Waist deep and feeling for catfish, Vernon Baldwin smiled as he splashed pond water all over his co-worker Mike Carnell.
But Mr. Carnell wasn't upset; he splashed back in excitement.
Fisheries technician Mike Carnell moves a handful of eggs from the milk jug to the holding bucket. Click here for more photos
Jason B. Smith
It seems the channel catfish were spawning a little early this year. And that has made everyone a little splash happy.
At the fish hatchery located south of Dearing, a large portion of the spring is taken up by providing enough fish to stock the ponds, lakes and rivers of eastern Georgia. And the earlier the catfish spawn, the easier the work is on the hatchery employees.
"It's a glorified fish babysitting job this time of year," said George Atnip, the hatchery manager.
Run by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the McDuffie Fish Hatchery and Public Fishing Area is one of eight across the state of Georgia. It consists of 12 fishing ponds on 560 acres of land, and the balance of fish in each pond has to be carefully maintained.
Keeping this balance means channel catfish have to be put in small fenced-in areas with large milk bottles tethered to the pond floor each spring. Herding catfish and pairing them in a pen may seem like an unusual task, but it is one that Mr. Atnip and Mr. Baldwin, the hatchery's assistant manager, take seriously.
Each spring they have to pair up several dozen male and female channel catfish, put them in a small pen and bank on the fact that the eggs each pair produces will fill their ponds for the next year. According to Mr. Baldwin, this is the only labor-intensive spawning that the hatchery employees are involved in.
"The bass, we put them in a pond; they marry up with whoever they think is sexy," Mr. Baldwin said. "But we've got an artificial situation with the milk cans down here. ...We want to be able to control the harvest of the (catfish) eggs."
The process of harvesting the eggs is one that takes the better part of several days. It is one in which the hatchery takes over the duties of the father catfish.
First, the milk cans -- or artificial catfish beds -- which hold the fertilized eggs must be "robbed." Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Carnell pull on a set of waders and climb into each pen. They then use a long piece of stiff wire with a cloth tied to the end -- an instrument dubbed the "joystick" -- to find out if eggs are present.
"We'll stick it up in the mouth of the milk can -- they look like milk cans, but they're spawning cans to us. Usually if the male is in there he'll bite the thing because he's supposed to protect his house," Mr. Baldwin said.
After the male catfish bites the joystick, the milk can is pulled up and the male is dumped out into the pen. The eggs are then scraped off the inside of the can and put into a bucket full of pond water.
Once all the pens have been checked, the bucket full of catfish eggs is taken into the hatchery. Each cluster of eggs is rinsed in a salt solution, placed in a wire basket and put into a trough. In the trough, a machine simulates the father's fanning tail so that the eggs stay oxygenated and clean.
"(The eggs) will stay in there, depending on water temperature, six to eight days," Mr. Baldwin said. "Usually in about eight days they start dropping out as little catfish on the bottom. They look like a pink b.b. with a tail."
The harvesting process takes around half an hour. And while the eggs are being placed in the trough, the parents are put back out to pasture. A net is used to capture both the male and the female from the pen. Both fish are then thrown back into the larger pond.
The spawning process should produce between 450,000 and 500,000 catfish eggs to stock the ponds in the fishing area. Pond owners in surrounding counties can also purchase catfish from the hatchery.