Some of you may know that we recently started stocking some striped bass in Nebraska, again. There is more to the story. . . .
Striped bass are a marine species that migrate into fresh water to spawn (anadromous is the big pointy-headed term for fish that live in the ocean but spawn in freshwater). Sometime in the middle of the last century it was discovered that striped bass did not necessarily have to live in salt water, they could very successfully live their whole life in fresh water. That spawned, pardon the pun, a fad of striped bass stocking in inland waters across the country. At one time or another striped bass have been stocked in at least fourteen different waters in Nebraska. The most famous and successful of the striped bass stockings occurred in Lake McConaughy and for a few years a very good striped bass fishery flourished there. I caught a few of those McConaughy striped bass “back in the day” and tangled with a bunch of them in waters downstream of there too.
At that time, the primary prey fish in McConaughy were gizzard shad. Gizzard shad are not very tolerant of cold water and over the years, cold, windy winters along with the wind-swept nature of Lake McConaughy, has resulted in severe winter die-offs of gizzard shad. In fact, in McConaughy during the windiest of winters, water temperatures would cool well below what they would have been had there been ice cover. During the worst winters, almost all of the gizzard shad in McConaughy would perish. When that happened there were lots of hungry predators in McConaughy; walleyes, white bass, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, and channel catfish in addition to the striped bass were left with very few prey fish to eat. Hungry predator fish will scrounge for whatever they can get in their mouths and since striped bass were the largest predator in Lake McConaughy at the time, they ate whatever they could find including other sport fish. McConaughy stripers had a particular fondness for rainbow trout and as a result they took the “rap” for being the cause of all of McConaughy’s problems. In truth, the problem at McConaughy was an unstable prey base; a situation that was addressed by introducing additional prey fish species to McConaughy including alewives which along with gizzard shad provide an abundance of prey for McConaughy predator fish to this day.
Why recite all this history of Lake McConaughy and striped bass? Well, as I mentioned McConaughy stripers got a bum rap and when that happened striped bass stocking ceased in Nebraska.
Last fall and again this spring striped bass have been stocked into Branched Oak Reservoir. A total of almost 19,000 fingerling striped bass have been stocked in Branched Oak so far and more stockings are planned in the future. Those fish have ranged from 3 to 8 inches at the time of stocking. The striped bass we have been stocking have come from other states, and we have scoured the country to get those fish.
Why stock striped bass again? Well, Branched Oak has been plagued by an over-abundance of white perch for many years now. Striped bass are a predator native to the same east coast waters where white perch are found, and I have often said that we would stock great white sharks in Branched Oak if we thought they would take care of the white perch problem (If you are a water-skier or jet-skier, you can be thankful that we have not stocked the great white sharks, yet.)
A few weeks ago I got out of the office and assisted with some fish sampling at Branched Oak. Mostly, our target was once again flathead catfish, but at the end of the day we finished up by seeing what else we could bring up to the electro-fishing boat. Young of the year gizzard shad were everywhere, clouds of them, but then we saw a small striper!
And then another one, then a couple more and in one spot a half-dozen or so.
Now that does not necessarily mean anything other than that we were able to verify the presence of some of the striped bass that had been stocked in Branched Oak. The fact that we sampled quite a few without a lot of effort may mean that there has been excellent survival of the striped bass that have been stocked so far. It also just may mean that we happened to look in just the right place and found a few of the stripers that have been stocked. At the least, we know that there have been some survive until now and if those fish can make it through this next winter, they should have an excellent chance of surviving for quite some time. We will just have to wait and see how well they do from here.
It is hard to document the survival and growth of small fish through the early stages of their life cycle. Simply put, even under the best of conditions mortality rates of small fish are very, very high, but that is why fish produce so many eggs. At times it definitely is like searching for a needle in a haystack, and that is why the sampling of a few striped bass in Branched Oak right now has been really good news. Let’s hope they continue to survive, let’s hope they get big enough to eat lots of small white perch, and let’s hope that one day in the coming years we will be catching and releasing some nice-sized striped bass from Branched Oak Reservoir. . . . I am already practicing my poses for pictures.