LOUISIANA'S HATCHERY HAVEN
LDWF’s Booker Fowler Fish Hatchery Leads The Way In Growing Bigger Largemouth Bass For State’s Inland Waterbodies
story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Booker Fowler Fish Hatchery sits nestled in the middle of central Louisiana’s famous plant nursery region, which totals more than 200 businesses in and around Forest Hill. The economic impact of those nurseries is huge.
But Booker Fowler, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Inland Fisheries hatchery hub, has made a profound impact on the Bayou State’s economy in its 22 years of existence. Louisiana’s bass fishing industry compels visitors to come here in droves.
Louisiana has hosted the Bassmaster Classic, the Super Bowl of bass fishing, six times since Booker Fowler and its fish production partners began stocking Florida-strain largemouth bass into Louisiana’s public waterbodies. The last Classic, held in northwest Louisiana and Red River in 2012, was the second most attended event of all time and boasted an economic impact of $29 million.
Without Booker Fowler and the other LDWF hatcheries, it’s a safe bet bass fishing here wouldn’t be as popular or successful.
In 2018, LDWF’s Inland Fisheries Hatchery Program stocked more than 8 million fish into 59 water bodies around the state, including 7.3 million Florida-strain largemouth bass. The program worked in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery and Shreveport’s Cross Lake Fish Hatchery to produce the fish stocked in Louisiana.
A great deal of those fish came from Booker Fowler, which has developed into a cutting edge hatchery where the primary mission is to give the state’s anglers the opportunity to catch trophy bass.
The northern subspecies of largemouth bass is native to Louisiana unlike the Florida-strain. Generally speaking, the Florida-strain subspecies grows older and bigger than the northern strain. What LDWF Inland Fisheries works to do is stock the Florida-strain largemouth bass into lakes and other water bodies to grow, reproduce and/or hybridize with the native bass.
“Our purpose is to get these Florida-strain largemouth bass genes incorporated into our lakes so that we have bigger bass,” said Kristi Butler, the LDWF biologist manager who oversees Booker Fowler. “Those two subspecies do hybridize. And often, that’s what grows trophy fish.
“We want to stock pure Florida-strain bass with the goal of them finding each other in the wild to mate and produce more pure Florida-strain largemouth bass or by hybridizing with Louisiana’s native bass to produce a Florida-strain/northern largemouth bass hybrid. The Florida-strain influence will result in larger bass than you would have without stocking.”
Louisiana has a solid reputation as a largemouth bass fishing hot spot. Toledo Bend Reservoir consistently ranks as one of the top bass angling destinations. But other lakes have garnered national attention as well, including Caddo Lake and Lake Bistineau.
Though those three lakes are located in northwest Louisiana, it’s hard not to find good bass fishing throughout the state. Booker Fowler is certainly an important reason for that.
“The work our folks at Booker Fowler do is remarkable,” LDWF Secretary Jack Montoucet said. “Since its establishment 22 years ago, the hatchery has become one of the nation’s top freshwater sport fish production centers. I’m sure many people in our state have heard of it but don’t know exactly how vital Booker Fowler is to making sure we have an ample supply of bass and other species available to stock our inland water bodies.”
Why it’s there, what it does
LDWF had fish hatcheries long before Booker Fowler. Beechwood, Monroe and Huey P. Long Fish Hatcheries were constructed in the first half of the 20th century. But it became apparent in the late 1980s that the existing hatchery system was not able to meet the Florida-strain largemouth bass demands of the state.
In 1990, the Louisiana Legislature appropriated $1 million for site selection and design of a new hatchery to address the shortfall.
Hurricane Andrew devastated the Atchafalaya Basin in 1992, causing massive fish kills. The species lost that were of greatest concern were the largemouth bass, paddlefish and blue catfish. Fisheries disaster relief dollars granted to LDWF by Congress in 1993 resulted in construction of the $12.4 million Booker Fowler Fish Hatchery. The hatchery was completed in August of 1996 and began producing fish in the spring of 1997.
The first order of business of the new hatchery was producing paddlefish, Florida-strain largemouth bass and blue catfish for stocking in the Atchafalaya Basin, Butler said.
“We wanted to take advantage of the Hurricane Andrew northern largemouth bass population crash by pouring Florida-strain largemouth bass into the system and having a greater influence on the bass genetics,” said Butler, who has worked at Booker Fowler since it opened. “Booker Fowler is such an effective Florida-strain largemouth bass hatchery that we were also able to begin meeting sportfish stocking requests from all around the state immediately.”
Booker Fowler has 16 outdoor raceways, 40 indoor tanks, an egg incubation room, a spawning room, 50 one-acre ponds and 15 one-quarter acre ponds, an office and a few mechanical and maintenance buildings.
