February 12, 2014

KCNP interview of Brian Fillmore and Ralph Simmons of Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery.

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Good morning this is the February 12th edition 2014 of Connections. I'm your host Brian Brashier and today’s topic is one that I don't know enough about. That’s why we have the experts in here to help all of us learn at once but I am very very interested, and I have just enough interest or experience in what we are going to see that it just makes me more curious. And when I see these fellas come in here you can tell they love what they do, and that you have the opportunity to go check out what we're talking about. How many times have you gone down highway 377, also known as 99, and you had no idea that just a few miles to the west, midway between Tish and Ada, was a really cool place thats been around for a very long time and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of fish there? Did you know about that? It's called the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery, its been around a while and we'll find out in just a moment, but it has a huge impact on the whole Southwest part of the United States and has for a while. And actually it's a federal facility, there is right now bald eagles nesting and you can go there, so were going to find out more about that right now. The Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery I think is the way you say it. We have a couple of gentlemen with us; one of the first ones of course is a Service biologist, wildlife service biologist. Is it Brian Fillmore?

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Brian Fillmore: Fillmore, yes.

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Brian Brashier: Thought so. And the reason I know his name, besides asking him, is pictures in this months edition, the February edition, of Chickasaw Times. So you can either go to http://www.chickasawtimes.net/ and just look at it online for free, or if you have a paper copy, you can find out more about what we are talking about today as well. Of course the Chickasaw National Fish Hatchery, starting off of course it’s got Chickasaw at the beginning because it is located in the Chickasaw Nation and named after the Chickasaw leader Tishomingo. Because Chief Tishomingo of course was the last Great War Chief that came across toward, and he actually passed away on the Trail of Tears on his way, to Indian Territory. So that’s where the name comes from and that’s kind of the tie in here. Now, let’s find out. Fish hatchery makes it sound pretty simple, okay you’re hatching fish.

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Brian Fillmore: Correct, it sounds simple.

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Brian Brashier: Sounds simple, but what type of fish and what do you do with the fish?

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Brian Fillmore: Our big focus would be the paddlefish, commonly known as the spoonbill. A lot of people think you can just take them and throw them in a bucket of water and it will spawn. Paddlefish rely on three main keys to spawn. They need photo period, which is light. Temperature, water needs to rise up to a certain temperature. And then flow, which happens during spring during a flood event. We can mimic the first two, but we can't mimic the third, and the problem that paddlefish are currently facing is that since we have damned up a lot of the rivers there is no longer that big flood event during the spring. So what we have to do at the hatchery is we’ll go out and collect wild adult broodfish from up in Northeast Oklahoma on Grand Lake and we'll bring them back and we'll put them in our tanks and we'll go ahead and basically spawn them. And what we do by doing that is we actually will take the females and let them get comfortable in our tanks along with the males. We'll collect the sperm from the males and we'll actually go ahead and wait a little bit longer for the females to ovulate or release their eggs. And then we'll actually go ahead and make a small incision and actually scoop the eggs out with a spoon and put them in a bowl and we'll add the sperm to that mixture and add water which activates the sperm. It has about three minutes to fertilize, then we will take those eggs and put them in jars and they will stay there for about a week and they'll hatch into baby paddlefish, which we call fry.

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Brian Brashier: Wow, that’s sad too that that what a baby fish is called is a fry. That’s just terrible. And so this is all done in a laboratory setting not out in the ponds?

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Brian Fillmore: Right, it’s more of a laboratory setting yeah. We actually have an egg hatching house where we do most of this. And we'll actually wait for the female to ovulate. The way you test for that is you flip her upside down with a group of guys, because we're working with 30 -70 pound fish so it’s not like just one person is going to be able to handle this fish, so we'll have two guys flip her upside down and gently massage her abdomen. If she freely expresses eggs we know she is ovulating and we can go ahead and harvest them eggs. So then we'll bring her inside and anesthetize her, which is kinda like putting her to sleep just for a little bit, like you do at a dentist. And then we will go ahead and make a small incision and scoop the eggs out, we'll stich her back up and one group of guys will take care of the female and then the other group of guys will take the eggs and go ahead and mix it with the sperm and start the incubation process in the hatchery jars.

