While boating and angling are a big part of the outdoor heritage in Oklahoma, few Oklahomans realize just how much diversity can be found in Oklahoma's 78,500 miles of rivers and streams.
"In Oklahoma we have about 175 different species of fish," said Brandon Brown, streams technician for the Wildlife Department. Brown said the Oklahoma portion of the Illinois River has 80 species alone. That's more native species than some entire states.”
Recently the Wildlife Department has shifted the focus of its streams program from stream bank restoration, such as that performed at Lost Creek on the Lower Mountain Fork River, to more of a biological focus to help justify the need for setting in-stream flows. The state's most recent "Oklahoma Water Plan" acknowledges the need to set stream flows for aquatic resource conservation, and Brown along with other fisheries personnel have been collecting data to help establish those flow standards.
"Oklahoma has a lot of different kinds of fish," Brown said. "But if we ask the average person that lives in Oklahoma to name as many species as they can, they will struggle to come up with 15 to maybe as many as 20 or 25 species. That means that roughly 85 percent of our fish are totally unknown to the average person. The problem with that is that if people don't know they exist, they don't value them."
Brown pointed to the central stoneroller as a prime example of an unknown but very important native fish. Stonerollers feed and graze on algae, scraping it from rocks in the streambed. While the central stoneroller is common and widespread across the country and in Ozark streams, many people don't know that their presence is critical to the health of the environment. Without them, a stretch of stream can become coated with algae within days, leading to poor water quality, lower nitrogen fixation and even the alteration of habitat to the point that other specie cannot use it.
With as many as 30,000 visitors to the Illinois River on a busy weekend and large numbers visiting other rivers and streams throughout eastern Oklahoma, Brown emphasizes the need to educate the public on the importance of native fish and is working to "change the way people look at streams" through his outreach efforts.
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Wildlife Department is working to establish baseline biological data, build relationships with landowners, and identify correlations between water flow and successful reproduction of native fish, such as smallmouth bass.
Log on to the streams page of the Department's website at wildlifedepartment.com to learn more about streams in Oklahoma and to view Brandon Brown's stunning underwater photos and video footage of native fish.