FOREST HILL, LA (WAFB) - While most people are picking up flowers and making last minute dinner reservations on Valentine’s Day, the state’s most successful matchmaker is hard at work to make magic for hundreds of couples in the heart of Louisiana.
Kristie Butler and her team of 14 people take their job so seriously, they get up before the sunrise to make sure Valentine’s Day is a special day for all of the couples.
Butler is the lead biologist at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Booker Fowler Fish Hatchery south of Alexandria.
The talented team at the state’s largest fish hatchery has learned that Valentine’s Day is actually the perfect time to start spawning Florida largemouth bass.
The process starts near the end of January. Workers drain the holding ponds and separate the males from the females so that they don’t spawn in their holding ponds.
On the fourteenth of February, they drain the ponds again and skim off the shiners the bass feed on.
They round up all of the female fish and transfer them to something a little less romantic than a limousine: a giant holding tank on a flatbed truck.
The fish are trucked a couple hundred yards to what’s called a raceway pond to wait for a mate. The male fish get the same treatment.
Several mats made up of a fibrous material are placed every couple of feet inside the raceway ponds.
“The males will come and start selecting mats and defending the mats against other males and trying to attract females,” Butler said. Crews add a little warm water to heat things up.
Butler explains once a male attracts a female to his bachelor pad, she lays her eggs and leaves.
Once the eggs are fertilized, they’re moved to this warehouse and placed in these hatching tanks.
When they hatch, those tiny fish called freys will stay here about 10 days before they’re ready to go back outside.
As nature would have it, that’s about the time algae and zooplankton are blooming in this holding pond for the results of a little valentine’s day hanky-panky to feed on.
“They stay in this pond for 6-8 weeks. By that time, they’ve consumed all the zooplankton and other invertebrates like worms, and it’s time to get them out because they’re out of food,” Butler said.
The Booker Fowler Hatchery first opened in 1997 and immediately began spawning largemouth bass. It’s staff, made up of a total of 14 men and women, produce more than 2.5 million fingerlings bass every year. Those fingerlings will be stocked in public lakes throughout the state.
Biologists around the state place their orders late the previous year based on fisherman’s takes and studies of the lake.
The fish hatchery also spawns other fish species such as catfish, blue gill, and panfish. “This is all about enhancing the state’s largemouth bass fisheries so that anglers have a better chance to catch a larger fish,” Butler said.
It seems to be paying off. Since the program started, the state has hosted six Bassmaster Classics and five B.A.S.S. Elite Series Tournaments, and one Fishing League Worldwide Championship.
Butler and her team at Booker Fowler Hatchery work hard to ensure that freshwater fishing remains a boon for Louisiana.
A 2011 survey from the American Sportfishing Association revealed that over 700,000 freshwater anglers fished in the state, who fished for 16,665,476.
That same year, freshwater fishing generated over $600 million in retail sales, $58 million in federal tax revenue, $58 million in state and local tax revenue, and sustained over 8,000 jobs with wages of over $286 million.
In 2018, over seven million Florida largemouth bass were released into state waters through a partnership of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For more information about the Booker Fowler Hatchery, such as how to take a tour, visit http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/booker-fowler-fish-hatchery.