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Brian Brashier: Now there are some trout fisherman and different fisherman out there that may know, or I should say anglers because there are a lot of ladies who do that too, the size of like an egg that you would see from salmon and other people know about caviar, so give us an idea in relation to something else bee bee's or whatever, how big are these eggs?

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Brian Fillmore: There about the size of bee bees. They are smaller than a trout egg, but it’s funny you mention caviar because caviar actually comes from paddlefish. Their close relative the sturgeon is what caviar is known to come from but paddlefish are closely related, you can actually sell the caviar for blue sturgeon quality caviar as paddlefish eggs.

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Brian Brashier: But I am assuming since you’re working so hard to propagate this species you would rather they didn't?

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Brian Fillmore: Correct. Right now ODWC, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, has a program up on Grand Lake where if you go out and snag an adult paddlefish you can call them and they will actually come collect your fish they will go ahead and process it, clean the whole fish and give you the filets back. In return they get the data off the fish, they know how old the fish is, they can actually age it, and if it came from the hatchery or not as a wild spawn or hatchery spawn fish. And then in doing that they also go ahead and process the caviar, and then that money goes back to ODWC to help fund fisheries and wildlife programs.

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Brian Brashier: Okay that makes sense because that fish has already kind of lived its life, meaning it’s

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Brian Fillmore: Right and there is still enough paddlefish to have a legal harvest in the state of Oklahoma. We're blessed in the Northeast with one of the best populations of paddlefish. But it has to be closely monitored because it can get easily exploited and therefore once their gone their gone.

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Brian Brashier: Ok I am talking to that listener right now that’s tuned in on their radio and I am going to ask for you: Why? Why do we care about the paddlefish?

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Brian Fillmore: Why do you care about the paddlefish? Well, if you’re a caviar lover that’s the easy answer, once their gone their gone. If you’re into more wildlife aspects, paddlefish are a prehistoric fish they were back here long ago. They are a very long lived species, they can probably live up to 20 - 30 years, and they can get to be 150 lbs. It’s something that I personally, being an angler, I want in the wild I want a chance to go out and catch one. And then biologically speaking if you remove them then that niche is then left open, and it will not be filled by a paddlefish again and there is a good chance that you'll get another exotic species like you guys have all heard probably about the jumping Asian carp that are also a planktivore, which means they eat plankton. Paddlefish are also a planktivore so if you remove all the paddlefish it opens up an area for another species to possibly invade and like I said the biggest thing is once their gone, their gone. There is no bringing them back.

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Brian Brashier: Have we learned, or what have we learned, from our past studying these guys since they have been around so long. There lineage goes so far.

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Brian Fillmore: Well what we've learned

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Brian Brashier: They obviously know how to survive.

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Brian Fillmore: They do, the biggest problem with paddlefish numbers is humans period. Dams are probably the number one cause for their decline. We as humans all enjoy a bath we all enjoy a shower so we have to dam or store our water in reservoirs. But for paddlefish this creates a problem because they can no longer migrate upstream to spawn, like I was saying earlier they need that flood event to spawn and when you make a flowing system into a static system you no longer get that burst of flow. The other problem is that they need flowing water for their eggs to incubate and hatch because it is highly oxygenated water that is flowing over them constantly. If you just have eggs lying in a static reservoir what happens is they will sink to the bottom silt will settle over the top of them, they will suffocate and die.

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Brian Brashier: So in the lab you’re having to somehow simulate this? Or you just don't have the silt?

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Brian Fillmore: Right. In the lab what we do is we have these hatching jars that are basically upwelling water so we dump water into a concave bottom and it just constantly pumps water into that jar. So it is constantly rotating the egg.

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Brian Brashier: Okay, so not just a stagnant jar?

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Brian Fillmore: Right. We actually have pumps that are actually running water flowing.

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Brian Brashier: How many successful fish, or fish are successfully hatched in a season at the fish hatchery?

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Brian Fillmore: Successfully hatched, and successfully stocked is two hugely different numbers. We probably hatch close to 500,000 to 1 million. To actually get them up to 12 inches which takes only three months, these guys are amazing growers they put on an inch a week during the summer time, but to get them from fry to 12 inches you lose probably 90% of them. And a lot of that due some of them simply never go on feed, since they are a planktivore we cannot produce enough plankton to feed that many. And if you think about it logically it’s a numbers game. In the wild less than 1% make it to that size. So at the hatchery we can get about 7 - 10%, so we are actually doing a little bit better than the wild because we take out the predator.

