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Dubuque County Conservation Board natural resource technician Nicholas Banwarth releases bluegills into the newly created fishing pond at Miller McGrath Wildlife Area, Sept. 30.

Nicholas Banwarth, Dubuque County Conservation Board natural resource technician, was a bit worried about the several pounds of bluegills he had in a cooler in the back of his truck.

“I was concerned about mortality coming up here, but I haven’t seen any floaters,” he said Wednesday.

Banwarth was releasing hundreds of the tiny fish at Dubuque County Conservation’s latest public fishing pond at the Miller McGrath Wildlife Area, between Epworth and Graf, Iowa. The bluegills were the first fish to be stocked in the pond, which is located just up the hill from the Miller McGrath Wildlife Area parking lot.

Construction began on the pond June 8 and only took a few weeks to complete, but the water in the pond had to fill naturally over the summer before stocking could occur.

The rate the pond filled was perhaps a bit slower due to dry summer conditions, and Banwarth added that the water should ideally rise another four feet.

“If we have a snowy winter, it might be full by next spring,” he said.

Banwarth brought the fish from the Fairport State Fish Hatchery near Muscatine, Iowa, and released them after scooping up dozens of fish in a net.

He said that he’d guess it’ll take three or four years until the bluegills grow to a decent enough size for a fisher to make a meal out of their catch. However, the several (wood) pallet fish habitats Dubuque County Conservation placed in the pond should help fish growth after predatory fish are placed in the pond later.

“They increase the holding capacity of the pond,” he said. “There’s better survival for the smaller fish.”

The pond, which covers about 1.5 acres, was mostly funded by an Iowa DNR Fish Habitat Program grant. The DNR puts several dollars from each fishing license sold in the state towards these fish habitat grants.

Dubuque County Conservation Board Director Brian Preston previously told the Telegraph Herald that the grant covered about 90% of pond construction costs, meaning the conservation board only spent $3,000 on the $30,000 project.

Going forward, Preston said the Miller McGrath Wildlife Area pond should be stocked with largemouth bass and catfish in late May or early June. He said he plans for a fishing dock, which is currently sitting off to the side of the Miller McGrath pond, to be installed this winter on top of the ice.

Over the next few years, additional species might be added. Having fish of various sizes, with some larger ones preying on smaller species, allows for population control in the pond.

The bluegill might even spawn yet this fall before the water freezes over, Preston said.

“In a new pond, the fish grow really fast,” he said. “There’s all kinds of food for them in there.”

Both Preston and Banwarth said they expect the fish population to expand in the same manner it did at the Ringneck Ridge Wildlife Area pond. Built in 2017, fishers have begun catching large fish there throughout the past summer.

Preston added that he hopes the Miller McGrath pond will eventually provide the same ice fishing opportunities that the Ringneck Ridge pond does.

Additionally, he hopes that the increased interest in activities like fishing that sprung up during the COVID-19 pandemic continue.

Preston said signs of a spike in outdoor recreation were first seen during turkey hunting season in April, and fishing license numbers “exceeded expectations” throughout the summer.

Preston said he’s heard of people who haven’t been fishing for 15 or 20 years taking the habit back up again, and fishing allows people to both enjoy a healthy activity and spend some quality time with their children.

“It really was evident this year that outdoor recreation increased,” Preston said. “Our lives get so busy, it’s easy not to take the time to enjoy the beautiful places that our state has to offer.”