October 4, 2022
Written By Jason Jenkins
It’s a scene that plays out every spring and fall at local agricultural cooperatives and farm supply stores across the country. A single-file, serpentine line of pickup trucks and trailers forms in the parking lot, often before the start of business hours. Loaded down with stock tanks, garbage cans and assorted barrels full of water, this seasonal procession gathers for a singular purpose.
“Fish Days” have arrived.
Like an aquatic Johnny Appleseed, a truck from the local fish farm appears, pulling up at the head of the line. Its tanks teem with fingerlings of all species of fish—bass and bluegill, catfish and crappie—destined for farm ponds and other impoundments in the area. As orders are filled and the line disappears, the fish truck heads down the road to make its next delivery.
While some of the fish sold during “Fish Days” may have been produced locally, it’s quite likely that most of those freshwater fighters began their lives in Arkansas. Considered the birthplace of warmwater aquaculture, the state’s first commercial fish farms were built in the 1940s. Today, the state ranks second in aquaculture production, according to the Arkansas Department of Agriculture.
For more than 50 years, the Hopper family of Lonoke, Ark., has helped meet the ever-growing demand for fish. Each year, Hopper Hatcheries produces millions of sport fish that are distributed to customers nationwide from their operation east of Little Rock.
“This area is nothing but fish and rice,” said second-generation fish farmer Jon Hopper. “It’s ideal for it. There’s lots of clay soil, an ample supply of underground water that’s easy to access and a climate to grow a full crop of warmwater species of fish.”
Taking the Bait
The Hoppers’ foray into fish farming began in the late 1960s when Jon’s father, Bob, went to work for Leon Hill, a local farmer who had decided to try his hand at raising catfish.
“Leon was mainly a row-crop farmer growing cotton and soybeans, but he had a big reservoir that he had cut into smaller ponds to try growing some catfish,” Jon said. “He went to Andrew Hulsey, who was the director of Arkansas Game and Fish at the time, and asked who their best catfish guy was. Hulsey replied, ‘Bob Hopper.’ So, Leon spent about three months trying to talk my dad into working for him. I guess he finally made a good enough deal.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bob Hopper and another employee, Mark Stephens, helped Hill grow his fish-farming operation. As a teenager, Jon Hopper spent his summers working on the farm under his father’s tutelage.
“One of my jobs back then was collecting the catfish eggs from the ponds to bring back to hatch in the shed,” Jon recalled. “We used old 10-gallon cream cans to give the catfish a place to nest, and my job was to check those cans. You’d stick your hand in, chase out the male catfish and then collect the eggs he had been guarding. I thought I had the greatest job in the world.”
As they became more successful with their channel catfish production, Leon continued adding more pond acres and began raising other fish species—including fathead minnows, golden shiners, goldfish and bluegill. In the 1970s, they added grass carp as an option for vegetation control. They’d later add black crappie, hybrid bluegill and largemouth bass.
“We kept getting phone calls. ‘Do you raise this? Can I get that?’” Jon said. “When people call so many times asking for hybrid bluegill, you figure out how to raise hybrid bluegill. There was a lot of trial and error.”
In 1990, Hill retired, selling his operation to his trusted employees, who renamed it Hopper-Stephens Hatcheries. The two families would remain in partnership for more than 30 years. Mark Stephens passed away in 2018, and this year, his family divested its interest in the business.
“So, we’re now Hopper Hatcheries,” said Jon, who oversees production while his wife, Debbie, manages the office. “We’re farming about 1,100 acres of water, raising eight species of fish that we provide to customers in various lengths. Probably half of our fish go to Texas. The rest find their way throughout the Northeast and Midwest. We even have a few customers on the West Coast.”
Fish Farming 101
While fish farming might seem to be vastly different than other forms of agriculture, it integrates goals familiar to both livestock producers and row-crop farmers.
“We’re trying to increase our feed efficiencies while maximizing our production per acre,” Jon said. “That begins with our water. You have to watch your water and farm it the best that you can. If a pond vegetates too quickly, for example, your water chemistry can fluctuate, making it harder for the fish to spawn. When your water quality isn’t good, problems with disease and bacteria also can show up.”
For some species, such as channel catfish, grass carp and largemouth bass, eggs are collected and brought into the hatchery where the fry are allowed to grow before being released into ponds. Others, including the bluegill and redear sunfish, wild spawn directly in the ponds.
“For those fish, you’re really dependent on the water conditions, the condition of the brood stock and then the survival of the fry once the fish have spawned,” Jon explained. “If your pond is rich in zooplankton for the fry to feed on, you can get tremendous survival. But, if your pond has a lot of larger aquatic insects, they’ll feed on the small fry and reduce survival. So, you’re trying to balance all of these different factors.”
Much like a cattle producer works to improve herd genetics, a fish farmer also works to improve the piscine gene pool. Individuals that grow faster or larger by converting feed more efficiently, along with heartier fish that survive diseases and other stresses, are kept for brood stock. Jon credits longtime hatchery manager Tommy Pack with improving the farm’s production.
“I’m the detail-oriented guy micromanaging everything, but Tommy is more of a visionary,” he said. “He’s always experimenting with ways to do it better.”
Other parallels also can be drawn between fish farming and row cropping. Just as a field might be double-cropped with soybeans following winter wheat, a pond can also produce two fish crops in one year, Jon said.
“If our bass spawn early, we can grow them out and then follow with bluegill in those ponds,” he said, noting that a majority of the farm’s impoundments are five to 15 acres in size. “We won’t stock them as heavy, so they’ll grow out quicker. Then we can put that pond back into bass the next spring.”
Some species can be grown in the same pond simultaneously. Jon said bluegill and grass carp can be reared together, then separated using a seine net that captures the larger carp while allowing the bluegill to swim away.
Like row crops, weather poses challenges for fish production. Especially troublesome are thunderstorms and cloudy days that can limit the production of oxygen within the water, requiring the pond to be aerated with large paddlewheels to prevent fish kills. Predators also can wreak havoc, especially wading birds such as herons and egrets and diving birds such as pelicans and cormorants.
Future Fish Fancies
As Hopper Hatcheries enters a new era under singular ownership, the farm continues to expand its production capacity to meet the demands of current customers. The COVID-19 pandemic had a positive effect on the business, as pond owners stocked more fish for both food and recreation. Jon said that demand has been so strong that they haven’t been able to take on any new customers.
Earlier this year, the farm added new concrete holding vats to its hatchery facility, increasing its total number to 56. An addition to the feed shed is also underway.
Whereas technology and automation have reduced the number of employees many farms require, the same isn’t true for aquaculture.
“There’s no working remotely in the fish business,” Jon said. “It’s all about being out there with your feet in the mud. Labor is our biggest expense, followed by feed and electricity.”
After raising fish for more than four decades, Jon said he can’t imagine doing anything else. His father, who is now 81 years old, still comes to the farm every day to drive the feed truck. Jon admitted that even after raising fish for more than 40 years himself, he looks forward to coming to work on Monday mornings.
“We’ve been fortunate to build a business with loyal customers,” he said. “Our fish may be a little more expensive than some of our competitors, but our customers come back because they know they’re getting quality fish. Bargain fish aren’t a bargain if they don’t stay alive. Paying a few cents extra is worth it for quality.”