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Brian Brashier: Okay, but is my math right, that’s 50,000?

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Brian Fillmore: Yeah, 50,000 a year is about what we raise, 25,000 to 50,000. Our goal is 20,000 but we have been averaging 25,000 to 50,000 a year the past three years.

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Brian Brashier: and are all of them reintroduced to rivers?

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Brian Fillmore: Right now we are currently working on Lake Eufaula, which would be the Canadian River drainages which all eventually goes in the Arkansas River. Oklahoma is blessed with two kinds of strains of paddlefish, we have the Red River strain, and also the Arkansas River strain and we are currently working with the Arkansas River strain which is Lake Eufaula because eventually the Canadian Rivers would dump into the Arkansas River.

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Brian Brashier: Now the Red River paddlefish does have that, can he handle the salinity the salt content that’s in Red?

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Brian Fillmore: Yeah, they do

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Brian Brashier: How about the Arkansas, I wonder he probably wouldn't like it?

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Brian Fillmore: Actually they probably could, but the reason that we don't intermingle them is because we don't know. Because that have evolved in that river system so their specialized to the Arkansas River and the Red River is specialized to the Red River so we don't intermix them, we try to keep them back to their same drainages because we don’t' want to make a weaker product.

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Brian Brashier: Folks you've learned something. Did you just learn something about paddlefish? It’s fascinating and now I just didn't realize they were that big, that they got that big. Now you've got me excited about trying one, but obviously they can't be easy to catch, apparently not.

00:10:48.17 00:11:01.01

Well, the problem with catching paddlefish is you can't use a lure. Their planktivores, so therefore they filter feed. The way the guys actually catch them is they use a large treble hook and actually rip it through the water and snag them.

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Brian Brashier: I did that once in a different state, but I was not very successful. But it wasn't for them it was for something else. Oh wow, that sounds, now see that’s sporting somewhat because then you’re not baiting them and attracting them your just hoping that one passes through your area.

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Brian Fillmore: Yes.

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Brian Brashier: Wow, when we come back I want to learn about some of the other fish and some of the other critters it’s not all fish at the fish hatchery.

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Brian Fillmore: No

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Brian Brashier: Alright, we'll find out what does that mean. We'll see that in just a minute as Connections continues on KCNP.

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commercial announcements

00:12:43.04 00:13:27.13

Brian Brashier: And we're back with the next segment of Connections we're talking about the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery located just, we didn't talk about that, kind of alluded to it but not exactly. It’s actually on Highway 7, now that’s kind of confusing because you know people know that highway 7 can kind of lead out of Roth and that area but this is where goes through Reagan and connects back to 99 or 377. The east west road, I know my father and mom way back in the late 30's early 40's Reagan was a happening town and they would go over there, they had a big skating rink apparently. Now tell me what year, let me let the boss in here for just a moment, if you could tell us your name and what your position is there with the fish hatchery.

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Ralph Simmons: My name is Ralph Simmons I'm the assistant hatchery manager.

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Brian Brashier: okay your assistant manager, so that’s why the manager said you get to go do this.

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Ralph Simmons: Yes.

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Brian Brashier: That’s the way we do it here too. That’s awesome. Ralph, so tell me how long this hatchery has even been around?

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Ralph Simmons: This hatchery was established in 1929. Like Brian said we get our water from nearby Pennington Creek we have one of the oldest water rights in the state. Statehood was 1907, so in 1928 we got our water permit for 10 cubic feet per second and so we still utilize that water.

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Brian Brashier: Let me explain what that is folks because actually that is why I was down there a few years ago is doing a whole study on water, and that means that anybody upstream should not or is not allowed to, not supposed to be able to, mess that flow up.

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Ralph Simmons: Yes

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Brian Brashier: You have, you know, they can't do things that will prevent you from getting that much water a day or per second.

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Ralph Simmons: Yes

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Brian Brashier: And it’s critical for what you just said, for the growing of fish and other critters.

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Ralph Simmons: And then we return all of that water back into Pennington Creek just downstream from the hatchery.

