Tiny fish in Bella Vista may move to new ponds in 2023

BELLA VISTA — The Bella Vista Property Owners Association has always stocked its man-made lakes with various species of fish.

When Rick Echols was hired as the POA’s fish biologist in January 2016, he came from a fish hatchery and almost immediately put that experience to work. Since 2016, some of the fish caught in Bella Vista lakes were raised on ponds located on Bella Vista golf courses.

One of the challenges of raising fish in a golf course pond is flooding, Echols said. He has used up to five ponds at a time on the Berksdale and Kingswood golf courses, but the ponds are often flooded by Little Sugar Creek.

When the creek water invades the ponds it brings some large fish along with it. The fish from the creek head to the bottom of the ponds where they are less likely to be washed out. Once there the larger fish find the pond’s fingerlings a convenient food source. Other fingerlings are washed out of the ponds by floodwater and end up in the creek where they probably suffer a similar fate.

Next year, the fish-raising project will move to two brand new ponds below the Loch Lomond dam. The ponds will be built with a drain in place, Echols explained to the Lakes Committee during its June 8 meeting. A screen will be added to the drain pipe when it’s time to drain the ponds and move the fish. Once most of the water is out, the fish will be removed with a net and transferred to a tank in a nearby truck, which will bring them to their new home.

If all goes well in 2023, Echols plans to ask for the funds to build three more ponds.

The area where the new ponds will go in could flood, Echols said. Water has gone over the dam in the past, but it doesn’t happen often, and the ponds will be constructed by bringing in dirt and arranging it in berms rather than digging a hole. That will provide some protection, he said.

Some of the tiny fish that Echols puts into the ponds are actually hatched in Bella Vista where a corner of the indoor fishing dock on Lake Avalon has been turned into a hatchery.

“We’ve gotten really good at that part,” he said.

This year, the flooding happened just as he was ready to move newly hatched fish into the ponds. Once the ponds were flooded, the fish couldn’t go in, and since it takes several weeks to drain and clean the ponds, and the newly hatched fry can’t survive that long in the hatchery tanks, Echols and his staff were forced to put them directly into the lakes. He doesn’t think many of them survived.

His staff keeps track of the fish population, he explained. Some fish like channel catfish, are inexpensive, and it may be cheaper to buy the fingerlings than to hatch them. He can buy those fingerlings and let them grow in the nursery ponds.

Other fish, like some of the hybrids, are expensive to buy as fingerlings but can be hatched and then moved to the ponds.

“We just need to prioritize our need from year to year and use our five ponds to the best of our ability,” he told the committee.

When the new ponds are ready in the spring of next year, they will probably be used for saugeye and hybrid striped bass, he said.

Over the six years that Echols has been raising fish, the project has only been successful twice, but that doesn’t discourage him. After the hatchery equipment was put in place, raising fish is not expensive. The only cost now is the labor when the ponds are drained and the fish are moved around. With new dedicated nursery ponds most of that labor won’t be necessary and the fish will have a safe place to grow, he said.

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