Ripples of Conservation

Grant Reiner

I grew up fishing and give credit to my grandfathers and father for my ever-growing love and fascination with everything beneath those rippling blue reflections. My unexpected passion for conservation was fueled by backseat nodaway and early morning car rides to murky reservoirs. Bundled up in cheap lawn chairs, my coffee addiction unknowingly started with those first few “can I try that” sips of overly bitter, burnt, black Folgers coffee that had an ever-subtle hint of tin. The warmth of the rising sun brought with it the anticipation of tight lines, big fish, daily bag limits and full bellies. 

A photo of myself when I was in middle school holding up a small bluegill that I was so proud of.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that those early morning core memories were due in part to the work of fish hatcheries– the folks behind the scenes: biologists and technicians who love fish just as much and potentially more than I do. Individuals who have dedicated their careers to healthy fisheries inadvertently sparking fond memories, freezing moments in time, and creating passion in those nodaway backseat passengers. 

My grandfather on my father’s side was a butcher who taught me how to filet the fish we caught. I can recall the first time–it was in our garage when we lived in Kansas after returning from an early morning of fishing and catching a few decent channel catfish. He took his time teaching my brother and me as he effortlessly removed the filets, then the skin and belly meat. The care in which he took to clean the fish has stayed with me. This was one of the defining moments in my life that led to my compassion and respect for wildlife and fish.

My brother Nolan and me during a deep sea fishing outing off of the coast of Ireland back in 2018. We are holding up the pollock we caught at the same time.

End of an Invasion

It was late July 2022, PBT producer Dakota Altman and I were heading west from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Scottsbluff. On our way, we stopped along the south side of Kingsley Dam, a large hydraulic, earthen dam on the North Platte River that created Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala. Kingsley Dam began construction in 1936 and was completed in 1941. The dam was created by moving 26 million cubic yards of dirt and in that process, Lake Ogallala was also created. Kingsley Dam provides power and water for irrigation across central Nebraska. Lake McConaughy is on the west side, upstream of Kingsley Dam, and Lake Ogallala is on the east side, downstream of Kingsley Dam. 

Photograph of the Kingsley Dam construction, dated December 21, 1937. Photo courtesy of History Nebraska.

It was a bright blue sunny day, and it was busy on the water. Wake boats, pontoons and fishing boats dotted Lake McConaughy as far as the eye could see. Campers lined the sandy beaches, gulls called to each other as they circled above, and the smell of sunscreen was in the air. 

Looking east, the Lake Ogallala timelape camera has been taking images since 2012. Left to right: August 2022, September 2022, and October 2022.

Dakota and I needed aerial footage of people recreating on Lake McConaughy for an upcoming story we were producing. Dakota launched the drone, and I was the lookout as he flew over Kingsley Dam. Lake Ogallala was a watercolor painting of turquoise and navy due to the rooster tail. The arc of the rooster tail’ is like a fountain that shoots oxygen-deprived water from the base of Lake McConaughy, spraying water into Lake Ogallala aerating the water for trout. It was as if we were on the coast looking down on a river delta entering the ocean. We noticed large schools of fish swimming in the shallows. As the drone approached the surface of the water, the painting’s daunting intruders revealed themselves: carp. 

Kingsley Dam separates Lake Ogallala (bottom of the frame) from Lake McConaughy (top of frame). The cold unoxygenated water spills out of the rooster tail from the depths of Lake McConaughy, aerating the water and mixing with the warmer water of Lake Ogallala. Image taken in July 2022. Photo by Dakota Altman.

There are a variety of different species of carp found around the world but there are no carp species native to North America. Common carp, grass carp, silver carp and bighead carp were all introduced–some as game fish and others to naturally assist in the cleaning of toxic algal blooms in water treatment plants.  Although the water treatment plants benefited from the efficient filter feeders, torrential flooding of rivers and streams swept carp out of their secluded holdings and into North American waterways, destroying native ecosystems. 

Carp reproduce quickly, out-compete native filter feeders and bottom feeders, and increase the turbidity, or the murkiness, of Nebraska waters. Higher turbidity makes it more difficult for sunlight to reach plants that rely on clear waters, destroying the potential for habitat that native fish rely on. There are some anglers who thoroughly enjoy carp as sport fish, however, to most, they are considered trash fish because they are full of bones and difficult to eat.

Video looking straight down into the shallows of Lake Ogallala. Thousands of carp can be seen muddying the water and moving in large schools. Video by Dakota Altman. 

Disappointed to see thousands of carp devastating Lake Ogallala, Dakota and I captured photos and video of what we needed and continued onward. Unknowingly, we had witnessed Lake Ogallala at its worst but would later witness what it takes to bring the invaded fishery back to life. 

