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Sitting Dockside Podcast 66: Fish Habitat Part 3 of 3

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Sitting Dockside Podcast - Episode 066 - Fish Habitat
Brought to you by Private Water Natural Resources Association.

Listen to the Full Podcast. Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here.

Matt Rayl: But the, that all being said, and we’re going to go, you say put 100 of them out, you know. I want to kind of in the cast with your successes and what you’ve kind of seen now that you’ve put a couple of these out. But the, to dial in a little bit more on this fish city is, and so the listener can hear is you have… I didn’t hear, we want a one by three open spacing. We don’t want and we don’t– we want our lambs to be four feet. That’s what you didn’t hear, right?

You heard a lot of spacing on the outside and tighter spacing towards the middle, but weighed, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re providing habitat in these cities for every single size of fish available in the lake, right, from small to large? Yeah, and maybe some fry fish, and et cetera be excluded. But my point being is that that you’re creating a refuge for this every single fish. And that’s what has to be thought a lot of times with these habitat. Am I right?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Without question. Yup.

Matt Rayl: OK. And then, so coming from that, what… I’m going to put an image on the website and if I can put on the bottom of this podcast, I will do, and to the verbiage. Sometimes they’ll let me, sometimes they won’t. That is only if you hit, when you scroll down there to look at this image that you give us only five stars, then that image will pop up. Then, I’m being funny. But that all being said is the fish cities are… we were talking earlier, they’re around 50 feet by 50 feet normally, correct?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Somewhere there. It could be 75 by 50, 25, depends on the shoreline. But yeah, they’re a pretty big footprint.

Troy Goldsby: And with that being said, Brian, what is the depth range from the shallowest to the deepest portion of that fish city?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Twelve, 18 inches on the shallow side, I want right up next to the shoreline. In fact, I got to ask landowners, “Do you mind some habitat sticking out of the water?” And if they’re good with it, which a lot of them are, we’ll put brush in our trees, anything natural. And some of the MossBack limbs will stick out of the water. They’re that shallow. If they’ll let us get away with it, because I want that shallow water.

And then if I got the depth, the answer is it depends on what the depth is on the outside. But in our deep lakes, we’ll run, we’ll have habitat sticking out and… excuse me, you know, we’ll have 20-foot, 25-foot of water on that outside edge. Now, when we hit that, I usually will wait and I’ll run some wire up and float these up off the bottom. So yeah, it’s over 20. It’s just sitting 5 to 10 feet below the surface in 20 feet of water.

Troy Goldsby: And so that listeners understand, fish structure can be floated mid column if needed?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Yup.

Troy Goldsby: You weight on the bottom, you float them on the top, and you can, if you’ve got 30 feet of water, you can actually anchor them and float them where they’re in 15 or 10 or 8 feet of water, whatever you want to do. So, that’s pretty important that I think people tend to think that it has to be positioned on the bottom, and that’s not necessarily the case. You can anchor them, float them, and keep them mid column if you want to.

Dr. Brian Graeb: Absolutely. Yup, we float a lot of habitat.

Matt Rayl: You just do negative and positive buoyancy, float on top, weight on the bottom, and then they can hang up in that area. Do you see anything as far as fishermen, when they go across this habitat? What’s their experience when they go across the fish city?

Dr. Brian Graeb: I get, believe it or not, there’s still some clients that are a little skeptical. I had a guy in Kansas last year that he hit a sandpit, which is, that’s a cool lake, but just a desert and very steep sided. And we started off with 10 fish cities on a 30-acre lake. He needs more, but that was a good start.

And he put them in and he, they fished around them a little bit and they caught a few fish, but he wasn’t convinced. Until, and this was, put them in the spring, he fished the summer. And the fall, we’re out there, shad in a fall assessment, and we were on the electrofishing boat with him in the front. And this happens… you get the scene. You put ahead habitat, the fish go there.

So, we’re rolling along and almost, I’d say 95% of the bass. And any bass of any size came within either right in the middle of, or within about 5-foot of our fish city spot. And we’d shock, there’d be fish all over the place and nothing, nothing, nothing, and then start picking them up, and we’d be in the middle of another fish city.