LDWF also operates three other inland fish hatcheries, including nearby Beechwood Fish Hatchery, which has 39 ponds. The Monroe facility has 11 ponds and Lacombe’s Huey P. Long Fish Hatchery has four ponds. The hatchery system is operated by 14 full-time employees and primarily produces freshwater sport fish fingerlings to assist LDWF fisheries managers with achieving management objectives for waterbodies across the state.
In addition to producing and growing fish at LDWF facilities, LDWF hatchery employees work with other agencies to produce and/or assist with procuring and stocking Florida-strain largemouth bass for Louisiana’s public waters, including the USFWS’ Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery, Shreveport’s Cross Lake Fish Hatchery, the Red River Waterway Commission and the Toledo Bend Lake Association.
Since Booker Fowler was opened in 1997, the LDWF hatchery program, working together with these and other partners, has released over 125 million fish in Louisiana.
Booker Fowler is the hub of the Florida-strain largemouth bass operation, where all of the eggs are produced. “All the other hatcheries are supplied with larval fish from here,” Butler said. “They are currently used as grow-out facilities. Having spawning and larval rearing in one facility rather than in several helps improve the efficiency of the system as a whole.”
The fish Request Process
It all begins in the fall when LDWF’s Inland Fisheries biologist managers from around the state request fish for the next calendar year.
“They request all species needed for sport fish enhancement,” Butler said. “Those biologists sample their lakes year round. They request fish through our computerized data management system based on their management plan and the existing fish population in the lake or water body.”
A statewide list is compiled based on the requests submitted by each district biologist manager. The request list goes through a review process by Inland Fisheries administration to ensure compliance with management plans. The list is prioritized, approved by the Director of Inland Fisheries and then sent to the hatchery manager to be filled for the next calendar year.
The hatchery manager allocates hatchery resources to grow fish, purchase fish and/or trade other states for fish that are needed to meet the requests.
The Production process
Valentine’s Day is generally the day when action heats up for the spring spawn. The biologists give these fish an early start because they want the Florida-strain largemouth fingerlings to have a competitive edge for survival against the naturally occurring Louisiana largemouth bass fingerlings. This is accomplished through a size advantage upon stocking when possible.
It begins in 16 raceways at the facility where the brood fish produce eggs and where the water temperature can be controlled. The raceways are 120 feet long and 8 feet wide. Biologists place 25 pair of bass in each raceway, pairing one male to one female. The raceways have clean concrete bottoms where a spawning mat is placed every 8 feet.
“Bass are a little territorial when they spawn,” Butler said. “The males will select one of these mats, which is a 16 by 16 (inch) vegetable fiber mat. The males will begin to guard it and attract females to the mat.”
After a courtship, the female releases the eggs and the male releases sperm at the same time to fertilize the eggs. As soon as they are fertilized, the eggs get sticky and adhere to the mat.
Each day, hatchery workers check the mats for eggs and if eggs are present, they are transferred into the hatchery incubation tanks. The eggs are treated with a one-hour chemical bath to reduce the effects of saprolegniosis, an egg fungus that can kill the eggs.
From there, the mats are placed vertically in the facility’s 40 750-gallon tanks. Each tank can hold about 20 mats. The eggs taken on one day are not mixed with another day’s production.
“The reason we do that is because when those fish hatch and are stocked in ponds, they’re extremely competitive and extremely cannibalistic,” Butler said. “So if some of the fish are slightly older and get a little bit of a size advantage on the other fish, it can cause cannibalism and adversely affect our pond production. This problem is controlled at Booker Fowler by using the same age fish to stock a grow-out pond.”
Once the mats are hung, the eggs develop and hatch and the larvae fall to the bottom of the tanks. The newly hatched fish are not fully developed at this stage.
They don’t have a mouth or fins and they can’t swim. They are called sac fry because they still have a yolk sac from which they derive nutrients. After a few days, as the yolk sac is consumed, they develop fins and a mouth and are able to start swimming. They are called swim-up fry at this stage.
“It’s all timed perfectly,” Butler said. “They swim up to look for food when they’ve used nearly all their yolk sack. At the bottom of the tank, they look like tiny yellow blobs. As they consume their yolk sac, they get more pigment and they start looking darker. The yellow goes away and they start swimming up.”
As soon as the fish start swimming up into the water column, biologists provide them with live brine shrimp as feed. The brine shrimp are hatched at Booker Fowler.
Once all of the fry are feeding, they’re moved to the hatchery ponds. About two weeks prior, biologists have begun by preparing the ponds, filling and fertilizing them and checking for plankton blooms.