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Brian Brashier: You know you’re not doing anything like some factories where you’re adding horrible chemicals or anything. I mean if the worst thing is fish feces that natural.

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Ralph Simmons: That is, and that helps to supply and to make, we probably put some organics into the stream but that just helps the stream diversity.

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Brian Brashier: You know the diversity and the characteristics of Pennington Creek are things the folks here, if their into that kind of thing, they may know but it’s really unique I'm told. There is certain shrubbery that only grows in like one or two other places in the whole United States but it grows on Pennington Creek. You know just some amazing things more downstream from you. But I want to talk about the facility and then get back on fish with Brian. The paddlewheel, now it had, what was its original function and what’s its function now, and tell them what the paddlewheel is.

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Ralph Simmons: Well, the paddlewheel actually predates the hatchery. There was a place there, when you were saying that Reagan used to be a hopping place, there was Ballard Park that predates the hatchery. So in the 1920's, that was the place to be. We have old photos of Model T's and Model A's just lined up all the way to the highway in Ballard Park. It had a skating rink, it had a swimming pool, it had a putt-putt golf you know and it was all lighted and generated electricity for the lights from the old paddlewheel. And it was a gristmill, so it was a really great place to visit back in the day.

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Brian Brashier: So it was actually a gristmill? It actually functioned and turned a paddle.

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Ralph Simmons: As I understand it, yes sir.

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Brian Brashier: And now? Does it still work?

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Ralph Simmons: Well the mill is gone, but the old paddlewheel, the original wooden wheel is still there and we just rebuilt the wooden race to supply the water to the wheel. And so it’s spinning about as well as anyone can remember.

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Brian Brashier: That’s great. And I will just tell you folks, you folks getting ready for your senior pictures and all that stuff, unbelievable photo opportunities.

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Ralph Simmons: Lots of icicles the last few days.

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Brian Brashier: I bet, did it stop turning?

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Ralph Simmons: No it still runs.

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Brian Brashier: oh really?

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Ralph Simmons: Yes, sir.

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Brian Brashier: Wow. Now what’s the public access to different areas around the fish hatchery? What can the public, where can they go and not go, and what can they do there?

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Ralph Simmons: Well they can come and visit the stream especially, like Brian said there's fishing in our about 1 mile stretch of Pennington Creek is public access and fishing. They can visit the old water wheel and we have people from many different states just wander in, it’s amazing. They remember the wheel from back in the old days. And that sort of is the trail head, we have a walking trail with informational kiosks that parallels the creek right there and starts at the water wheel and goes north.

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Brian Brashier: Are there any picnic tables or anything in the area?

00:17:47.28 00:17:50.09

Ralph Simmons: Yes sir, there is a nice picnic area there.

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Brian Brashier: So I am just telling you folks when it finally gets warm it’s a great opportunity to go take the family, get them outside away from electronics and check this all out, and thanks Ralph for giving us all that. Now let’s talk about the economic impact of the facility to this part of the state. You know we're not that wealthiest part of the state here in south central, and I am sure it wasn't in 1929 either when it opened, but like how many employees and about what has been the estimated impact?

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Ralph Simmons: Currently we have about 7 full time employees there at the hatchery. And the Fish & Wildlife service did do an economic impact study that showed we contributed about $800,000 dollars annually to the community. Some of that is from sale of fishing licenses and things of that nature, but this is actually a government program that we bring in, we have a budget and annual budget that we are actually adding input economic value to the community.

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Brian Brashier: Yeah, I mean your salaries alone you know that’s a direct one right there, each of you have to buy fuel and groceries and then stuff for the facility itself. So that’s pretty, that would be a definite hit if it was to go away.

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Ralph Simmons: Yes.

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Brian Brashier: And I am glad that it has survived for this many years. Here we are coming up, well actually now we got the, can't to the math that fast, 85th? Something like that, 80, yeah 85th year.

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Ralph Simmons: We are quickly approaching the centennial.

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Brian Brashier: So when the centennial, oh that should be an event, I bet. I want to ask Brian some more about the fish there. We talked about the spoonbill or paddlefish, sounds like a big critter. Now some of the smaller ones, but they can be big, what is the next in range the other things that you raise there? And what do you do with them?

