Okay…So we haven’t done a precise study, and this is based purely on observation. But observation, after all, is part of science. And the science so far on these very special fish is looking pretty astounding.
When we first decided to raise hand-painted bluegill, all that we could find on their growth rate was a decades-old article from a hatchery in another southern state that had briefly raised them twenty- or thirty-odd years ago, and had then decided to focus on coppernose instead. According to that article, hand-painteds had a growth rate comparable to coppernose. We talked with a biologist for the Florida Wildlife Commission before we made our first trip to the Apalachicola to procure brood stock, and said biologist said that they had encountered some 12″ hand-painteds when they electrofished the Apalachicola. The times that we were in the panhandle to fish for the hand-painteds, we saw a few hand-paints (as the locals there call them) in the pound-and-a-half to two-pound range mounted on the walls of bait shops or country stores. And that was the sum total of everything we knew about their growth rate.
Our first hatchery pond for hand-painteds was dug in summer 2014, and thanks to a leak that eventually required bentonite, didn’t get full until October. So in October 2014, twenty-three hand-painted bluegill, some of which we had been keeping in a PVC/plastic mesh cage in another pond and some we had been keeping in a concrete raceway, were stocked into that pond. A feeder was installed and filled with the high-octane premium food we sell, and remarkably, though they were wild fish, the hand-paints began eating pellets almost right away. I went to the panhandle again in April 2015 and caught twenty-nine more, all of which made it back to Tennessee in topping form and were immediately stocked into the new pond. Then we waited for them to spawn.
We didn’t see the first fry until the last week of May: tiny half-inch-long buggers, newly hatched. From then until mid-September there were at least four other discrete hatches, such that our 2/3-acre pond was crawling with our special bluegill in several size classes. We fed them from the time those first fry were seen, initially with a crumble, then with 1.5mm pellets, then with 2.5mm. By mid-summer they were so well-trained that every time I drove up to the pond dozens of small wakes would come racing toward my truck.
Any fish, when in a production pond at a fish hatchery, is exponentially more difficult to grow to advanced size than that same fish would be when stocked into a typical landowner’s pond, simply because it has exponentially more competition for food than it would in the latter scenario. Many hatcheries don’t sell bluegill larger than four inches simply because it takes them too much time and food to grow them to that size. Out of all the hatcheries in this region we have purchased coppernose from in years past for our customers, only one sells them larger than 4″. And it often takes feeding the fish obscene poundages of food just to get them to that size because there are so many fish in the pond that they’re entirely dependent on pellets for growth – the natural food chain in the pond gets obliterated.
Fertilization helps the food chain – and we were only able to fertilize once, in early spring, due to a combination of filamentous algae and excessive shallow water (hatchery ponds are shallow, and this one ended up being a little too shallow for much of its length). So these fish were entirely dependent on supplemental food, and we only fed them once a day, about two pounds a day at first, up to three by the end of the summer.
And yet they still grew. They grew so fast that it almost seemed we could see it day by day.
The most common size of coppernose for stocking in this region is what are commonly referred to as fingerlings, which are usually one to three inches long. If you buy fingerling coppernose from a hatchery in March or April, you can count on them being several months old at a minimum: bluegill are not a species that most hatcheries artificially spawn, and bluegill don’t spawn in wintertime, so those 1-3″ coppernose were hatched at best the previous September, and at worst the previous spring or earlier. If you buy coppernose in September or October and they’re 1-3″, most likely those fish are three to four months old, meaning they’ve taken that long to grow to that two inch size. And keep in mind, these are coppernose we’re talking about: coppernose grow faster than northern-strain bluegill; these are the cadillacs of bluegill for ponds in the South.
We may have found the Rolls Royce of bluegill.
How fast did those hand-paints grow? By the time we seined the pond in October, several fish from the first hatch were already six inches long.
I have seen coppernose that were stocked at 1-3″ make it to eight inches a year later; but those are fish that are already a few months old, at a minimum, when they’re stocked; so they’re making eight inches in a year and a half to two years. And that’s in a new pond where they’re stocked a thousand or fewer per acre, and where bass are stocked within a few months to control their numbers.
So we had hand-painteds in super-crowded conditions, in an unfertilized pond, fed a fraction as much as they would typically be fed per day at most hatcheries…
And they went from egg to six inches in five months.
Now those fish are swimming around in ponds in Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky, in far less crowded conditions. By the end of this year we’ll also have them in ponds in Arkansas, Alabama, and South Carolina, as well as several more ponds in Tennessee. It should be pretty interesting to see what some of these fish look like size-wise a year or two from now.