Chuck Kaminski, president of the 89er Chapter of Trout Unlimited, is proud of the work his organization and the Wildlife Department have done together to enhance trout fishing in the state.
“We’ve put a lot of time, money and effort in establishing these trout waters,” Kaminski said.
But he worries that someday he might be standing by a stream “with a bunch of good-looking water with no fish.”
That’s because much of the trout swimming in Oklahoma’s three best trout fishing streams — the Lower Illinois, the Lower Mountain Fork and the Blue rivers — are provided by two federal fish hatcheries in Arkansas that could be closed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Almost all of the trout in the Lower Illinois come from the Norfork and Greers Ferry National Fish Hatcheries in Arkansas, as well as two-thirds of the rainbows that are stocked in the Blue River in the winter. More than one-third of the Lower Mountain Fork’s rainbows are also raised in Arkansas.
Norfork and Greers Ferry also supply all of the trout for the White River system in Arkansas, a trout fishing mecca that attracts hundreds of thousands of anglers each year from many states, including Oklahoma.
“If we shut down, basically the trout fishing in Oklahoma shuts down,” said Leon Alexander, president of the Friends of the Norfork National Fish Hatchery.
Alexander and his advocacy group are working hard to try and keep the Norfork National Fish Hatchery open.
“I retired here,” said Alexander, who moved to Norfork nine years ago from Memphis, Tenn. “The reason I retired here is basically because of the fishing, along with thousands of other people who retired up here for the same reason.”
Alexander said he’s been assured by Arkansas’ congressional delegation that the federal fish hatcheries will be funded at least for the next fiscal year, but “I haven’t seen a document or bill that puts that in writing. I am very cautious what is going to happen next.”
The national fish hatcheries at Norfork and Greers Ferry raise trout as “mitigation” or compensation for the damage or destruction caused to the stream and its native species by the damming of rivers.
When a dam is built for the purpose of providing hydroelectric power and flood control — such as what happened on the Lower Illinois and Lower Mountain Fork rivers in Oklahoma when Lake Tenkiller and Broken Bow Lake were created — then the stream and the species living in it are permanently altered.
A warm water stream then becomes a reservoir and a cold water stream below the dam as a result of the power generation.
“Warm water species are unable to reproduce and recruit below hydro-power reservoirs because the water is so cold,” said Barry Bolton, chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “Our sole remaining option is to manage a cold water fishery for trout.”
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation gets trout free of charge from the national fish hatcheries in Arkansas as “mitigation,” or compensation for the environmental impact to the stream and the loss of bottomland hardwoods caused by the damming of the Lower Illinois and Lower Mountain Fork rivers.
The Wildlife Department buys additional trout from the hatcheries, but most of the trout don’t cost the state a penny.
This has been the case for decades, but in recent years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under director Dan Ashe has threatened to eliminate funding for the federal hatcheries raising mitigation fish, citing budget shortfalls and the desire to have hatcheries concentrate on endangered species instead of raising sport fish.
In recent years, power providers such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management and the Tennessee Valley Authority have agreed to pay for most of the mitigation trout, thus helping keep open the national hatcheries raising the sport fish, Alexander said.
But it’s been an ongoing battle each year, he said.
“I have worked on this thing three or four years, and I am worn out,” Alexander said.
Arkansas’ congressional delegation is working to pass a bill that would ensure federal funding for the national fish hatcheries, but it currently doesn’t have enough support, Alexander said.
“Without that bill passing, it’s an annual crisis,” he said.
If Oklahoma were to lose the trout that is provided to the state as mitigation, the Wildlife Department doesn’t have the money in its current budget to replace them, Bolton said.
Oklahoma’s trout groups have gotten involved and are asking its members to write letters to the state’s congressmen to keep the federal fish hatcheries in Arkansas funded.
“We have done all the efforts to save the water,” Kaminski said. “Now we have got to save the fish.”