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Brian Fillmore: Well the other things to be included would be the Arkansas River shiner, which is an endangered river shiner that is native to the Canadian River out in the western ranges in the western part of the state. And we also do a little bit of work with log perch, which are a surrogate species which means species that we use in place of another species, which is for the leopard darters which is another endangered fish which lives in the southeastern corner of the state. We are using the log perch to learn how to spawn and rear log perch and then we can take them techniques and hopefully implement them with the leopard darters. Then we also do a little bit of work with the channel catfish, we still do stockings of military bases, Fort Sill, and we do a little bit of work with largemouth bass and blue gill and we primarily raise the blue gill for food for the last unique critter which would be the alligator snapping turtle.

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Brian Brashier: Oh, we got to talk about that, but let me back up one quick minute. Now the other things that your hatching is that for, ultimately for, anglers to catch?

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Brian Fillmore: a lot of the stuff we deal with at the hatchery would be species of special concern, which means there is not as many as there were historically and we don't want them to go to the next level which would be a threatened species and then of course you go to endangered species and then you go to extinction which means it’s gone. So were working with the Arkansas River shiner along with the leopard darter through log perch to keep them from going extinct because they’re both currently listed as endangered. We also work with another big species which would be the alligator gar, and a lot of people think we have plenty of gar in Oklahoma. Actually we have four different species of gar in Oklahoma, we have the long nose, short nose, and the spotted, which their population numbers are doing fine. The alligator gar is doing fairly well in like the Red River drainage, but the Arkansas River drainage they are not doing as well. So what we are trying to do is be preemptive and before they do become a species of concern learn techniques to culture, raise, and reintroduce them to keep their numbers bolstered.

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Brian Brashier: And do they have, what makes them called alligator gar? It sounds like, do they look like them? Do they have teeth?

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Brian Fillmore: Yes, they look very similar to like an alligator, they're another large species. They can reach sizes of 300 pounds. They differ from the other gar by they have two rows of teeth on the top instead of just a single row. But yes they do have teeth and they are a very toothy critter. Alligator gar, like every other fish species, they’re not going to hurt humans, they are scared to death of us. They want nothing to do with us, if they see us they are going to try to go the other way and get away.

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Brian Brashier: What’s their benefit to the ecosystem?

00:22:13.26 00:23:07.05

Brian Fillmore: Since they are a large predator species a lot of people think they will wipe out a lot of your sportfish, actually they are very beneficial to your sportfish. What they are going to remove is your large, your old, and your dying rough fish. Like I say rough fish I mean your carp and your buffalo, stuff people don't go out and pursue. Are they going to take a large old bass? Probably, but typically what has happened is that bass that is old, weak, sick, and dying and is not very useful as far as reproducing anymore. So he is going to remove that bass, or that shad, or that large carp from the system and then that can be replaced by thousands of little shad which will feed your crape your bass and your channel catfish and make a healthier sport fishery. So the fish will be healthy and then the alligator gar, if you are an angler, and you accidentally do catch a 300 pound fish are you going to be that upset? So that’s benefits for the alligator gar.

00:23:07.06 00:23:25.25

Brian Brashier: Now let’s talk about the non-fish critter that you’re working with there, and you guys were working with this when I was there, gosh ten years ago. I completely was fascinated by one little fact that I want you to bring up later of how he catches fish, I think that’s weird. Talk about this other critter that’s not a fish that you’re working with and why.

00:23:25.26 00:25:07.13

Brian Fillmore: The other critter we work with would be the alligator snapping turtle, which is the largest fresh water turtle in North America. They can reach sizes of 250 pounds, their native across the whole eastern part of Oklahoma. The reason that we are actually rearing them, and reintroducing them, is that at one time they occupied the whole eastern half of the state in every drainage. Now they are restricted pretty much to three different drainages. There may be some isolated few, but there is not enough to make a reproducing population. And what’s happened to the alligator snapping turtles is, probably the biggest cause, is over harvest. I am not sure, probably back in the 30's and 40's, at one time Campbell Soup used to make turtle soup. They used to use the sea turtles like everybody has seen on TV, like finding Nemo, but then they were protected. So the next best thing was the alligator snapping turtle. You start removing 50 -100 large adult alligator snapping turtles from the system and you have pretty much wiped out that system. So it wasn't regulated and a lot of the populations crashed. So what we are doing is trying to reintroduce them back to where they were historically trapped, that’s our old data set that we are using. And going back to them systems, we first go back and look at the river and make sure there is suitable habitat and then we then reintroduce them. When they are typically about three years old and they are right around anywhere from 2 - 5 pounds when we reintroduce them. Each one of them has a little PIT tag, which is an identification tag, we can take a wand and actually scan them so we know the individual. How big they were when they were released, and then we go back and recapture them to make sure they are growing and doing well out there. The turtles that we have went out to recapture that we have put out that have been out there for a year are actually doubling and tripling in size, so they are doing very well.