So it takes a lot, it’s not hard, it’s not easy. We’re starting, we’re doing more and more we can, we’re at the lake we’re building in Texas now, anything offshore. I have a couple of things sticking out of the water, so the client knows exactly where it is. We started using goose decoys. If we build one, we’ll produce decoy kind of right on the edge of it, so the clients can go.

So, there’s a learning curve, and I probably haven’t done as good a job with the angling side of it as I should have. But it doesn’t take much between, you know, seeing yourself angling or hopping on the boat with us. But to know that habitat is working 24/7, 365, you put one in, it just, it changes that instantly. So yeah, and they’re good anglers, they, as soon as you do it, they know. And the good anglers, they just, they pretty much go from city to city when they’re fishing around these lakes now.

Matt Rayl: Yeah, and you program, you can plug that into their GPS and their Lowrance, and yeah.

Dr. Brian Graeb: We got to be careful. I tried to get, you know, the nonbiased representative of electrofishing samples. So we’ll take two or three transepts in the lake and get the average, and do it appropriately. But if you’re not watching yourself, you’re just, you’re cruising down the shoreline of nothing. Like, just kind of count the seconds down until you get around the corner and that fish city is there, and you know it’s full of fish. And so you make sure you still get a random sample a little bit.

Matt Rayl: Right.

Troy Goldsby: Yeah, our typical method now, so we don’t become biased is that we just stay on pedal all the time. I mean, just cruise and try to stay on the pedal as much as possible. You can ease up on structure all the time and hit that pedal and the fish popped up. But that’s, I don’t think that is a good sample of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Matt Rayl: Right. Now, you’ve put, you have literally hundreds of these fish cities in some lakes throughout the United States. Was there anything… well, what’s your generality of what you’ve seen? Then I’m going to ask you maybe the cool things you’ve seen, you know, like some really extreme coolness that you’ve seen off this habitat after design, and save that towards the last? But what is the general… when you, what is your expectation when you put this in there? And what is your– what you’re seeing with the science fulfilling that expectation?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Yeah, and this is… you know, to be honest, it’s hard. Because we’re, when we’re– we see a lot positive results, and it’s very consistent. Bluegill or bass growth, positive things are happening in the lake. But the caveat is, we’re also culling, we’re also managing vegetation, we’re stocking different genetics, we might start a feeding program. So we’re… it’s hard to parse this out, because we do this all at the same time.

And nobody wants… we got one client now that will let us science a little bit and say, “Well, let us fix the habitat,” but not changing these other things, so we can measure what happens. When we go and you guys, we got to get results, we got to go. So we just kind of accepted habitat as one of our management pillars, and one of our stools, and we just, we do it simultaneously, and everything.

So we, I would say we see positive result. We know the city, we know the fish we’re on, we know the work, and, but we have all these other things going on. So we can’t say it’s just because of habitat. So that being said, we do have a few clients that didn’t have big budgets, and the first thing they did was habitat and some culling. And those two things, that’s probably the simplest one we have. And we have good results with that. So, starts to improve, but it’s the two things working together.

Matt Rayl: You say define, you have good results. So I’m going to define and tap on that a little bit, which I think was interesting. And you saw, and you said it really fast, increase of bluegill.

Dr. Brian Graeb: Yeah. Bluegill abundance, almost consistently goes up. So, and this was one of the strongest signals from the early research, we were measuring bluegill, but we had no predictions. We just, one of the things we measured and we fix habitat. And the very next season, CPUE went up north of 400 bluegill per hour.

And I think we were just down there last week, we’ve never dipped down below that since then. And before habitat, we’re 100, 150, sometimes 200. It would bounce, not limited by any means, but lower. And it shot up, it doubled, and it stayed high throughout all those years. And that’s what droughts, floods, weeds coming and we’re going, but the bluegill have stayed up pretty good. So yeah, one of the things we tend to see a lot of is increased bluegill abundance.

Matt Rayl: So therefore, increase, you see the increase in health, overall health with large amounts, too? So with habitat, you’re seeing the abundance of forage, and then you see the predator increasing, too.

Dr. Brian Graeb: So, probably, yes. The number one factor, the number one variable metric is growth, and growth rates skyrocket. You know, you get lots of bluegill and growth going– lots of bluegill trim predators if they need to, and growth rates go up. That’s probably the most responsive, immediate thing that we see. Yeah.

