is taking the data down, also is the hand if Chris needs something will go down to give him the net or anything that he needs. So that’s basically a three-man job. Nicky, she’s a volunteer here; she’s just going to stay on the trailer, and she dumps the fish into the hauling box.

The one-acre pond at A.E. Wood had been drained of all but a few inches of water—water that came from the San Marcos River; the five thousand or so channel catfish it held had been directed into a U-shaped concrete structure called a kettle.

[Mike] It’s called a Kansas KettleIt’s basically a raceway at the bottom of our pond. We’ve brought the whole pond down into that kettle; that just catches all the fish for us very efficiently.

Mike and I stood next to the transport truck, which nearly took up the entire width of the narrow roadway. Inside the kettle, Chris Thibodaux wrangled the fish while Andy recorded the data.

[Cecilia] So, it looks he’s measuring the fish right now—before he’s putting them into the basket. Tell me about that.

[Mike] We’re going to get a sample of lengths and weights out of the pond. The lengths are to go with the weight. We’re not going to get a weight of each individual fish. What we’ll do is we’ll get five weights; then we can extrapolate that number. Then we’ll get a total weight. That will help us get back to how many fish we actually pull out of the pond. Our measurement is a little weird; we do fish per kilo. So, once we know our fish per kilo, we know how many kilos we need to get a certain number of fish.

[Cecilia] About much does a—say—a 10-inch catfish weigh?

[Mike] That’s very variable depending on… how robust they are. Which means how…how aggressive we’ve been feeding them. And how much weight they’ve gained. They…they get a certain length. Say, a 10-inch fish could be a quarter of a pound. They could be a half a pound. But more likely the quarter of a pound.

[Cecilia] So, there could be, say, eight and a half fish per kilo.

[Mike] Yes. And it’s weird to say half a fish. We don’t cut our fish in half. But, when you’re dealing with averages, it’s perfectly okay, because we’ll need 100 kilos. And if it’s eight and a half fish per kilo, then you’d know how many fish you have just by multiplying that out. So, you’d have 850 fish.

[Cecilia] So, they’re preparing to bring them in the basket now?

[Mike] Yeah

Hatchery staff maneuvered the crane’s arm…with a basket of catfish attached… over an open hatch in the transport truck. Nicky tipped the basket toward the hatch, and the fish dropped into one of the three hauling boxes filled with water.

Hatchery manager, Matthews, told me each of the three compartments contain a 3-5% saltwater solution, which I found odd since channel cats are freshwater animals.

[Mike] It’s beneficial for the fish; it causes them to promote slime growth, which covers their bodies. Which, in case, they do get a little rough handled and nicks their skin a little bit…it leaves an open area for them for bacteria to get on board, on the fish—that slime will cover that before it can really become a problem.

Once loaded into the transport truck, the fish began their journey to Bullfrog Pond in Austin where anglers eagerly awaited their arrival. And I’ll take you there later in the podcast. But first….

Support from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation allows us to bring you stories from Under the Texas Sky. In fact, since 1991, the Foundation has raised more than $170 million to conserve the lands, waters and wildlife of our state. You can help by becoming a member. Find out how at WeWillNotBeTamed.org

I drove through dense fog to make another trip to the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery in San Marcos. This time it was an early and chilly December morning.

As a coffee maker extracted caffeinated goodness from hand-picked coffee pods, filling the room with tantalizing coffee aroma, Carl Kittle and I sat across from one another at his desk and talked about the fish that come from A.E. Wood.

[Carl] So, this Hatchery produces fish for stocking lakes and rivers. And generally, all the fish we produce are stocked in a place where anybody with a fishing license has access to go fish for them to catch the fish we stock.

[Cecilia] What kind of fish are we stocking, or growing here, or distributing from here?

[Carl] We spawn and stock quite a variety of species. We do the northern and Florida strains of largemouth bass; we do Guadalupe bass. We do… ah…some hybrid striped bass. Occasionally striped bass. We do, uh, catfish—quite a lot—of different sizes. And some bluegill. And occasionally a few others.

Carl is a regional director and program director in Inland Fisheries at Texas Parks and Wildlife. In fisheries and hatcheries. A highly anticipated seasonal species that falls under the “others” category Carl mentioned is rainbow trout. Between the five inland hatcheries 171 sites will get stocked this season, sharing 330-thousand trout.

[Carl] Trout are a little different. Because of our [warm] temperatures here we can’t hold them and grow them all year. So, we don’t spawn and hatch those. We contract with a supplier. And currently that supplier is bringing the fish from Missouri. So those fish are brought in from late November until early March; and we stock around Texas while the water temperatures are appropriate for trout.

[Cecilia] And, what’s the appropriate temperature for trout?

[Carl] If it’s below 70 that’s the best—then they’ll be active, and you can catch them. If its above 70 they’re going to be stressed; and it may be hard to catch them even if we stock them. But then, on the cold end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the water isn’t frozen hard, they’re comfortable in water right down to freezing.

The rainbow trout that A.E. Wood Hatchery distributes in Central Texas arrive at the facility in the dead of night; hatchery manager, Mike Matthews, whom you met earlier in the podcast, was on hand to accept them, and sent me an audio recording of the arrival.

