The Irreplaceable Leonard Jirak
September 17, 2011
On September 16, Leonard Jirak of Hartford, Kansas, retired at the age of 61 from his job as the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism's fisheries biologist for the New Strawn district.
For years on end, accolades of appreciation regularly echoed around angling circles in eastern Kansas for the marvelous work that Jirak accomplished.
Clyde Holscher, a multi-species guide from Topeka, Kansas, who regularly fishes several waterways that Jirak managed, is one of scores of anglers who appreciated Jirak's work and trumpeted his many virtues. Holscher says that Jirak possessed a deft and perhaps magical touch for creating magnificent waterways for catfish, crappie, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, temperate bass and walleye. Some anglers called him "the enlightened one," and others have deemed him to be the Heartland's quintessential fisheries biologist.
From Holscher's perspective, Jirak worked for the anglers of eastern Kansas rather than the bureaucrats that issued him a paycheck. Holscher arrived at this conclusion several years ago after he had a long, enjoyable and informative conversation with one of Jirak's colleagues. During this discussion, it was revealed that Jirak would regularly get chastised by his superiors for his avant-garde notions and methods of fisheries management, and the problem was that Jirak's ideas and proposals were several years ahead of the times, but within a few years many of Jirak's proposals would become part-and-parcel of KDWPT's methods for managing various fisheries. Another of his fellow biologist praised Jirak's work ethic and incredible knowledge about the ways of eastern Kansas' waterways and its many denizens, hinting that Jirak was the maestro and had no peers. What's more, he relished being on the water and experimenting with different ways to improve his fisheries, and the incredible amount of hours that he spent on the water enhanced his intuitive insights and propelled him beyond the textbook and computer models that most fisheries biologists rely upon.
Even though Jirak is grateful for the compliments that Holscher and others express, he pooh-poohs them, saying that he couldn't do what he has done without the great assistance and insights of many other talented hands. Upon hearing this, Holscher said Jirak's magnanimity and humility is another reflection of his uniqueness. Other anglers have called Jirak self-deprecating, pragmatic, industrious and intuitive.
Holscher and others have observed that in the 1970s, the KDWPT was primarily manned by biologists who thought that Mother Nature did an adequate job of managing Kansas waterways and its denizens. It was the opinion of these biologists that anglers couldn't adversely affect Mother Nature's manifold abilities. Therefore, stringent regulations were considered to be unnecessary. These old-school fisheries folks maintained that messing with Mother Nature or trying to give her a helping hand was sociology rather than biology, and they scoffed at the notion that it was necessary for a fisheries biologist to do the creative and hard work that Jirak put forth during his tenure with the KDWPT.
Jirak says that he became inculcated with the virtues of hard work and challenging Mother Nature by growing up as one of 12 children on a farm near Tampa in central Kansas. Ultimately he left the hardscrabble farm life and graduated from Emporia State University with a bachelor's in biology in1972 and spent a year and a half doing postgraduate work in fish and wildlife biology at Emporia. In 1973, he was hired as a district fisheries biologist in northwestern Kansas at Webster, and when that position was eliminated during the tough financial times of the mid-1970s, Jirak became the biologist for the lakes in the New Strawn district in 1976, which consisted of two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Reservoirs, a large power-plant reservoir, two state lakes, five rearing ponds, 12 community lakes and six educational ponds for children, as well as numerous private lakes.
In addition to his love of fisheries biology, he is a devoted hunter, trapper and angler. He is married to a school teacher, and they have raised four children. One son is a former guide and bush pilot in Alaska, who now works on the North Slope as an operator for BP, and in 2008 this son guided his father on a brown bear hunt where he shot a handsome 10-foot specimen. Another son is a wetlands biologist, who lives Grand Island, Nebraska and works as a wetlands biologist for the United States Natural Resources Conservation Service NRCS and is restoring wetlands in the Rain Water basin along the Platt River. One daughter works for Rotary International in Council Bluff, Iowa, and another daughter is a graphic designer in Olathe, Kansas. He is also the proprietor of three companies: LJ Fur Company, Conservation Seeds and Trophy Fisheries.