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Brian Brashier: And so if we can't get a good grasp in our minds, since we are on radio, of the weight physically compared to a plate or something else, Frisbee, how big are they when you put them in?

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Brian Fillmore: They would be close to the size of, a little bit bigger than your wallet. A small plate would be a good example, not a normal dish, like side plate.

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Brian Brashier: And then in 10 years if you’re lucky, they can get up to?

00:25:38.29 00:25:48.17

Brian Fillmore: Maybe, 10 - 15 pounds, maybe 20. They are very slow growers, very long lived. They live probably at least 100 years old if not older.

00:25:48.18 00:26:00.00

Brian Brashier: Anything that can live 100 years I respect. You know, I mean golly. Now tell us about the thing, that just again blows way, how they catch their prey and what is their prey.

00:26:00.01 00:26:08.18

Brian Fillmore: What is their prey? Alligator snapping turtles, 90% or 80% of their diet is fish. What they like to utilize is what they call the linguistic lure.

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Brian Brashier: That is so cool.

00:26:10.03 00:26:52.02

Brian Fillmore: Which is a special name basically for a little appendage on their tongue that looks like a little red blood worm, or a night crawler. And what they will do is they will lie at the bottom, and they look very rock like, their carapaces or their top shell is covered with algae so they fit into their environment. And they just open, have that mouth agape and they will have that lure just wiggling and the fish will peck at it and that’s how they will catch their prey. That’s one way that they will capture their prey. I think they are kind of like me and you though where they prefer like that steak that’s already cooked. So they would prefer a dead fish or dead whatever that’s in the river and that’s the easiest meals, that’s what they would prefer. If they can't find that then they will resort to fishing.

00:26:52.03 00:26:54.04

Brian Brashier: How do they fit into the balance?

00:26:54.05 00:27:17.07

Brian Fillmore: They are probably at the top. The only real predator that they have would be humans. Now the likelihood of them making it to adulthood is, like I said even with the paddlefish, less than 1%. Their only predator probably in the teenage range would be maybe an otter that may be the only thing that will take them down. But once they become adults the only thing that’s going to take them down is humans or old age.

00:27:17.08 00:27:41.00

Brian Brashier: You know the fish hatchery there’s only six of them; Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. A couple in Arizona, one in New Mexico, a couple in Texas, and then you guys to serve this whole southwest region of the country so it’s very important and it’s amazing and if people want to come by, again, what are your hours where you accept public to check out what you are doing?

00:27:41.01 00:27:51.10

Brian Fillmore: We are open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday - Friday. If it is a small group, or even a larger group, we prefer that you go ahead and call us to make reservations.

00:27:51.11 00:27:58.24

Brain Brashier: Oh yeah. I mean especially if everybody’s busy right now with a ginormous paddlefish, you don't have time really to stop right then and go take a tour through.

00:27:58.25 00:28:06.00

Brian Fillmore: Right. But we are open Monday - Friday. If it is just you and your son, or you and your daughter you can stop by and somebody will take time to show you around.

00:28:06.01 00:28:07.07

Brian Brashier: What’s the phone number?

00:28:07.08 00:28:11.28

Brian Fillmore: 580-384-5463.

00:28:11.29 00:28:37.24

Brian Brashier: We're talking about the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery, been there since 1929. It has an economic impact to Johnston County and this part of the state of nearly a million dollars folks. And it’s fascinating that if you go right now, as Ralph was telling me off air, the eagles have to eat and they have kind of a captive audience there in your ponds so it’s a good place to come see some bald eagles. Right?

00:28:37.25 00:28:38.29

Ralph Simmons: Yup

00:28:39.00 00:00:00.00

Brian Brashier: Sounds good. Thank you so much.