APPLE GROVE — Nearly up to their armpits in water, Ryan Bosserman and Travis Bloome waded up to a small buoy, grabbed the rope tethered to it, and pulled a large plastic tube toward the surface.
“None yet,” said Bosserman as he peered into the tube.
For Bosserman, the manager at West Virginia’s Apple Grove Fish Hatchery, looking for channel catfish eggs has become an every-other-day event.
West Virginia gets most of its channel catfish from Kentucky, but this year Mountain State officials decided to try spawning some of their own.
“The folks in Kentucky have good years and bad years, just like everyone else,” Bosserman said. “In the event Kentucky happened to come up short, we wanted to have our own channel-cat brood program in place so we could have some fish ready to go.”
Spawning catfish in a hatchery isn’t nearly as labor-intensive as spawning trout, walleye or muskellunge. For the latter species, technicians have to squeeze the eggs out of the female fish and fertilize them with milt stripped from males. For catfish, it’s simply a matter of giving the fish a cozy place to let nature take its course.
“Channel catfish are cavity spawners,” Bosserman explained. “They spawn in holes, and hatchery ponds don’t have holes. So we made them some artificial holes. We bought some 12-inch-diameter PVC pipe, cut it into 3-foot segments and plugged one end of each segment with plywood.”
To make the spawning tubes easier to monitor, they attached ropes to the open ends and knotted small buoys to the free ends of the ropes. To inspect a tube, all they have to do is pull it to the surface and peer inside.
“Before we pull a tube up, we knock on its sides a little to chase the fish out,” Bosserman said. “We don’t want a 10-pound fish in there thrashing around, because it might throw eggs all over the place.”
He said the greenish-yellow egg masses are pretty easy to spot.
“They look sort of like blobs of lime Jell-O,” Bosserman said. “They range in size from about as small as the palm of your hand to as large as a dinner plate.”
The size of the egg mass depends on the size of the fish that laid it. Smaller fish lay smaller masses, large fish larger ones. Bosserman said a small mass might contain as few as a couple thousand eggs, and a large mass might contain as many as 50,000.
After collecting the eggs, technicians put them in buckets and transport them Apple Grove’s hatch-house building.
“We have a series of troughs set up with wire-mesh baskets,” Bosserman explained. “We put the masses in the baskets and keep water flowing over them so they state aerated and agitated, just as they would be in the nest. The eggs usually start hatching within 5 days.”
Once the eggs hatch, Bosserman and his crew will move the inch-long fry back outside into ponds, where they’ll be fed until they reach 8 to 12 inches in length.
“We used to stock them when they were much smaller than that, but our biologists discovered that a lot of them were getting eaten by bass and other predators,” Bosserman said. “The biologists asked us to grow them into the 8- to 12-inch range to ensure better survival.”
He said this year’s crop of young channel cats will be stocked into small impoundments throughout the state sometime next spring or summer.
State officials probably would have started a brood-stock program for channel catfish long ago but, until recently, they didn’t have the hatchery space. Until 2018, infrastructure problems had both of West Virginia’s warm-water facilities — one at Apple Grove and one at Palestine — operating far below capacity.
“In 2017, we had new liners put in our ponds and reservoir,” Bosserman said. “Now we have more than enough pond space to raise our own channel cats.”
He said he’s not sure how many eggs this year’s breeding effort might yield, but he’s hoping for at least a few thousand.
“We’re bringing in some new brood stock any day now to supplement the ones we already have,” he said. “We don’t know if we’ll have them in time to get eggs from them, but even if we don’t, we’ll keep them here in the pond and have them ready for future seasons.”