Rotenone to the Rescue

In early October 2023, I took a few days off to visit some friends in Scottsbluff to hunt and fish. It was an unusually hot first week of October. I was successful in my hunt and decided I wanted to fly fish in some stocked streams just outside of town. The water was crystal clear, the trout were biting, and I filled my daily bag limit in no time. Having the opportunity to complete a successful deer hunt and catch my limit of trout in the same weekend is all an avid outdoorsman could ask for. 

After Lake Ogallala had been drained for the renovation to get rid of all the carp. These shallow depressions were only accessible by airboats. Photo by Grant Reiner.

 After my weekend off, I had a short drive to Ogallala from Scottsbluff to meet up with Ethan Freese, another PBT producer. As I pulled into the parking area by the south boat ramp on Lake Ogallala, I was met by a convoy of Nebraska Game and Parks trucks, boats, and lots of barrels marked “poison.” Ethan was already there with a camera slung across his shoulder. Nebraska Game and Parks was removing carp from Lake Ogallala and we were fortunate enough to be invited to document the process. 

Marcus Miller and Chase Hartwig load into the boat to start pumping powdered rotenone into Lake Ogallala. Photo by Grant Reiner.

Lake Ogallala was the lowest I had ever seen. The lake was drained purposefully to ensure no carp could escape the lake. The rooster tail was plugged and sandbars usually hidden by the water created shallow channels. Several motor boats and one airboat lined the shore. Barrels of rotenone were ready to be loaded onto the boats, and the Nebraska fisheries team was ready to go.

Rotenone is a naturally occurring chemical derived from plant roots found in Central and South America. It has been used by Native Central and South American cultures to catch fish for generations and is produced in both powder and liquid form. Rotenone is used in lake renovations because of its lethality to fish. When in contact with the gills of fish, it inhibits the fish’s ability to utilize oxygen during cellular respiration, causing all animals with gills to die. 

Powdered rotenone barrels being pumped by Chase Hartwig during the renovation process. Photo by Grant Reiner.

Nebraska Game and Parks fisheries biologists and technicians, Lake Ogallala State Recreation employees, and Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District employees all assisted with the Lake Ogallala restoration. Brad Eifert, the Director of the Southwest Fisheries Division, was the lead on the lake restoration. 

A still frame from the interview with Brad Eifert after the renovation of Lake Ogallala was completed. Video frame by Grant Reiner. 

“Typically, we only renovate systems when carp numbers or white sucker numbers or other rough fish numbers are really high. Our research and sampling efforts in here over the past several months have shown that white suckers and common carp make up 80-90% of the fish biomass in this water body right now. – Brad Eifert”

All was quiet until the heavy equipment started up. Barrels of powdered rotenone were loaded onto each boat, followed by two fisheries biologists and technicians dressed in all-white personal protective equipment (PPE) and gas masks. They all prepared for the slow process of pumping the rotenone powder into the deep parts of the lake while the airboat was loaded to access the shallow channels.  

An airboat releasing liquid rotenone into the shallow channels of Lake Ogallala. Photo by Grant Reiner. 

Marcus Miller and Chase Hartwig, two conservation technicians with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, welcomed me aboard their boat, dressed as if they were on the show Breaking Bad. A loader brought over the powdered rotenone, then they fired up the boat, and we left for their area of renovation. Chase was on powder-pumping duty while Marcus captained the boat. Moving slowly, a pump sucked the powdered rotenone out of their barrels into a water pump that mixed the powder with lake water, which then shot out of the back of the boat to be further mixed with the wake. Making intentional circles, each boat had a designated section to pump its barrels in.

Marcus Miller captaining the boat while Chase Hartwig pumps the powdered rotenone into the boat’s wake. Photo by Grant Reiner.

Left to right: Chase Hartwig with creases all over his face after removing the mask that protects him from the powdered rotenone. Rotenone being pumped out of their barrels into the white pvc pipe and into the wake of the boat. Marcus Miller captaining the boat. Photos by Grant Reiner.

Meanwhile, Ethan was on the airboat with Fisheries Biologist Zac Brashears. Gliding over the shallow channelized sections of Lake Ogallala, the airboat effortlessly hit hard-to-reach areas, pumping the liquid rotenone behind and spraying the last safe waters for anything with gills. 

Zac Brashears captaining the airboat in the shallows of Lake Ogallala, releasing the liquid rotenone behind. Photo by Ethan Freese. 

As the sun crept closer to the horizon, one by one the boats made their way to shore. The first day was done, and it became clear that the rotenone was working. It started with the small fish– small ripples across the entirety of the lake showed the dying fish in their last moments in Lake Ogallala. Once the larger fish began to surface, it was immediately apparent that carp had been ruling Lake Ogallala. 

