The Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery in Mammoth Spring developed major problems as a result of the recent flooding which left 100,000 fish dead, 10 percent of their current yield. Also with the flooding came changes in the geology of the entire river system, leaving anglers guessing.
"We had two rain events, one rain on March 18 and another on April 10. We had a lot of high water, and we lost probably close to 100,000 fish and released some," said Melissa Jones, assistant chief cold-water coordinator and hatchery manager.
As water encapsulated the fisheries compound, muck and debris carried by the flood headed for the hatchery's lifeline.
"The water supply for the hatchery is the Spring River. Dam three impounds the river and in the dam we have two water intakes. Whenever we get a large amount of rain or any kind of flood there is a large amount of debris. Naturally, that goes toward your intake," Jones said.
With the water intakes clogged and the water rising all around, the staff had to escape.
"Usually we have people up there cleaning the intake with rakes, and we have a mechanical screen that automatically removes the debris. In both the rain instances, the water got so high that the hatchery was completely surrounded by the river. We were on an island, and we had to evacuate," she said.
"So, without anyone cleaning the intakes we didn't have any fresh water going to the fish, or a reduced flow," she said.
The lack of new oxygen rich water was the cause of death for the large volume of fish, Jones said.
"We lost fish ranging from four to 11 inches," she said.
Even with so many fish gone, Jones is confident fishing will be strong this year.
"Spring River is managed as a put, grow and take fishery, which means the trout are raised at the hatchery, stocked in the river, hopefully they have a chance to grow and then anglers catch them," she said.
Jones said because the fishery is perpetually stocking and restocking the river, the flooding shouldn't affect trout fishing to any large degree, although, she said fish stocking will be reduced sometime during the year.
"Keep in mind the hatchery raises a million fish. We are working with the fish and wildlife service hatcheries at Norfork and Greers Ferry to hopefully get some of those fish replaced," Jones said.
The period when less fish will be in the water is still unknown.
"We are going through the inventory of our fish now but until we know what we are going to get from the fish and wildlife service it is still too early to tell," she said.
Although some experts say the high water can leave fish harder to locate, Jones said she has heard positive fishing reports from area anglers.
"I have heard that bass and brim fishing has been good. Hopefully the high water will help the native warm fishery spawn this year," she said.
With tons of fish carcasses on hand, disposal was a challenge. The hatchery was forced to bury the fish as opposed to their normal composting procedure, but that wasn't the last problem Jones faced.
"We also had some damage to the access road leading into the hatchery and each of our four public accesses. We are working to get them cleaned up soon. Hopefully, people won't even know it has rained," she said.
Although Spring River fishing isn't projected to suffer negative long-term effects, there was a short-term impact on the industry in other areas, according to Ken Shirley Arkansas Game and Fish District Fisheries supervisor.
Norfork Lake, along with Spring River and other area waterways, made fishing difficult for anglers with the recent flooding.
"It is hard to put your boat in right now. All the parking lots at the boat ramps are flooded. The only parking is along the side of the road to go down to the ramp, and with a limited number of spots, it is going to impact the tourism in the short run," Shirley said.
"On the small streams like Spring River, they don't stay up as long. They will be high, but folks will still be able to get on them."
Although people might be able to get on the river, things will not be familiar to native anglers.
"The river will be different. It is just going to be a case of when the river goes down you will find out what changes are out there. Your favorite tree is going to be somewhere else or you have a brand new tree. The bottom of the river is going to be rearranged. There will be banks sloughed off, new gravel bars; people are just going to have to learn the river again. Don't assume you know the river at all," he said.
The Jim Hinkle hatchery wasn't the only place in the area with dead fish from the flood. Outside of Gepp on Highway 87 towards Elizabeth, there was a drainage ditch near the Bear Creek Bridge full of large lake carp as well as smaller lake fish. Some of these carp were estimated at 30 pounds, Salem Fire Chief Heath Everett said.
After the water receded the fish laid in a mass of flesh and flies. "These fish had to have came from the lake during the flood," Everett said. "This creek just couldn't support fish of this size. The closest lake is Norfork, and its banks are miles from the site," he said. The site showed a massive flood impact with the once flat field near the bridge turned into trenches and gullies.
Although long-time favorite fishing spots may have been washed away or relocated ,there will still be something in the water to bite a hook, Shirley said.
"There will be plenty of fish there. Some fish might have got washed downstream, but fish up stream will be washed down. Just one of the problems with trout is they do tend to strand themselves on the flood plain," Shirley said.
With fishing being such an important part of the tourism and recreation in the area, local game and wildlife services will be working overtime to repair damaged boat ramps, docks and hatcheries.
According to authorities, although things might be messy in the short term, most agree there will be a successful fishing season.
For more information on the local fisheries and the river system, contact the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission toll free at 1-800-364-4263 or www.agfc.com.
"We are going to make sure there are fish out in the river for folks to catch," Jones said.