Through his Trophy Fisheries business, Jirak presented a paper on July 12, 2008, at the Pond Boss Annual Conference and Expo at Arlington, Texas, entitled "Feed Huge Fish: Great Expectations and Consequences," and he has advised and assisted many folks, including Ray Scott of B.A.S.S. fame, on how to build, rehabilitate, stock, feed and manage small lakes. With his customary humility, Jirak credits much of what he has learned about his Trophy Fisheries business to Theop Inslee of Connerville, Oklahoma. Furthermore, Jirak says that Inslee and his Trophy Fisheries experiences have shown him that farming and fisheries management are amazingly similar occupations; in other words, Jirak often raises fish like his father used to raise wheat and livestock.
Straightaway upon acquiring the management chores of the New Strawn district in 1976, Jirak rehabilitated Woodson State Fishing Lake, a 180-acre lake that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. But to Jirak's dismay, anglers quickly decimated the burgeoning fish populations — especially the channel catfish. Thus, he began to ponder about ways that he could improve small public waterways like Woodson, and he decided to create a program that would generate more interest in angling for catfish by producing larger channel catfish and higher catch rates. And in 1977, he began implementing the first steps of his plan by hand feeding the channel catfish at Woodson. But once the KDWPT's hierarchy got wind that Jirak was feeding the channel catfish, they asked him to refrain from doing it.
After Jirak's superiors spurning his feeding scheme, Jirak began turning his attention to the management of various community reservoirs within his bailiwick, where he used his captivating oratory skills to convince the city and county administrators and citizenry to implement feeding programs and stringent creel regulations, such as a 15-inch length limit and two-catfish-per-day creel limit.
Initially he persuaded the folks in Gridley, Kansas, and Garnett, Kansas, to charge anglers a fee to fish their city lakes and institute a strict creel limit. The fees purchased the food and mechanical feeders for the channel catfish. Jirak's scheme quickly paid some grand piscatorial dividends, resulting in anglers catching more channel catfish than ever before and the average size the catfish jumped from a pound to three pounds. In short order, all of Jirak's community lakes implemented his plan.
Even though the research section of the KDWPT opposed Jirak's supplemental feeding program when he started it and continues to not support it, many members of the KDWPT field staff and administration eventually saw the virtues of Jirak's ways. Thus, the administration allowed him to implement his system at Woodson State Fishing Lake and Osage State Fishing Lake. Likewise, a number of KDWPT fisheries biologists have followed suit, making it a state-wide project.
By the turn of the century, Jirak's channel catfish stocking, feeding and management system was immensely successful at all of the state and community lakes that were in his domain. Even though his focus had never been on raising a state-record-sized channel catfish, he suspects that a state-record specimen, which must weigh more than 36.5 pounds, inhabits one of his lakes. So far, anglers have caught six 30-pound channel catfish -- a 30.5-pounder was the biggest. Jirak estimated that more than a hundred in the 20- to 25-pound range have been caught at the state and community lakes that he managed.
In 2000, he designed a new feeder. The original feeders were converted deer feeders, which were designed for handling corn rather than fish pellets. Because they weren't waterproof, the fish food often became wet and moldy, causing an array of mechanical woes. What's more, the old machines held only 250 pounds of food while the new ones held either 850 pounds of sinking food or 600 pounds of floating food.
Jirak's feed formula consisted of two-thirds floating pellets and one-third sinking pellets, and he employed large pellets, because at one fell swoop the fish could consume more food and expend less energy while consuming it. The floating pellets contain 32% crude protein, 4% crude fat, 7% crude fiber, 0.7% phosphorus, and 12% moisture.
Jirak's feeding system began every year in mid-April and ran into mid-October, and it was geared to allow every channel catfish to consume at least four pounds of feed for 180 days. Theoretically when Jirak stocked a two-year old channel catfish and fed it, it could weigh 12 pounds in seven years, but a few might weigh only six pounds and some of the most aggressive ones made it to the 20-pound mark. At some waterways a few extremely aggressive channel catfish even grew faster; for instance, at the eight-acre city lake of Overbrook, and angler caught a 29-pound specimen just 10 years after the lake was built. Moreover, Jirak's feeding program beefed up the size of the wipers. It also improved the size of the bluegill, which helped the natural food supply for all the species in the lakes.
As the channel catfish populations in Jirak's community and state lakes became robust, the number of anglers who plied these waters increased dramatically. A creel survey in 2005 at Osage County Fishing Lake revealed that the number of anglers increased nearly 40 percent above the historical average.
