The Fish Wagon — a semi truck with its trailer filled to the gills with more than 20,000 live bass, bluegill, catfish, carp and minnows for sale — was due to roll into town today at 7:30 a.m.
As part of the Arkansas-based fish hatchery’s two-week Virginia road trip, the Fish Wagon posts up in the Rappahannock Farmer’s Coop parking lot for an hour every month year-round, and local pond owners line up to replenish their fish populations — those who are paying attention to the health of their ponds, that is.
“It’s important to know what’s in your pond, if you want to take advantage of it, recreationally or otherwise,” said fisheries scientist John Odenkirk of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).
Charged with managing public and private ponds and lakes in the 12-county region that includes Rappahannock, Odenkirk typically spends two hours a day speaking with pond owners about issues such as fish kills, species overpopulation and out-of-control vegetation. “So we get involved with providing pond owners with management recommendations on how to deal with challenges they can encounter — and how to help them best manage their pond.”
But since there are more than 500 ponds in Rappahannock County, according to data from RappFLOW (Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed), the aquatic biologist can’t manage them all, and recommends that land owners take it upon themselves to get to know their ponds.
RappFLOW and other local organizations are actually working to create a thriving fish and wildlife habitat in the Avon Hall pond owned by the town of Washington, as part of its butterfly and nature trail clean-up projects in partner with the Old Rag Master Naturalists.
Odenkirk said that a proper balance of predator — primarily largemouth bass and channel catfish — and prey, including bluegill and red-ear sunfish, is essential to creating a thriving habitat that fosters fast growth rates in the fish population. If there aren’t enough bluegills, a preferred meal for bass and catfish, the predator fish will become stunted from lack of food. Inversely, Odenkirk said, if there are too many prey fish and too few predators, the prey will become stunted and undesirable.
According to stocking recommendations from the Fish Wagon, confirmed by VDGIF recommendations, an ideal balance of fish species in an acre of pond is: 600 bluegill, 300 red-ear bluegill, 200 channel catfish, 100 largemouth bass and five to 15 grass carp, as needed to control vegetation.
“It’s damn interesting to watch [Odenkirk] work, because it’s kind of art and science combined,” said Sperryville’s Thornton Hill Farm owner Bill Fletcher, who’s receiving management advice from Odenkirk for a newly built pond.
More than a year ago, the fish biologist advised Fletcher on the ideal fish species to stock — bass, bluegill and channel catfish — and returned this month to check the fish population. “He told me mine was healthy, but to give it a couple more years before we should fish it. It’s just catch-and-release now.”
Odenkirk warns against harboring “undesirables” — fish such as brown bullhead catfish and green sunfish — in private ponds, because they can overpopulate, become stunted and sabotage the populations of other predator and prey fish. Brown bullheads, he said, also root up the bottoms of ponds, creating turbidity, destroying fish nests and muddying the water.
“However, channel cats are highly recommended, and a great fish to put in any pond,” Odenkirk said, noting that in a healthy pond, the species can grow to three pounds in two years after stocking, and can easily reach 20 pounds in a decade. “They don’t create turbidity. They don’t interfere with the function of other fish biology, so you can have them living in harmony with bass and bluegill. And they get pretty big, real fast. They’re easy to catch. They’re good to eat.”
Healthy ponds — with a good balance of predator-to-prey, good underwater structure for nesting, nurturing and hiding spots, a healthy watershed and surrounding environment — produce healthy fish, he said.
“A pond is like a crop in a farm field. It needs to be cultivated — planted with fish — and it needs to be harvested,” Odenkirk said, warning that the recent upswing in the catch-and-release ethic, releasing all fish caught instead of keeping them for food, is not particularly healthy. “When you have these ponds that never get fished, a bird may get a young fish here and there, or a bass dying of old age, but there’s not a lot of movement within that community. It’s almost a stagnant pond, ecologically. So the harvest keeps the process flowing.”
The Fish Wagon’s owner, Arkansas banker Bill Elliott, bought the more than two-decade old hatchery eight years ago from one of his customers at the Harrisburg, Ark., branch of the First National Bank. He’d always wanted to own his own business, and loves to fish. His wife, Debbie, manages the business.
“Typically, for our two-week Virginia trips, we load the truck up with 20,000 to 30,000 young fish, bluegill, bass and catfish [in sizes from one to eight inches], maybe three or four hundred grass carp and 300 pounds of minnows,” Debbie Elliot said, noting that the Fish Wagon makes about 30 stops a week, for about 45 minutes apiece, in town parking lots throughout the state. “And this week we actually had to send another truck up there since we sold out last week.”
Information on pond management and stocking advice can be found on the VDGIF website. And you can pre-order or peruse the Fish Wagon’s species options at fishwagon.com. (After today’s visit, the Fish Wagon is due back at 10:45 a.m. Oct. 22.)