The new John D. Parker East Texas State Fish Hatchery has some big shoes to fill.
For almost 70 years the little Jasper State Hatchery was a productive facility, producing at times almost 30 percent of the largemouth bass stocked in state waters.
But eventually time and size caught up with it and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department went looking for a new site. It found its spot on the shores of Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a 200-acre site donated by Jasper County.
When the department first began to talk about the project in 2005, it was guesstimated the facility would cost $14-$15 million. At the groundbreaking in 2008 the estimate was $27 million. When the facility, which is expected to produce 4.5 million fingerlings this year, officially was opened last week, the price tag was $43 million.
“When we got the original price we had sticker shock when we figured out what it would cost,” said Reese Sparrow, hatchery manager.
“At the current status we have 42 ponds covering about 47 acres that we are using. We will have 62 pounds covering 67 acres. We are hope it is going to be done sometime in July or August,” Sparrow noted.
Although the final ponds won’t be online for production this year, brood bass and catfish for the old Jasper hatchery were moved to the new facility starting in January, and production is already under way.
“We will probably haul our first load Monday. It is smallmouth bass going to Lake Belton. It is not going to be many, but it will be the first load out the gate,” Sparrow said.
The hatchery is expected to produce about 2 million fish in its first year. Next year the number should jump to more than 4 million when all the ponds come online and the kinks are worked out.
However, unlike the start-up at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in 1996, Sparrow doesn’t expect a lot of issues that might affect production.
As always there were problems during construction, the biggest being collapsing underground pipes leading in to the hatchery that created a year’s delay in completion.
Another point of contention has been water delivery. Located below the Rayburn dam, it was originally said delivery would be gravity flow, thus eliminating the need for an expensive electric pump system.
During planning it was determined the system would require an electric siphon to get the water flowing, but that design is much cheaper to operate than the system employed at TFFC, which sits above Lake Athens.
There was a scare at the facility last summer when the lake dipped to almost 14 feet low.
“The historic low on the lake is 150.7. We put the drain two feet lower than that thinking it would never get close to that again. It got down to 150.8, so it was close,” Sparrow said.
So far the biggest problem in production has been acclimating fish accustomed to spawning in outdoor, dirt-lined ponds to indoor raceways.
After a slow start, the hatchery was up to 75 Florida bass spawns early last week. It also had success spawning blue catfish inside, something Sparrow said many thought wouldn’t be possible.
“They are figuring it out. Fish are going to do what fish do,” he said of the spawning process.
Brood bass and catfish from Jasper were retained, Sparrow said, because they were healthy fish, and that most were reaching the perfect size for hatchery production.
While Florida bass will be the focus at the facility it was designed to be used to spawn whatever is needed including blue and channel catfish, hybrid striped and striped bass and sunfish.
The catfish are primarily for West Texas lakes, and in a good year the hatchery may be asked to produce a million fish. Sparrow said that might delay production of bass some, but he doesn’t think it will have a big impact because unlike the Jasper hatchery that was able to pull off a single spawning season, the new facility can easily do two because the ponds can be drained, refilled and restocked so quickly.
Have a comment or opinion on this story, contact Outdoor Editor Steve Knight by email at email@example.com.
Follow Steve Knight on Facebook at TylerPaper Outdoors and on Twitter: @tyleroutdoor.