Free Fish Program Stocks Private Ponds

Missouri officials won't let you have the new adoptees without a home that is clean, stable and built to last -- but they'll look the other way if you decide to pierce and fillet them.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — State officials won't let you have the new adoptees without a home that is clean, stable and built to last -- but they'll look the other way if you decide to pierce and fillet them.

Don Wren drove almost 20 miles recently to bring the small fries back to a farm between U.S. 63 and the Columbia Regional Airport. He isn't the kind of foster parent who eats his adoptees, but his children and grandchildren might. After all, Wren participates in a program designed to expand fishing opportunities.

"I think any pond or body of water should have fish in it," he said. "You never know who might want to wet a hook."

For 60 years, the Department of Conservation has been linking the owners of private ponds with free stocking fish to help create new fishing opportunities. It spends between $75,000 and $100,000 to help stock up to 1,000 ponds a year with up to a half million bass, channel catfish and bluegill.

Because the catfish are only 4 to 6 inches long and the bluegill are 1 to 2 inches long when they're given away in the fall, the predator bass aren't introduced to the ponds until June to give the others time to grow.

The pond owner decides who's allowed to bait their hook and who isn't, but the fish are state property, so fishing regulations on size, season and licensing that govern streams and rivers apply.

Department of Conservation spokesman Jim Low said the state had few ponds and lakes until people began moving out of cities. Now there are more than 300,000 private ponds and other private bodies of water that can sustain a fish population.

"It's to the benefit of Missourians in general to have fish in those waters," he said. "Even though any given person in Missouri might not be able to fish a given water, there is no question there's a big benefit in having those ponds and lakes stocked with fish."

Before handing over any fish, the department first inspects the private pond to check that it's at least 8 feet deep in some areas, that there are no other fish already living there besides small minnows and that smaller ponds are fenced in to keep livestock out.

The fish are distributed to pond owners in September or October and then again in June at central locations in each county, but the number of fish per shipment varies by geography and pond size.

Marlyn Miller, the department's fisheries program supervisor, said more soil nutrients allow for larger pond populations -- for fish and the entire food chain.

"Just like an acre of land in northern Missouri can grow more crops than an acre of land in the Ozarks, an acre of pond in northern Missouri will be able to carry more pounds of fish than an acre of pond in the Ozarks," Miller said.

Randy Noyes, a fishery information specialist, said the program creates a self-sufficient fish population that doesn't need to be restocked, except for an occasional fish kill, normally caused by sudden plant deaths depleting oxygen concentration in the water.

"The most stable population balance is the most easily sustainable," he said. "We've found that these species tend to react well together. If the initial visit shows there are no other fish in the pond, there's no question they will survive."

It will be several years before the tiny bass joining the catfish and bluegill in Wren's acre pond are big enough to start fishing for, but another of his family's ponds stocked through the same program 35 years ago is still going strong.

"So far as I know, they're still pulling fish out of it. I haven't heard any complaints," he said.

Source: Associated Press

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