In 2008, however, the escalating cost of gasoline and grain provoked the KWDPT to reduce its feeding program at the state lakes, but Jirak worked his magical and charismatic ways to enlist the help of other entities to keep the channel catfish feeders at his other waterways cranking out food and the channel catfish growing.
Jirak's work with the channel catfish populations in eastern Kansas was just one facet of his many successes as a fisheries biologist. His work with blue catfish, smallmouth bass, wipers and walleye, as well as his efforts on controlling rough fish, has paralleled the stellar successes of his channel catfish endeavors.
Besides improving the fishing in eastern Kansas, Jirak played a critical role in changing how creel limits are administered at various waterways across the entire state. Nowadays biologists are allowed to develop creel limits that best fit individual waterways and the anglers who fish them.
It has been no secret that for the past several years Jirak's unorthodox ways created a significant strain between him and his some of his superiors within the bureaucracy. Even though Jirak enjoyed every day that he was on the water, trying to checkmate Mother Nature's unpleasant eruptions and creating fine fisheries at lakes that many old-time biologists thought were impossible to improve, he decided to accept an early retirement package. For the rest of his days, he will hunt, trap, fish, enjoy his family and be the proprietor of the LJ Fur Company, Conservation Seeds and Trophy Fisheries. And just before he retired, he received a $25,000 grant from Coffey County and Jones Trust to rehabilitate the city lake at Gridley, Kansas, and he will oversee that project until it is completed in 2012.
Across his 38-year tenure, Holscher says, Jirak has made a difference in the way we fish, and of course, thoughts about Jirak's retirement haunt Holscher and oodles of anglers who fear that he is irreplaceable.
Praise from a colleague:
Craig M. Johnson, a fisheries biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism for the El Dorado district wrote the following e-mail description of Jirak's talents:
"I met Leonard nearly 20 years ago while I was still attending college and just beginning to work for KDWPT. Leonard was always a very motivated and driven individual who had the Kansas angler's best interest in mind, and to his last day, he was the most driven employee I have ever known in Kansas fisheries. He worked with KDWPT for 38 years, and his knowledge was quite extensive. He knew what worked, what didn't work, and he wasn't afraid to try something new in order to create high densities of sport fish in the state fishing lakes, federal reservoirs, community reservoirs and kids' fishing ponds that he managed. He was always willing to help his colleagues, and he was the first one to show up for the day's task and the last one to leave, leaving only when the job was done. He loved field work and always got excited seeing quality fish populations. Some folks may have found him gruff at first (as did I), but once you became familiar with him, you understood he was doing what was needed to be done to get the job done effectively and efficiently. Sometimes there wasn't a lot of time to nicely explain what needed to be done to keep a bunch of spawning walleye from stressing out; so, he bluntly and quickly said what needed to be accomplished and who needed to do it. Leonard always got the job done with the best results for the fish and the angler. Leonard was a great mentor to younger biologists, taking time to discuss projects and ideas and give advice based on his years of experience. One would be hard pressed to find a biologist anywhere as dedicated as Leonard. His love for the job was always apparent, and in fact, once while we were on the water on a grueling 105-degree day, I heard him say: 'Sure beats working for a living!' Leonard never thought of his work as a job. He regularly said that he was lucky to be a fisheries biologist, and he often proclaimed that there is nothing better than spending the day on the water, sampling fish, and improving the fishing."
Seven of Jirak's favorite memories:
1. Back in the 1980s, I found out that wipers could be trained to eat pellets. So I began stocking pellet-trained wipers in most of my small lakes. They reached weights up to 14 pounds in several small lakes. They gave anglers a great sport fish to pursue, and these brutes also helped control the gizzard shad populartions in these small impoundments.
2. I relished working with the Kansas Walleye Association and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' staff at Melvern Lake to create the walleye rearing pond, where we reared thousands of six- to eight-inch walleye every year to stock in Melvern. And we created a similar rearing pond at John Redmond Reservoir, which allowed us to stock six- to eight-inch walleye in many of the smaller reservoirs in the New Strawn district.
3. I enjoyed playing a hand in the opening and developing of the Coffey County Lake at Wolf Creek Generating Station near Burlington, Kansas.
