HEBRON - The numbers are staggering. The Hebron Fish Hatchery, the largest hatchery in the state, is gearing up to raise several million walleye, and hundreds of thousands of bluegill, channel cats, minnows, bass, and incubate nearly 30 million eggs to keep Ohio's anglers busy yet another summer. "The numbers get boggling sometimes," said hatchery supervisor Patrick Howard. He said if it weren't for the state fish hatcheries, particularly Hebron's, the only saugeye and walleye to be caught in Ohio would be in Lake Erie or the Ohio River. Hebron's minnows are transported to the Ohio Division of Wildlife's Kincaid and London hatcheries to feed muskies.
The Hebron hatchery's 230 acres are a Central Ohio bird watching hot spot with more than 250 recorded species and is designated an Ohio official Watchable Wildlife site. State fishing license fees and taxes from outdoor sports equipment sales fund the hatchery.
Howard said raising fish in Buckeye Lake, which the hatchery stocks, is a particular challenge because the lake is filled with vegetation, which leaves little remaining oxygen for the fish. Still, the lake rarely seems to lack channel cats, of which the hatchery will raise 70,000 this year to be distributed throughout the state. Howard added that the hatchery generally stocks the Ohio State Fair fishing pond with channel cats and bluegill.
The channel cats are the hatchery's long-term guests, said Howard. The catfish stay in the hatchery's ponds for more than a year, because if they are released when they are too small, they become tasty snacks for bass. "We want to take care of our babies as long as we can," he said.
Howard said some people think the hatchery is closed because some of its 63 rearing ponds are empty. He said they are drained periodically to alleviate phosphorous, and stop it from promoting vegetation growth and stealing oxygen from the fish.
There's a lot happening at the hatchery that people can't see from the outside, said Howard. The administration building is also home to Ohio's Inland Fisheries Research Unit and the campus hosts archery targets. The Ohio Division of Wildlife builds and repairs electrofishing boats, which pulse an electric current through water to stun fish and immobilize them temporarily. Biologists then net the fish to measure and weigh them before releasing them unharmed.
The hatchery features an impressive holding and distribution facility where fish are temporarily held after being netted from the rearing ponds. Here they are counted, weighed, and tagged if necessary before being transported to Ohio lakes and streams. The facility's incubator can hold roughly 30 million eggs, which hatch into young fish called fry. In the spring they placed in the rearing ponds where they grow into slightly larger fish called fingerlings.
Raising millions of fish per year is difficult work, but Howard said his staff wouldn't have it any other way. "We go hard at it," he said.