The south boatramp on Lake Ogallala during the restoration, used as the basecamp for all the boats, rotenone barrels, and crew members. Photo by Ethan Freese. 

The Morning Glory

Experiencing the restoration of Lake Ogallala was eye opening but the favorite part of Ethan and my documentation of the restoration had to do with Kingsley Dam. We were fortunate to be allowed access underneath the morning glory, the large overflow hole in Lake McConaughy. Ethan and I were photographing dead carp by the rooster tail when we were approached by biologists with Nebraska Game and Parks. They had to go into the morning glory to make sure there were no carp taking refuge from the rotenone in the large concrete tunnel and asked if we wanted to go along. Ethan and I jumped on the opportunity. We loaded into the small flat bottom boat, and slowly made our way into the dark tunnel with only a glimmer of light at the end. As we approached the growing light, our attention was forced upwards to the large opening overhead. We were underneath the dam and below Lake McConaughy, it was a surreal experience. 

Nebraska Game and Parks biologists look up into the morning glory. Photo by Ethan Freese.

The Aftermath

The next morning, an orange sun rose, and thousands of carp lined the shoreline. Gulls flew overhead, swooping down to catch the floating fish, while the herons and eagles lined the opposite shore gorging themselves on the dead carp. Raccoon, coyote, and other scavenger tracks followed the muddy shoreline. They clearly enjoyed the free feast all night long. 

Sunrise of the second day of the restoration. Photo by Ethan Freese. 

The quiet morning was interrupted by the roar of boat engines.There were large piles of carp fighting for the spot closest to freshwater springs along the edges of Lake Ogallala in order to get away from the rotenone spreading throughout the water. Once the airboat found them, it was all over. Sprayed with rotenone, not even the fresh spring water could save them. After a day and a half all of the fish were dead, and the carp were out of the system. 

A collage of the dead fish that washed ashore during the restoration on Lake Ogallala. Left to right, top to bottom: Alewife, rainbow trout, walleye, white sucker, wiper, and perch. Photos by Grant Reiner.

Dead carp surrounded by liquid rotenone after being sprayed by the airboat. Photo by Ethan Freese.

Now comes the waiting game. Waiting for the sunlight to naturally break down the rotenone in the lake system, allowing fish reared in hatcheries to be unloaded into the newly renovated lake system. It takes several weeks for the rotenone to break down naturally. Rainbow trout, tiger trout, perch, walleye, and catfish are a few of the desirable fish species that will eventually be released into the Lake Ogallala system by Nebraska Game and Parks. Every year, fish hatcheries across the state raise trout from eggs, to fry, and into adults. Lake Ogallala was stocked with 25,000 rainbow trout in November and December 2023. The spring of 2024 will be a great time to get out and try to catch some quality trout. 

Two gulls dive down to pick up the floating dead fish as a boat pumps powdered rotenone into the lake behind them. Photo by Grant Reiner.

Same Lake, New Fish

To some, removing all fish from a lake can seem extreme but we often require using extreme measures in order to manage natural resources in the 21st century. Because Lake Ogallala is an open system, carp will continue to find their way back into the water, and all of these fisheries folks will get back together in 10-15 years to renovate Lake Ogallala again. 

Still frame from a video of the North Platte Fish Hatchery. The hatchery biologists and technicians were working on tagging freshwater mussels. Video frame by Grant Reiner.

Now that the carp are out of Lake Ogallala, the water will become clearer, and there will be a greater density of aquatic vegetation, more insect life, and in turn, more food and habitat for native and desired fish. The water quality will increase in time, and Lake Ogallala will provide for a diverse array of wildlife, both in the water and out. 

Images from the release of rainbow and tiger trout into Lake Ogalalla in December, 2023. These trout were released after the rotenone had broken down naturally by the sunlight. Left to right: rainbow trout shooting out of the pipe into Lake Ogallala, a tiger trout in the net about to be released into the lake, and the tank on the truck used to transport and release the trout into the lake. Photos by Ethan Freese.

I look back on my early childhood and realize that I had no idea what went into managing healthy fisheries. I don’t think my grandfathers or my father understood either. I am sure that goes for the majority of individuals that visit Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala. As an angler in Nebraska, I hope others are able to recognize the work that happens behind the scenes. The “fish that got away,” and the outrageous lies told between fishing buddies are thanks to fisheries folks. I am looking forward to fishing Lake Ogallala this spring.  

A man fly fishing in Lake Ogallala after the trout were released by Nebraska Game and Parks. Time to catch fish! Photo by Ethan Freese.

RELATED Stories

PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to hear about stories, projects, and other things we’ve been up to.

You have Successfully Subscribed!