Leader staff writer
Danny Pool cups his hands as he submerges them into the cool water that’s churning with thousands of small golden fish. Suddenly there are about a half-dozen fish wiggling in his hands. One or two escape, jumping back into the water, then a third and fourth.
Pool gently releases the remaining two back into a square concrete holding pond, just one of about 30 that fill a warehouse designed to acclimate the fish from pond to clean water, as well as their temperature, before shipping them around the country and to Canada.
The water temperature in the goldfish ponds is slowly adjusted so the fish don’t die from a sudden shift.
“Fish can go from warm water to cold, but not cold to hot,” Danny Pool explains.
Pool should know — his goldfish operation, Pool Fisheries at 1131 Brownsville Loop in Lonoke — is the world’s largest.
During their peak season, April through August, they ship as many as 3 million goldfish per week, and during that same time, they ship out about 1.5 million minnows. Annually, they sell about 150 million goldfish.
Mike Freeze, former Arkansas Game and Fish commissioner and Keo Farm owner, describes Pool as an innovator, who during his tenure as owner, has continued to develop and refine the fish farming process.
Pool says he loves the business. It’s allowed him to travel and pursue interests like scuba diving.
“He enjoys anything outdoor, and he’s never sitting around but is always working on a project. He’s a great guy,” Landon Pool says.
Surprisingly, he’s also involved in the country-music scene in Nashville, Tenn., Freeze adds.
Landon Pool says his dad is also generous and is always willing to step up and help when needed in the community.
“Danny is an all-round good person. He’s someone you can always count on,” Freeze says.
For instance, Lonoke Mayor Wayne McGee says he financially helped with the city’s baseball fields and paid for the track at Lonoke High School.
Pool doesn’t mention these things himself, and McGee describes him and the entire family “as good people.”
ORIGINS OF FISH FARMING
Fish farming has its roots in Lonoke County. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture interim chairwoman Rebecca Lochmann, Ph.D., says the people who started the now fisheries industry “were risk-takers and entrepreneurs.”
They probably started with drive, a bit of luck and the right conditions to make fish farming a lucrative endeavor.
Ruben Pool, founder of Pool Fisheries, was one such person.
During the Great Depression, Ruben Pool was involved in the construction of the state’s first fish hatcheries, and later he would purchase a 40-acre farm near Lonoke and help reinvent and modernize an industry.
He was one of the first in Lonoke to go into the fish farming industry, using chain-driven bucket pans that were designed for rice levees to build his fish ponds.
Before this, freshwater fishermen used a trotline, net or pole to catch fish and it was a laborious and slow process but pond fish were easy to grow and to catch with weighted nets called seines.
Pool Fisheries was officially started in 1959, and the family believes the land in the middle of Lonoke County — it’s soil, water, weather, PH and alkaline balance — is great for raising fish.
Back then, Ruben Pool was raising minnows and catfish but soon other farmers got into the biz and flooded the market. Ruben Pool and his son, Lon, decided to try goldfish and Israeli carp.
The two managed to capture about 25 percent of U.S. goldfish market in the early days, Landon Pool says.
That market share equaled about five million fish, but that was about to change.
In the 1950s and 1960s, goldfish were popular as carnival wins and with department stores like Sterling’s as pets, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the development of saltwater aquariums, that the goldfish market exploded.
Not as potential pets but as food for more exotic saltwater fish that weren’t interested in fish flakes. Not surprising that goldfish tanks were often marked as feeder fish.
Feeder fish make great food, and to illustrate that point, Pool says, “They’re slow, and they’ll will swim right into a snake’s mouth.”
It was during the pre-fish boom that Danny Pool’s grandfather, Ruben Pool, got into the business, so the family was well positioned to meet the increasing market demands.
Pool Fisheries grew from the original 40 acres to 1,800 acres today and the land is peppered with about 200 goldfish ponds, 75 ponds containing fancies (These are goldfish of various patterns with names like Sarasa, Shubunkins, red fantails and calicos), 47 are dedicated with rosy red minnows and about 10 ponds are full of koi.