[Mike Mathews] Hello, Cecilia. This is Mike at the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery. I’m going to record tonight’s rainbow trout delivery from Ava Missouri. We are be bringing in 13,000, eight to 10-inch rainbow trout. And we’re going to place them into one of our large 80-foot raceways; raceway number three.

A huge overhead door rattled open, and a truck that had been waiting on the other side slowly pulled into a massive warehouse-like room to unload its cargo of rainbow trout.

Hours later, I was in that room…with the trout…and Carl Kittle.

[Carl] There’s some fish feeding going on down here.

[Cecilia] Oooh.

[Carl] Let’s see if we can catch up on some of that.

We walked toward a woman at the end of one run; it was Nicky, whom I’d met when she helped wrangle the catfish back in October. She was tossing food pellets into a trout-filled raceway. As soon as the pellets hit the water, it was a feeding frenzy.

Carl told me the hatchery was growing those trout to a larger size for stocking into neighborhood fishin’ ponds. You can find the stocking schedule on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website.

[Carl] Nicky’s one of several volunteers that provide great help for us at this hatchery. And that’s a fund job for her; feeding the fish is always interesting.

We walked to the other side of the room where a transport truck had pulled up to a raceway. Fish and Wildlife technician Trey Kunz, clad in well-insulated rubber waders, jumped into hip-high, 58-degree water.

[Carl] So he’s dropped another moveable screen into the compartment with the fish, and he’s crowding the fish together. He does it slowly just to not stress them and not bother them. Uh, and eventually he’ll get them crowded into an area about the width of that dip net that he’s going to use to get the fish out. And once they’re crowded into that small area, it’s quite easy to net the fish out of there and then transfer them up to the tank on the truck.

The 88 kilos—or about 588 trout—that Trey wrangled into the transport truck were destined for Bandera City Park Lake.

Right now, though, we’re headed to Austin. Earlier in the podcast when we visited A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery the staff were harvesting channel catfish. I followed that transport truck, driven by Fish and Wildlife technician Ryan Fontana, to East Austin Metropolitan Park.

He backed the truck up onto the bank and tested the temperature and oxygen levels of the pond.

Once he confirmed it was a suitable environment for the fish, Ryan drained down the water in the compartment that held them, and then attached a large tube to the back of the truck, opened a valve, and jettisoned catfish into Bullfrog Pond, much to the delight of anglers already waiting on shore, including.

[Jerome Williams] Jerome Williams

[Cecilia] Did you know the fish were going to be stocked today?

[Jerome] Absolutely

[Cecilia] So what are you going to do with these catfish?

[Jerome] Gonna catch, ‘em gonna clean, ‘em gonna put ‘em in the freezer, and then over time gonna eat ‘em.

[Cecilia] What do you think about the program from Texas Parks and Wildlife that provides this fish stocking in the neighborhood ponds?

[Jerome] I think it’s a great thing. It encourages people to get out and fish and to come and visit the park, and to also to learn more bout Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Just as Jerome Williams cast a line for catfish back in October, Cassandra and Christopher Neve—the siblings we’re following as they spend the year reconnecting with the outdoors—tried their luck at catching trout in early January. They were originally scheduled to go on a coastal fishing trip, but the weather didn’t cooperate. So, the first chance they got they spent the day at Bull Frog Pond.

The high wind and constant sound of a fountain used to aerate the pond made the audio diary of their outing unusable. Those things happen. However, they got together again at Cassandra’s apartment to share some thoughts about their experience. An experience that brings to mind the saying: that’s why they call it fishing and not catching.

[Cassandra] Bull Frog pond was actually pretty cool, because it’s a neighborhood fishing area. Which, according to the sign when you walk in, it’s an area for urban families to be able to enjoy the outdoors. Close to home, which I thought was a really cool idea. Because there’s not many kids who live in urban areas who are able to spend a few hours fishing right next to their house.

[Christopher] Uh, I think it’s also really cool that it [the sign] told you what you could keep and take home. The limit was five: five trout or five catfish. Maybe that’s why we didn’t have any luck, because someone fished them all out already. Or everybody did---because there were a lot of people there. And they changed out a few times, too. Like, some people left and new people came it. It was definitely a happening little spot. Which was nice to see that tons of different families came.

[Cassandra] Yeah, I think that was the best part—seeing that it wasn’t just adults fishing, but it was families coming out. Kids with their little kiddie reels. Their parent, adults, grandma, grandpa. They were all fishing together. And even though we got no bites and Christopher accidentally hooked a fish…

[Christopher] It went for the lure…

[Cassandra] Sure. Sure. We did have fun.

Cassandra and Christopher said they even though they both didn’t catch fish that time around, they plan to go fishing again. Next time at a state park, because it’s free to fish in state parks with a paid entry; no fishing license required.

And so we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available for streaming or download at UndertheTexasSky.org and other places where podcasts live.

We record the podcast in Austin, Texas at The Block House…and Joel Block does our sound design.

I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.

Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.

We receive additional support from the Sport Fish Restoration Program, which provides funding for the management and operation of Texas’ state fish hatcheries.

Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.