4. I have fond memories of developing and working around the youth fishing ponds at Garnett, Yates Center, Lebo, Osage City, Overbrook, and Eisenhower State Park. And the one at Yates Center produced a catch of 2,960 pounds of fish by 160 kids in 2 hours several years ago.
5. I had a great time constructing the city lake at Overbrook, and I had an equally delightful time renovating the lakes at Lebo, Yate Center, Gridley, Woodson and New Strawn. (It is interesting to note that he worked his magic at Overbrook to the ultimate. Thus, by the time he retired, its eight acres of surface water had as many pounds of fish inhabiting as an 80-acre lake normally has.)
6. I will always have fond memories about the success of our plan to use commercial fishermen to remove rough fish from Melvern Lake, where they removed 750,000 rough fish, and eventually it was implemented at other reservoirs across the state, and it has extracted several millions of rough fish since 1994.
7. One other project that will carry on is the artificial paddlefish population and snagging area at Burlington Dam that now produces good numbers of paddlefish, yielding up to 300 per year. By stocking paddlefish in Redmond they grow there and drift downstream and stack up below the Burlington dam where they can be caught. This was an idea set in motion by Robert Boles one of my inspirational college biology professors. Luckily I had the opportunity to develop it, and it has worked.
One of Jirak's proposals that the KDPWT bureaucracy failed to implement:
Proposal for a Trophy Channel Cat Fishery
Woodson State Fishing Lake
During the past 20 years the channel cat fishing has greatly improved in many of the smaller lakes in Kansas due to restrictive harvest regulations and supplemental feeding programs.. Creel census indicates that the quality of catfish harvested on the more intensively fed lakes improves dramatically. Sampling also shows more large fish. In the 2003-2004 sample Yates Center Reservoir had 12 percent of the fish in the memorable or larger size and Woodson State lake had 11 percent in that group.
Personal interviews with angler indicates that many of them go only after the large fish and they would like to catch more of them. Many of those anglers also release the trophy size fish ( 15 pounds and greater). There is a need to provide a sustainable population of these trophy size channel catfish for anglers. This will increase angler interest and participation.
Some research into the trophy channel cat fishery located on the Red River in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba show worldwide interest in that fishery. It also supports a sizeable guide service specifically for those trophy size catfish. In interviewing the North Dakota fishery biologist( Lynn Schulter) on the fishery it appears that under an intensive feeding program that our channel catfish can grow twice as fast as the ones in the Red River. The Red River fishery is supported by two states and one Canadian Province. The system has approximately 700 miles of river and a 6.5 million acre lake with limited access. The fishery is regulated by have low creel limits (5 catfish in possession) and a maximum length limit of 24 inches with only one fish over 24 inches.
Sampling and creel census shows that the trophy size channel cat can be produced in small Kansas lakes but the population of large fish is held down by angler mortality. Most of the larger fish are taken at night and are missed on the creel censuses. More specific regulations are needed to maintain a higher density of trophy size channel catfish in small Kansas lakes.
Begin with a project to increase the standing crop of trophy size channel catfish at Woodson State Fishing Lake. Woodson State Fishing lake is a 180 acre clear water lake located in Southeast Kansas in Woodson county. It has a fish barrier on the outlet. It has 7 automatic fish feeders at present and is fed 200 pounds per acre per year. It was rehabilitated in 1992 and has been popular for the production of large catfish since 1995.
1.Maintain a 2 fish per day channel catfish creel with a minimum length limit of 15 inches.
2.Implement a protected slot length limit of 28 to 36 inches. This will protect fish from about 9 to 25 pounds, depending on body condition.
3.Implement a daily creel limit of one channel catfish per day over 36 inches.
4.Begin program January 1, 2005.
5. Provide a public meeting in November at Toronto City Hall to get public input.
6. Implement a 5 creel census and include night time surveys.
7. Improve feeding program to include more large size feed and increased amounts. ( 300 pounds per acre)
1. Develop a channel catfish population with 20 percent of the channel catfish with an RSD M+ .
2. Develop a channel catfish population with 5 percent of the channel catfish with and RSD T+.
1. There will be an increase in the number of memorable size channel catfish caught and released.
2. There will be an increase in the number of trophy size channel cat caught at Woodson State Lake.