HOT SPRINGS (AGFC) – Arkansas anglers looking for a deep-sea fishing thrill don't need to travel far to tangle with a trophy. Thanks to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's striped bass program, stripers regularly topping 20 pounds swim in many Arkansas lakes to test angler's equipment and raise their heart rate.
Striped bass are naturally found in salt water, but migrate into freshwater rivers and streams to reproduce. They also can adapt to life in in landlocked freshwater lakes if the conditions are right.
Stripers can grow to tremendous sizes in fresh water. Arkansas's state record striped bass weighed 64 lbs. 8 oz. and was caught below Beaver Lake in 2000. But they can't reproduce naturally in Arkansas's reservoirs.
"With the exception of a few striped bass on the Arkansas River, every striped bass in Arkansas is a product of our hatchery system," said Don Brader, AGFC assistant fisheries chief. "We also produce a hybrid striper by crossing striped bass with native white bass."
The process for producing striped bass and hybrid striped bass is a labor of love, one the AGFC has been conducting annually since the 1970s.
AGFC fisheries biologists and technicians spend between 1,000 and 1,500 man hours each year to offer anglers this added opportunity.
In mid-April, netting crews intercept stripers at night as they make their annual spawning runs upstream.
"We check the nets every few hours, collect male and female stripers, and carefully transport them to (Andrew) Hulsey Hatchery near Hot Springs," Brader said.
Once at the hatchery, a weeks-long vigil begins.
"AGFC staff watch the fish around the clock, checking the stripers to see if they're ready," Brader said. "Once a female striper begins to ovulate, we have less than half an hour to collect those eggs."
Hatchery technicians massage eggs from female stripers and milt from male stripers (or white bass, if hybrids are being produced) and mix them together in sterile containers to ensure fertilization.
"The eggs are placed in glass containers with constantly flowing water to keep them aerated," Brader said. "The water has to stay 64- to 66 degrees, or the eggs may not develop."
The eggs hatch in about 48 hours and the fry are moved to holding tanks for about four days. Once fully developed, they are moved into hatchery ponds to grow.
By July the fry will be about 2 inches long and are ready to be stocked.
Much like Arkansas's famed trout fisheries, lakes with stripers have gained a devoted following among anglers interested in battling big fish. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about 63,000 anglers fished for white bass, striped bass and hybrids in 2011.
"Many anglers who catch the occasional striper when fishing for other species often want to learn more about how to catch them," said Mark Oliver, AGFC chief of fisheries. "One of the best resources a person can use is a local striper fishing club or guide that operates on our striper lakes. These people stay on top of the fish year-round and can definitely cut down the learning curve for newcomers."
Some anglers worry that striped bass eat black bass and other game fish, but their diet is almost entirely shad.
"There have been several studies done on the eating habits of stripers in reservoirs," said Brett Hobbs, AGFC fisheries management biologist in Hot Springs. "All of these studies indicate striped bass are extremely unlikely to eat black bass."
Hobbs explains that adult striped bass stay in the cool open water of the lake, not around shoreline cover like black bass.
"A Lake Hamilton study showed shad made up 92 percent of prey items found in sampled striped bass," said Hobbs. "And that was during a winter drawdown, when bass, crappie and other game fish were forced into deeper open water where stripers stay."
Because of this high dependence on shad, waters where stripers are stocked are scrutinized each year to ensure that the food chain remains balanced.