Matt Rayl: Right. A lot of guys are going to ask you, and one of the– and I do need to ask a few questions about it is, is they post a lot of their habitat that they’ve kind of made in their backyard. And God bless, they’ve taken a lot of PVC together. One guy asked about what a Georgia– about a Georgia cube, which you’re familiar with, and they’re taking CPVC and tied that to skids, and then putting them in buckets.

Tony: What’s a Georgia cube?

Matt Rayl: Well…

Dr. Brian Graeb: You got it.

Matt Rayl: Yeah. A Georgia cube is basically a pallet wrapped up with black 4-inch corrugated pipe and kind of like tied. So, it’s 4-foot and it looks like a gigantic cube, you know. And then, because it’s a cheap way of making some habitat. You know, it is actually probably one of the leading posts of people, of guys asking and inquiring, and putting it out there. So I think there’s a lot of interest in it. You don’t have any objection of somebody doing that, do you?

Dr. Brian Graeb: No, no, no. In fact, I’m with you. I kind of got lost in the weeds in the habitat world, until I went to a conference in Portland, Oregon, AFS Conference, American Fisheries Society, and we were in a habitat symposium. And I had a colleague that was in South Dakota and he just got a job with the Fish and Wildlife Service out there fixing salmon habitat and rivers.

You know, endangered species, lots and lots of money, lots and lots and lots of science. And they’re designing, they were designing logjams at pens and rivers as habitat for juvenile steelhead and salmon. So this is cool, we’re doing the same thing, and so it’s fun to watch.

And Feds and Feds working on endangered species are super, incredibly detailed. So I expected to see, you need to have this size log and this shape, and this fashion. And you need to have 20 cedars and three elms, and that kind of… And the very cool thing to take home from that was really doesn’t matter what all the specifics are. All you need is diversity. That’s the most important thing when it came to building these giant logjam.

So that finally hit home with me. Like, we’re worrying too much about artificial versus natural versus PVC versus Georgia cube. It’s, what I tell people, almost all of it is good. I don’t like tires, but they still kind of work. I just don’t like them, so it’s kind of a value judgment. But most of stuff is good. It works. It’ll protect fish. Just get some high density, low density.

And the most important thing you can do is diverse. That’s how we put what sticks and trees, and boulders out. The more diversity you have in a fish city, the better off they are. So I’m all about it. I think it’s great. I haven’t, I’ve seen very few pieces of stuff like that I didn’t like. I think some definitely worked better than others, and the more density you have, the better off it is. But in general, I love all the homemade stuff.

Matt Rayl: Great. What are some really cool factors that you maybe you shopped off of some habitat? Or what if you had– what are some real interesting stories you’ve learned or did or while installing them, you know, and with your experience?

Dr. Brian Graeb: I kind of think wild stories. It’s as you pre-set me up for that and I just, I think the wildest part for me, and it’s not a surprise anymore, is how consistent it is. And we’re… it was, last week, Wednesday, four or five days ago, six days ago, we were down electrofishing the same exact lake in Texas where we did all this research. Some of the original fish cities we put out 2013, nine years ago, and we’re– you’re shocking.

And I guess it’s astounding that there’s a lot of vegetation and other things. We can catch fish in a lot of places, but we rolled that electrofishing boat over at fish city and we’re still getting the same results Wednesday as we were when we first started those nine years ago. That, I get it’s not a surprise anymore, but the consistency of it, how much they work, how simple it is, and how elegant it is, and it’s just, there’s not much to it if we don’t– as long as we don’t overthink it.

And, I don’t know. I guess, that’s probably not the answer you wanted, but the consistency of it is probably the most shocking thing. Because fisheries is like you and I talked about, it’s a very shallow science, we haven’t been around very long, and very narrow, we’re just, we’re kind of, there’s not many fishery scientist out there anymore. So we’re not advancing a lot.

So when we when we stumbled on a few of these things, so, meaning a lot of things we do in fisheries are not strongly supported, and they kind of get wishy washy. A lot of the research I’ve done is hard to replicate. It doesn’t always hold up through time, but the habitat stuff is, ooh boy, it’s just there. It’s consistent year after year, lake after lake, North Dakota, Minnesota down to Texas, Louisiana, very consistent patterns. How’s that?

