This past Thursday my wife and I left Central Texas and drove to Keo, Arkansas, just outside Little Rock.
The purpose of this trip was to meet with the owners and staff of the 1,200 water-acre Keo Fish Farm, which is a private, commercial fish hatchery operation which specializes in the rearing of hybrid striped bass, specifically the sunshine strain of hybrid striped bass.
Back in 2020, I sought and gained the consent of John Tibbs, the Inland Fisheries District Supervisor for the Waco District of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, to supplement the state’s efforts to stock hybrid striped bass in Belton Lake with fish obtained by private funding, all to ensure that Belton Lake is stocked with an optimum number of hybrid stripers each year, and at an optimum time, thus
maximizing their survival rate.
Meeting this goal of stocking an optimum number of fish at an optimum time of year has proven to be a challenge. Perhaps the greatest hurdle has been the successful hunt for egg-laden female striped bass in a handful of dam tailraces where they exist in Texas.
Flow rates through the dams which are too high or too low have, in the past, prevented successful electroshocking efforts which, in turn, can jeopardize the production of adequate numbers of hybrid
striped bass. This is true of the palmetto strain of hybrid striped bass.
The palmetto strain of hybrid is produced by crossing a female striped bass with a male white bass.
To contend with this reality, TPWD began experimenting with sunshine strain hybrids which are produced by crossing a female white bass with a male striped bass. Both of these parent fish are much
more readily obtained, and from a greater variety of sources, than are female striped bass.
Regardless of strain, TPWD has also experimented with stocking fingerling-sized hybrid which have grown out to approximately two inches, as well as stocking fry, which are but a few days beyond the
fertilization of eggs with milt (the fish version of semen).
The effort going into a private, supplemental stocking of hybrid at Belton Lake would go like this: First, I will work to raise funds among the professional and recreational anglers who fish Belton Lake, as
well as other local businesses with a vested interest in maintaining a reliable hybrid fishery on the lake.
These funds will be held in reserve to be used if/when TPWD is unable to produce and/or procure enough hybrid to stock Belton Lake adequately.
Once a determination is made that stocking efforts will fall short, TPWD will give the go-ahead to secure hybrid fry with private funds and to stock them.
I would then place an order with Keo Fish Farms with a specific delivery date. Keo Fish Farms would then produce the sunshine strain hybrid fry, bag them in chilled water, place these bags of fish in
insulated foam containers and ship them, by air, from Little Rock to Austin.
I would pick these up, drive them to Belton Lake and, using my own boat and/or with the help of others, would take the fry to designated release points.
Once at the release points, the bags would be removed from the foam containers and placed in Belton Lake, still closed, so as to allow the water temperature in the bags to equalize with the lake water
temperature. After 15-20 minutes, the bags would then be opened and the fry released.
Fast forward three years, and the goal is to produce high numbers of legal, 18-plus inch-long, three-plus pound fish to be enjoyed by the fishing public.
We arrived Friday at Keo Fish Farms with lots of questions, mainly focused on the logistics of procurement, and the details surrounding a successful release. We inquired about cost, order lead times, and air freight limitations. We asked about the best time of year to stock, best water temperature at which to stock, how to identify ideal release locations and more.
The owners, Mike Freeze and Martha Melkovitz, were patient with us, answered all of our questions and put us at ease about doing business with them in the future.
There will be much more of this story to tell as spring 2022 approaches. Belton Lake anglers just endured what I consider the single worst year for hybrid fishing in the nearly 30 years I have fished
the lake, and the outlook for 2022, based on the stocking history for 2019 which would produce the legal fish for that year, does not look rosy.
Just because the optimum number of fish are stocked does not guarantee success, nor does stocking more fish always translate into more legal fish present in the lake several years down the road.
We simply hope to serve as an effective, ready-to-implement Plan B so when nature, budget, politics or the unexpected prevent Tibbs and his crew from doing what they know needs to be done to help
Belton Lake produce what it is capable of, we can supply him with the tools that may be lacking.
Those interested in following the progress of this effort more closely and/or helping fund the procurement of the sunshine striped bass fry may contact me by email at Bob@HoldingTheLineGuideService.com.