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Sitting Dockside Podcast 66: Fish Habitat Part 1 of 3

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Sitting Dockside Podcast - Episode 066- Fish Habitat
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Matt Rayl: Welcome to Sitting Dockside. We have a really great guest, Brian Graeb, all the way from South Dakota. He did the very first podcast, the most listened to podcast of Sitting Dockside. We’re having him back, he’s going to continue on expanding on the world of habitat, and what he has learned since he put a bunch of habitat out there. And he is one of the leading experts in the country on this particular subject. So, stay tuned.

Matt Rayl: Well, we’re your host, Matt Rayl, my Tennessee buddy, Troy Goldsby.

Troy Goldsby: Together, we had been working with lakes and ponds for over 40 years. And during that time, we’ve picked up on a ton of tips and tricks from Lake owners and experts from all over the country.

Matt Rayl: So if you want to learn how to get some smiles from your kids or grandkids on your lake…

Troy Goldsby: …or learn how to grow some memories on your pond, then come sit with us on Sitting Dockside.

Matt Rayl: Welcome to another Sitting Dockside, we got a cool guest with us. Actually, I was glad to have his return because, Troy, I don’t know if you knew this, but the most listened to podcast on Sitting Dockside was with Dr. Brian Graeb, South Dakota State. Now, he’s branched out on his own.

So all that being said, we did a podcast on Habitat. And Brian, I mean, I’m not going to steal your thunder here, but I’m going to give a little bit of preface is that you pretty much tag, put radio telemetry on largemouth, and kind of give the elevator speech from here about what that podcast is about. And then we’re going to branch on that. No pun intended, on some more cool stuff that you’ve been doing.

Dr. Brian Graeb: Yeah, that was… the first podcast really got into the depths of I’d say the science and the design of that whole project, summarized five years of our work. And I say ours, there’s a couple of grad students, a PhD and a master’s student that led the charge. So we, we had a lake, we hadPIT tags, telemetry tags, four years of continuous food habits study, prey fish data, predator data, aging data, and pretty much anything you can measure in that lake, we’re measuring it.

And then in the middle of it, we did a massive treatment. We enhanced the habitat where we thought it was based on some other science, and then we measured the response of the population and had pretty surprisingly successful results. You never know what to expect in science.

But yeah, the results kind of supported what we were thinking and pointed us in the directions on how it was working, how habitat actually works and enhances the lake we worked with, took those results and talk to others folks that are doing similar work and kind of a growing body of science now in the field about how to fix lakes and fix habitat, and took those notions and have spun them off into our own fisheries management company.

I’ve left the research world of academia for the real world research of working for my own company, it’s fantastic. So we’ve come a come a long ways since then, but I was just, you know, talking about we’re down at that same property last week and building a brand new lake on, based on the same ideas that we kind of helped generate seven, eight years ago.

So it’s fun to see the scope, but we’ve used it to fix and build dozens if not, you know north of 100 lakes since then on the same kind of habitat principle, it’s… What I tell people is we’ve got to the point where we, our company and our philosophy in biology is we come in and we try to fix the habitat or enhance the habitat as the infrastructure within your lake, but then we can come in and build a fishery on top of it.

Matt Rayl: Just to give it a 30-second to a minute and a half spiel on that first podcast, Brian, you pretty much radio telemetry, meaning that you followed fish around every day and watched and where they went, and what they– where they were hunting, how much they would travel and et cetera. You did a lot of cool things including, adding, continuously adding habitat, and it did change a lot of behaviors. It did increase and have real favorable growth rates on the fish, and it was just a really neat study. Because you’ve followed these fish for two years, is that correct?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Four years.

Matt Rayl: Four years, pretty much.

Dr. Brian Graeb: We had almost two years of pre-habitat data. We did a big habitat enhancement and then another student followed up for another two years and followed them. So we had, we had some fish that span both periods. Those are the coolest stuff. Yeah, we had a lot of continuous data.

Matt Rayl: But they did the forage base change, the fish changed themselves. There was an incredible ton of positive data that came out of that. That is actually podcast number one.

Dr. Brian Graeb: It was a long time ago, Matt.

Matt Rayl: That was 66 to 68 podcasts ago. And…

Troy Goldsby: Well, I think, you know, it’s been over two years ago. And I think what our listeners need to understand is, we talk about habitat all the time. We talked about vegetation, we talked about artificial structure. What does the owner need to do to really enhance their habitat and make it what they want for their fishery?

I mean, I think that’s, you know, I think that’s what we’re here talking about, trying to figure out. I think we’ve got a pretty good idea, but relaying that to the client is sometimes a tough, is a big obstacle to overcome. So how do you all approach that?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Good question. Our standard approach, we try to keep it pretty simple. You look at, you could look at a map of your lake, and you can pull up your phone nowadays. And the easiest way is we just, we trace the outline of the shoreline, and figure out how many feet that is. For example, on a small two, three-acre lake. So you got 500 foot of shoreline, and we just say we want to enhance 20% of that.

So keeping it at the shoreline makes it easy, because we’re dealing with littoral zones, the shallow water. So you know, 500-acre lake, you’re going to need about 100 foot or plus or minus of shoreline enhancements. So on a two-acre lake that almost always comes out to about two to three of what we call fish cities. That’s why we standardize it fish city, it just makes it simpler.

So later on, we’re looking at– so if you got a two-acre lake, you probably going to need to modify and approve 100 foot of that shoreline. And you’re sitting at a shoreline section, you say, OK, how do I approve this one part? And maybe you’re going to do in two places across your lake. And then you look at that, and you say, well, I need to put in enough habitat here to affect that 25 foot, 50 foot, whatever it is. And you keep repeating that across the lake until you got up there.