Matt Rayl: Yeah, that’s nicely said. There’s not many things we do that we can expect the results over time and to have that consistency is really important. We get humbled a lot. That’s for sure. And is there something, Brian, that you would want to say that I didn’t get to talk to you about? I mean to our listeners, is… I mean, is there something that we, you want to express to our listeners that we didn’t dive into enough?

Dr. Brian Graeb: Yeah, I think the… probably, I kind of see the Facebook forums a little bit that I don’t pipe in a lot, because I don’t want to stir the pot. I’m just kind of let things go. I should more often, but I think just don’t take ourselves too seriously.

I’ve been with the other group of people, kind of at some of the forefront of habitat science for a while, and we still know crap. So it’s maybe go forth, try it all, let’s not take ourselves too… I’ll be the first to admit that there’s all kinds of holes in my studies and my science, and we have a lot to learn. So I can do this, I can replicate it, but I’m very… like very, probably one of my biggest messages is we still don’t know. So we still have a lot to learn.

So just like you and I’ve talked about a lot, the world is shades of grey. Even though this is the most consistent fisheries result I’ve had my entire career, it’s still grey. And something could come along tomorrow and totally flip it on its head. And that’s the beauty of science, but that’s the reality of where we’re at.

So if somebody’s listening to this, hopefully, for talking about in the forums, you know, support other ideas, even if they’re contrary to what I said, or some other scientists said. There’s a good… this is fisheries, there’s a good chance they’re– they could be right.

Matt Rayl: Yeah, I’ve taken the stance in the… I think we’ve talked about this before. Sometimes the best biologist is a confident, very confident, but humble biologist is one that you may want to work alongside, because there is a lot of things that we do not know.

And I’ve also used the analogy of there’s no absolutes in our industry, because there’s always an exception to where that something does well, even though it’s contrary to what we have taught and learned, and replicated. And also, I will never be an expert. Maybe my child, if he takes this job. He will not be an expert. Maybe my grandchild, because there’s so much to learn after that scenario.

But technologies come in, I think we’ve made a lot of headway in the last 10 or 15 years in this job that we do. And thanks to people, exactly like you, and it’s pretty cool to have you here, you know, the best of the best of the habitat world, sitting there and talking to our listeners. So I appreciate it, man.

Dr. Brian Graeb: Well, there’s a way smarter people than me in the habitat world. But, and thank you. That is kind of humbling, but I got to say, as a science– written and done a lot of science, the most exciting innovative research and innovation in the fisheries management applied world is happening in the private sector. No doubt about it.

I always say that we’re highly innovative, but kind of sloppy, because it’s hard to do rigorous science because we’re trying to pay bills at the same time. So it’s hard to separate out habitat from other things. But we’re going, we’re pushing, we’re coming up with ideas, and it’s churning, and grinding it out in this world, and that’s exciting. And I’m humbled to be part of that. That’s for sure.

Matt Rayl: Cool. Any closing you want to say to everybody?

Dr. Brian Graeb: I guess, you know, if you’re thinking about a habitat project, I’ve worked with lots of people directly and on the phone. You’re probably thinking too small and you’re probably spending way too much time thinking of the details of specific pieces of habitat. I don’t even look at it, I just start throwing stuff over the side of the boat and you know, skid steer, backhoe, whatever, just, I just know, I got to get a lot out there to make a difference. So just focus on getting enough of it out there. Don’t worry about the individual pieces and go bring it up.

Matt Rayl: That’s right. To conclude a little bit with our listeners, if you take two minutes to sign up for pwnra.org, two minutes is all it takes, yes or no questions, go to pwnra.org, become a member. You will also get a year of subscription of Smart Fish app for free. We’ll send you a promo code right behind that saying, “Thank you for signing up. You’re awesome.”

And you’ll get a promo code, there’ll be a little video how you can set up. And Smart Fish is incredible value of how to harvest, what to harvest, especially largemouth bass in your lake or pond. So, take a minute and become a member. And that’s it. I appreciate it, man. I think we hit everything we need to hit.

Dr. Brian Graeb: Well done. Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity.

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