“We are setting the stage for a pond full of zooplankton and other invertebrates for the young bass to feed on naturally as they grow from the fry stage to the fingerling stage,” Butler said. “We stock them at a certain rate in our one-acre ponds. And the rate at which we stock them depends on how big a fingerling we want.”
A 1-acre largemouth bass grow-out pond, properly fertilized and managed, will normally produce 70,000 1.25-inch largemouth bass fingerlings, 28,000 two-inch fingerlings or 10,000 three-inch fingerlings. The size of bass desired for stocking dictates the number that can be produced because there is a limited amount of natural zooplankton and insect larvae that a pond will produce.
“If we want a two-inch fingerling at harvest time, which is normally the size fingerling we like to stock, we need to stock about 32,000 fry per acre and we end up harvesting about 28,000 2-inch fingerlings per acre,” Butler said. “But if we want a 1.25 inch-fingerling, we can stock 75,000 fry in an acre and end up with 70,000 fingerlings in an acre. Either way, once the fry stocked in the pond consume all the zooplankton and grow to fingerlings, they have to be harvested right away because they’ll start to decline in condition.”
Making sure the fingerlings have food in the ponds is a vital part of the process. If they’re not quite at the desired length when the natural zooplankton and insect larvae are depleted, biologists will harvest them ahead of schedule to ensure that healthy, well-fed fingerlings are being stocked.
“We’ve done so many stocking density studies,” Butler said. “We’ve become really good at knowing how many fry we need to stock in a pond to get a particular number and size of fingerlings out. Our current stocking policy requires a two-inch largemouth bass fingerling so that is what we have been stocking since 2013.”
A day before the harvest, the ponds are drained. The ponds have catch basins at the bottom, which are called kettles.
“It’s just like a giant bathtub,” Butler said.
Once all the water is in the catch basin, the fish are seined from one end to the other and dipped out. A platform scale is set up at the top of the pond levee and the fish are weighed then loaded onto a truck.
“We take a two-pound sample of fingerlings from that particular pond and we count them,” Butler said.
Biologists count the fingerlings and determine number per pound. They then multiply that number times the total weight, giving them the number of fish. If there is a request for 10,000 fish for False River and 15,000 for Lake Martin, for example, 25,000 are put on the truck in separate compartments and delivered to the Inland Fisheries District biologists, who then place them into the lake or water body.
The entire largemouth bass fingerling production process in the spring usually lasts from the middle of February until June. Hybrid striped bass are also grown and stocked during this time.
“Water temperature in the summer is so hot that when you handle the fish it can kill them,” Butler said. “We don’t handle fish in July, August and September. In the summer months, we take care of and feed our valuable Florida-strain largemouth bass brood, feed and grow our other species of fish, maintain our grounds and repair equipment. We stay busy year-round.”
Not just for Bass
Certainly, improving the size and population of Louisiana’s largemouth bass is one of the key missions of Booker Fowler but it’s not the only one. The hatchery also produces hybrid striped bass, catfish, crappie, redear and bluegill.
An important part of improving the fishery in False River, for example, was to restock not only bass but other species. Since the plan was put into place several years ago, the LDWF hatchery program has stocked 40 alligator gar, 12,080 striped bass, 8,050 black crappie, 319,610 bluegill, 27,090 Florida-strain largemouth bass, 83,100 hybrid striped bass, 8,920 northern largemouth bass and 315,500 redear. The stocking will continue through 2019.
“If a lake has been drawn down or renovated and it needs to start over with bluegill, redear and shad, we start stocking those species in the fall after a drawdown,” Butler said. “Then we come back in the spring and stock bass after those forage species have gotten a chance to become established.”
Booker Fowler has become a vital cog in the state’s bass and sport fishing industry. It’s helped increase the size and population of many species and has done so through cutting edge technology. Biologists from other states often visit Booker Fowler and the biologists on staff to gain a better understanding of the work being done at the facility.
One plus for Louisiana anglers is how Booker Fowler is funded. It’s through Sport Fish Restoration dollars where 75 percent of the money comes from federal funds and 25 percent from the Conservation fund. Whenever you buy a fishing pole, tackle, bait or boats, part of that money goes to the federal Sport Fish Restoration Fund. It then returns to help fund fisheries and fish production in Louisiana among other outdoor pursuits.
“Everyone here at Booker Fowler has a passion for what they do,” Butler said. “We are a sport fish hatchery and our main goal is to enhance inland sport fisheries of Louisiana. But I think we all take a great deal of satisfaction when we see that stringer of big bass someone has caught in a Louisiana inland waterway and know we had a hand in it.”
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