Danny and his brother, Ronnie Pool, run the operation that’s located only a few a miles or so from Lonoke.
And yes, the family still owns the original farm, now referred to as Grandpa’s Farm, with a fourth generation now coming online, including Pool’s 29-year-old son Landon.
Although Landon Pool has a bachelor of business, with a major in finance, he wants to work in the business and is kicking around a few of his own ideas, such as expanding their lines of fancies and baitfish, as well as setting up internet retail.
CENTER OF THE FISH WORLD
Kick Start Lonoke organizer Ryan Biles describes the Lonoke area as the goldfish and bait-fish “capital of the world.”
And he’s right.
Kayla McCoy, who does fish research for UAPB in Lonoke County and describes herself as a fish-nerd, says, “We have several of the biggies. The world’s largest bait-fish farm, I.F. Anderson Farms Inc., is in Lonoke County, so is the largest hybrid striped-bass hatchery, Keo Farm, and J.M. Malone and Son Inc. are the largest Triploid Grass Carp producer.”
As well as Pool Fisheries, she adds.
According to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, which tracks farming industry numbers, “Arkansas is considered the “birthplace” of warm water aquaculture. It began with goldfish and morphed into production of more than 20 species of fish and crustaceans.
The Arkansas Agriculture Department says the state leads in production of bait-fish (live fish bought by anglers as bait for recreational and sport fishing), large-mouth bass for stocker fish, hybrid striped bass fry, and Chinese carp.
It ranks second in all aquaculture-producing states, and third in catfish production.
The state has about 85 aquaculture operations that were worth about $61 million in sales in 2013, according to the USDA latest information available.
Lochmann says in 2013, sportfish sales were about $7,301,000; baitfish sales were about $18,360,000; and catfish sales were about $28,582,000.
Although they ship all year, Danny and Landon Pool say they have a busy season, starting in the spring and ending in the fall. They employ around 60 full time and part time, including high school and college students through the busy season.
Landon has already worked for the business for nearly two decades, but he says there are employees who have been with the company for 25, 30 years.
McCoy says she impressive with Pool’s operation and that the family is always willing to help when her department asks for a favor.
McGee says Pool Fisheries is an important source of jobs and is a driver of the local economy. Kick Start Lonoke agrees, and Biles says it’s a strength the community can build upon.
Landon Pool says about his father, “He’s naturally smart, very business savvy.”
A FISH IN EVERY BOWL
Many people, Danny Pool says, have a goldfish or two in a bowl, but the Pool Fisheries has about three billion fish immediately after spawning. Not all are goldfish but include minnows, both considered feeder fish by sportsmen, and a variety of fancies, and koi that are especially popular in large aquariums and backyard ponds.
But says Danny Pool, it’s not just captive saltwater fish that enjoy one of their fish for dinner, and he adds, “They don’t call them feeder fish without good reason.”
He names off a long list of predators like turtles, tadpoles, frogs, crawfish, a variety of birds who help themselves to a free fish dinner at the farm’s expense.
“We’re feeding a lot of wildlife,” Danny Pool says.
Bacteria, even acid rain and global warming take its toll.
“Only one out of 10 survive,” Danny Pool says.
By the time the goldfish are ready to sell, the fish population numbers have been nibbled away to somewhere between a 100 million to a billion.
Still, Pool has cornered the market on goldfish, and their customers include Walmart, PetSmart, thousands of small pet stores, carnivals and more. Until Amazon came online, they were FedEx’s No. 1 customer.
Landon Pool, says, “Chances are if you’ve bought one or seen one in the last 50 years,” it came from Pool Fisheries.
Despite a lifetime in the business, Danny Pool is still intrigued by certain facts about goldfish, such as how the males have whiskers on the sides of their bodies and the females are smooth and how they only spawn after reaching a certain size — even if that means waiting for decades.
Their growth is determined by the size of their container or how crowded the pond conditions, and, he adds, “They can remain small for years but when moved to a larger container, they will start growing again. Somehow they know not to grow or they will deplete the oxygen and die.”
Goldfish can live for two-and-a-half decades, while Koi can live for 200 years.