But a simple one for us what the design of the fish city, we have a two-acre lake is going to need two to three fish cities to bring it up to that 20% mark. And we kind of feel, and it’s not just our studies, but some others work with vegetation and some of the other science that 20% is probably a pretty good target.

Once you’ve got up there, it means that that habitat is, you can kind of check that box and forget about it for a while. We’re always tweaking and adding in around the corners, but you probably effectively remove habitat as a limiting factor in your pond. And then you go work on other things: feeding, stocking, culling, whatever it may be, but you’ve eliminated habitat as something you need to fix.

Matt Rayl: I want to go into standardize what, your standardization of we call Fish City is a little bit better definition in a second. But with your philosophy, and what your understanding and with your data, and with your experience, would you say, I was going to say habitat is more important than feeding?

Dr. Brian Graeb: No. For me it is, but in general, it’s whatever you’re going for. That’s kind of a wishy-washy answer. So in the ground scheme…

Matt Rayl: I’m working on, I’m kind of just, I’m putting it, I know I’m kind of putting you a full court press here, but the…

Troy Goldsby: But how do you separate any of that? I don’t understand. I mean, the question is, is would you put one above the other? I don’t know that... In my opinion, I don’t know that you can separate any of that.

Matt Rayl: It’s just all encompassing, as getting you, moving the whole thing forward kind of like a big train. Is that what you mean?

Troy Goldsby: I think have it, I think in terms of, and for me, Brian, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, I mean, feeding secondary, so if you have the right habitat, then you’re going to have better reproduction, better recruitment. So, feeding falls second.

Dr. Brian Graeb: I would agree. Yeah. But the one over the– over the sciences, mushy at best. This is all, now, we’re getting into our SWAG. You guys, know what SWAG is, right?

Matt Rayl: Yup.

Dr. Brian Graeb: Scientific Wild Ass Guess.

Dr. Brian Graeb: Oh, I think it’s good. We can throw out some pretty good swag, and I would agree with you 100%. If you got a $10,000 budget, I’d spend $12,000 on habitat and then $4,000 on bluegill. But if you got enough, we oftentimes we’ll get going on habitat, we might not do it all at once. We might split it over a couple of seasons and add a feeding program and stocking bluegill and everything else. But if you make me pick one thing, I’m going to pick habitat every day of the week.

Matt Rayl: OK, and that what I was trying to get you to go is that, you know, with that conversation– with that question, is that your priority, and I’ve heard, we’ve had tons of conversations, isn’t– and I’ve heard you use a message of saying, “You got to build the house before you can start putting things in the house.”

And house is kind of like habitat, you kind of get to build and restore your waters to be capable to holding fish and growing fish. And habitat is one of those fundamental scenarios that you have to have in your lake and pond to be able to start putting your stocking regimen in, to also with feeders and et cetera. And I’ve, that’s where I was trying to have you.

Troy Goldsby: Well, and, you know, from my standpoint, I mean, what we always talk about, I think is a kind of a three-legged stool. You’ve got genetics, you’ve got forage, and you’ve got habitat. Those three things are the pillars of what you’re going to accomplish, I think, in a fishery.

And you can add to that you can do supplemental forage, you can do feeders, and you know, the proper type of fish food. But if you take one of those three legs out of genetics, forage, and habitat, then you’re limited in what you can do. And I mean, that’s the way I approach all of the lakes and ponds we work on.

Matt Rayl: Do you agree with that, Brian?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Maybe not all the stools. Genetics for us is, may or may not be as important, but we’re, depends on where I’m at in the spectrum. But I think, this, I like to stool idea because it illuminates. You can move, you can remove one leg from then stool and still sit, it gets wobbly.

And I think, a great way to think about is to flip that around and say we– and big public reservoirs, we did this work all the time that the reason we’re stocking walleyes or bass in big reservoirs is because the habitat’s not there to support some function. It’s either spawning early survival, or overwinter survival to get to recruitment.

If the fish aren’t recruiting naturally to where we got to stock them, often we, everybody’s focused on stocking the fish. But more often than not, it’s a habitat issue of some kind. So yeah, and that just kind of gets back to, you can remove a stool and I can still have poor habitat and need to stock fish, stock food and have feeders. But if I put that stool back in there, everything is going to work a lot better.

In fact, I might be able to cut back on stocking that we’ve seen this with bluegill. Once we’ve got habitat fixed, we’ve stocked bluegill a couple times. They get, they’re off to the races, and a lot of times, we don’t have to touch them too much anymore, as long as we’re keeping predators under control, you know, lots of ifs and/or buts. But that habitat, that’s probably one of the quickest things we see is if you fix habitat, bluegill will shoot up. So yeah, that’ll help.

Matt Rayl: Yup, it is. Basically, what I’m trying to land home is the value of fish habitat in a lake and pond. We’re starting to understand more to newer science. And a lot of times, we would just do X, Y, and Z. And we’re finding that habitat is one of those parameters that is very important and more important than we gave it credit for 10 or 12 years ago. And thanks for you know, from your research, we’re learning that from the ground up. So, I appreciate that.


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Please join us again for Part 2 coming soon.

"Sitting Dockside" is Real Talk about Ponds & Lakes with Pond and Lake Management Experts sharing their first-hand knowledge. Its purpose is to educate pond and lake owners and lake management professionals. Matt Rayl, the host, a pond and lake professional with over 20 years of experience in the industry. If you have a pond or lake this is great place to listen and learn dockside from pond and lake management experts.

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