Bell is actually a commercial fisherman who has been hired by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks to thin the population of buffalo and other “rough fish” from the lake in an effort to improve sport fishing—and, as a side benefit, to improve the water quality as well.
Once the buffalo population is deemed to be adequately thinned, Bell will change his focus to river carp suckers and common carp.
The effort to remove the rough fish is a two-year project, according to Matt Farmer, KDWP public lands wildlife biologist tech at the reservoir.
“A body of water can only stand so many pounds of fish,” Farmer said. “What we’re hoping to do is to take these rough fish out. Even though they’re a pretty cool fish, they’re not of real interest to the sport-fish population.
“We’ll replace those fish with sport fish. It’s a better opportunity for the angler.”
The decision to remove the rough fish was made after the KDWP research division in Emporia studied the health of the common carp population at the lake.
“In their research, they found that they were really stunted, really poor-conditioned fish, which indicates there’s an over population,” Farmer said.
The department then hired Bell, who has conducted similar projects in several lakes across Kansas. Bell operates two boats and has a crew of one to three people to assist him.
“It’s about the most common way to get those fish out of there,” Farmer said of Bell’s efforts. “Fisherman can’t catch (buffalo) on traditional equipment because they’re not really predacious.”
Bell is concentrating on buffalo and the river carp first because he has a market for the meat. He trucks them to Kansas City, and they are then shipped to Chicago and New York, where they are processed and sold in grocery stores.
“They’re really good fish—there’s a lot of meat on them,” Farmer said.
Bell waived the fee he normally charges to remove the buffalo and river carp suckers, which is one cent per pound.
“This is because we are wanting him to take as much as he can, and he is selling them,” Farmer said.
When Bell focuses his efforts on common carp in late spring to early summer, KDWP will pay him and his crew 10 cents per pound because there is no market for that species. Those fish will simply be buried off site.
“Right now he’s concentrating on the buffalo,” Farmer said. “This time of year they’re in deeper water—and they’re larger fish. Some of them are up to 40 to 50 pounds.”
Bell removes the buffalo with gill nets. The netting is designed to capture the large buffalo fish while allowing the small game and rough fish to escape.
“He sets the nets in the evening, lets them set overnight, and then the next morning they come and run the net,” Farmer said. “They fill two boats, head back to the ramp and load their truck. From there he takes them back to his place.”
Later this spring, when the water temperature warms, Bell will pull big seines with boats to gather and remove the common carp.
“Later in the summer, they feed around the shoreline and eat a little bit of everything,” Farmer said. “We’re hoping that by reducing those numbers and stirring up that sediment we can also improve the water quality in the lake without starting a false sedimentation and a phosphorus release in the water.
The removal process is physically intensive, according to Farmer.
“When he’s pulling that seine, even the gill nets, he told me, if there are stumps in his way, or stuff on the bottom (of the lake) 15 or 20 feet deep, he’ll dive and cut them so he can get to the fish,” he said.
“It’s pretty amazing.”
Competition for plankton
An overpopulation of rough fish affects some of the popular game fish species because they all feed on zooplankton (pronounced “zoe-plankton”), small animals that can grow up to 2 inches. Zooplankton do not swim, but are blown around with the microscopic plant-like phytoplankton upon which they feed.
“A 40-pound buffalo can eat a lot of zooplankton,” Farmer said. “Walleye, our real popular sport fish here, and even crappie, will eat zooplankton for the first few years of their lives until they reach a certain size.
“It’s a real important cycle for the sport fish.”
Improve water quality?
Farmer said KDWP is looking to see if reducing the rough fish will have a positive impact on water quality, too.
“We’re hoping that by removing those fish that are consuming all the zooplankton, that they can eat some phytoplankton and allow more light penetration and clear up the water a little bit,” he said.
Peggy Blackman, director of the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) for Marion Reservoir, said she has been informed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that funding will be made available to help fund efforts to collect data about the impact on water quality.
“We feel (rough fish) are helping to release some of the phosphorous into the water column—the nutrients of the sediment,” she said. “This is where we get tied in to water quality.”
Blackman said the Kansas Water Office will perform a bathyometric test on the lake sometime this summer or late spring.
“We have to be at a certain (lake) elevation before they can come out,” she said. “While the Kansas Biological Survey is doing the bathyometric survey, they will take additional core samples of the sediment, trying to determine what is being released into the water column from the sediment alone.”
Blackman said the project could cost $84,000—half from grants, half from local matching funds.
“It’s fairly costly project if it’s not going to do that much good other than for the sports aspect,” she said of the fish-removal effort. “We just need to prove the point that we really think it’s going to do some good.”
Time will tell
Farmer said KDWP’s priority is to improve game fishing,
“Every fall, the fish biologist does fall sampling to see what our populations are looking like going into our next growing season,” he said. “I imagine in the next couple of years we’ll be able to see if there’s an improvement.”
At the same time, Farmer said he hopes the project positively affects water quality, too.
“So many factors go into those algae blooms—rain, inflow, wind is probably No. 1, and the amount of rain we get,” he said. “We’re trying to see if it will make a difference. We don’t know that it will. It’s one of those things that will take a little time.
“The biggest goal of our department is to improve the fishery,” he said. “That’s what we manage (the lake) for. We’re also concerned about the water quality, and we’re dong things off the reservoir to help out with that.”