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What Are They Growing In That Pond?

What Are They Growing In That Pond?
Text and Photographs by Ralph DeBoard

We anticipated the 20-hour drive. We anticipated the long days netting fish in flowing streams. We anticipated changing water every night. We didn’t anticipate seeing a golf cart in a fish pond.

But, that’s definitely what it was. Luckily, the young employee of Scalare Hatchery, Inc. had managed to hop off before the cart sank below the water. After the cart was pulled from the pond with the help of a tractor, the red-faced boy admitted he was “driving a bit too fast” across the dyke when he lost control. Marvin & I were particularly impressed with the self-control of the hatchery owner, Dave Walker. I expect he has seen it all in his 30-plus years operating the Tampa, Florida fish farm.

Minutes before stepping outside to view the 80 or so raising ponds where the “golf cart tango” took place, we had looked with some envy at the marvelous angel fish breeding and growing rooms at the hatchery. It was easily the most impressive facility we had seen on the trip. One room held 80 or so pairs of angels.

When we got to the Florida panhandle, we thought we had arrived.
It actually took us 10 more hours to get to Tampa and our hotel.

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Hey Marvin, grab a net! I think they’ve caught a big one.
And it’s the strangest fish I’ve ever seen.

Another contained rack after rack of 40 gallon breeder tanks, each containing hundreds of young angels of every strain imaginable. An undergravel filter that covered about half the tank bottom, filtered these tanks. The rest of the bottom was bare. Dave told us that he would move 3 week old fry into these tanks, leave them for one month, then transfer them to the concrete vats for final grow out. When the fish are transferred, the tank is emptied and cleaned, the gravel washed, and the tank refilled. It is then ready for the next spawn.

Marvin still talks about the terrific quality of virtually all the fish we saw at the hatchery. The tanks in the growing room sat above large concrete vats that held angels ranging from quarter size to full grown. New breeders are selected from these and the rest sold to pet shops and wholesalers. One of his bigger customers is Petsmart. Another room held several vats of near adult size Festivums. Dave said the market had dropped through the floor on them, and he was having a difficult time moving them out.

The Scalare Hatchery contained tank after tank of beautiful,
healthy Angelfish, such as these young marbles.

We were both surprised to see that the racks of tanks in this room were supported by legs made from treated landscape timbers standing in the water in the concrete vats. Dave said they had been there for years and he had seen no sign of poisoning from the chemicals in the wood. I can tell you the fish looked very healthy.

The outside ponds at this farm as well as most of the others we visited were about 15 feet by 30 feet, and perhaps 10 feet deep. A typical farm has 50 to 200 such ponds. A small percentage of the ponds are covered by plastic sheeting and resemble a greenhouse from a distance, but most ponds are open. They tend to be spaced about 10 feet apart in parallel rows. While The Scalare Hatchery included several very substantial buildings, most of the farms contained no permanent facilities, or at most a small concrete building that could be used for bagging fish for shipping.

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When a pond is first filled, several hundred to several thousand young fish are added. When they reach salable size, the pond is partially drained by a large pump, the fish are netted out, and the pond is then completely drained.

Marvin picks up a few pointers as he dreams about
expanding his own fish room back in Texas.

In order to kill any “varmints”, the pond is then dusted with lime and left empty for a short time. Soon it is refilled and restocked, and the process is repeated. We were told that after several seasons, the ponds lose their ability to grow fish quickly. At that point they are often abandoned and new ponds must be dug.

In addition to visiting fish farms, we also spent several very enjoyable days catching fish in streams in the Tampa area. We started by fishing in ditches near some of the fish farms, hoping to find escapees from the ponds.

Another tank containing hundreds of Gold Angels. These
grow out tanks are filtered by a partial bottom, undergravel
filter. Fish remain in these tanks just a few weeks.

It would probably surprise you to learn that we were lucky enough to bring out several large colonies of breeding Frontosas, Tropheus, and gorgeous Lamprologus species. Well it ought to surprise you since it’s a “slight” exaggeration. In fact, we managed to catch a good number of livebearers such as Gambusia, Mollies, and several examples of the world’s smallest known livebearer.

While in the area we also visited the Florida Tropical Fish Farmer’s Association. Their store is well stocked with supplies needed by the Fish Farming industry, and we purchased a few items that are difficult to find under normal circumstances.

Marvin wanted me to try and convince you that several blonde babes from the Florida beaches tried to pick us up, but since that is a story we are unlikely to persuade anyone to believe, I will just mention that I did use my cool and debonair style to get us a free meal at the restaurant across the street from the hotel. You’ll have to get Marvin to tell you about that, and about why we had to check out of the hotel every morning and check back in later in the day.

Every night the fish were transferred from dirty creek
water to treated tap water. Very few fish were lost.

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This stream about five miles South of our hotel produced a variety of
livebearers. I promised not to tell anyone that Marvin fell in.

Marvin and I will both tell you that it was one of the most enjoyable, educational, and entertaining weeks we have ever spent. There has been some discussion of a follow-up trip in the months ahead. Perhaps we can talk more of you into joining us. Meanwhile, if you visit Marvin & Kathy, don’t be surprised if you overhear Kathy hollering something like “Marvin, I don’t care what you claim the big boys are doing in Florida, get that golf cart out of the fish room.”

The author is involved in the morning ritual of changing
water in the ice chests. (Photo by M. England)