Fish Hatchery manager exudes passion

By Terri Nighswonger

Roderick May lives a life of adventure in a job that defines him

Roderick May officially began his duties as manager at the Neosho Fish Hatchery Dec. 11. It was no surprise to him as he had been acting manager since David Hendrix retired in July.

“I can’t say that I was really excited and surprised because it was just another day at work, really,” May said. Those sentiments belie the fact that, like Hendrix before him, working with the fish is not just a job but a real passion. May’s 30-year tenure with the US Fish and Wildlife Service has really been anything but just another day at work.

Never say never

“I’ve been in Neosho 17 years on a plan that said I’d never work in Neosho,” May said. “Believe me, never say never.”

May worked at a hatchery in Wisconsin that would ship its Brook Trout eggs to Neosho to hatch. Once the trout were about three inches long, May said, he would come to Neosho to take them back.

“So I knew about Neosho and I’d been here and spent the night once or twice,” he said.

May grew up in southwest Arkansas and  also drove through the town on his way back and forth to his hometown.

“I could get to about Neosho on a full tank of gas,” May said. “I had a full size van and my son was really small and I would always leave at night so I could get in a lot of good driving while he was asleep. I was always running on fumes by the time I got to Neosho and I would always stop at this little gas station outside of town called Oak Tree Mart.”

On one such trip, May hit town, dodging construction on then Hwy. 71

“At that time it was foggy and I took a wrong turn and ended up coming through town somehow and I remember thinking, ‘man, there just ain’t much in this little town. I’ll never work in Neosho.’ Now I’ve turned down some really big jobs to stay in Neosho. Never say never, it will get you every time.”

Mr. Brown casts his net

May’s introduction to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and his lifelong passion began his senior year in high school with his agriculture teacher Mr. Brown.

“So Mr. Brown asked me to help drive up to a funeral,” May said. “So we went to the funeral and afterwards these old guys were standing around talking about the good old days and I’m thinking ‘we need to go, we’ve got a long drive.’”

As May tells it, one of those old guys pulled a paper out of his coat pocket and told the ag teacher, “Brown, we got this new field at the school. I can’t tell you much about it but I do know the Fish and Wildlife service put a lot of money into this program. They dug a lot of ponds and built a big research center. They are pumping the money into it but now they need some kids to get into this thing. If you know any kids that might want to get into this fisheries thing, let’s try to get them a scholarship.”

“So Mr. Brown takes the piece of paper and puts it in his pocket and they keep talking,” May said. “So I’m driving down I-30 headed back to southwest Arkansas. Mr. Brown, I guess thinks about this paper in his pocket.”

Mr. Brown was hard on his students, May said. They thought he was just a mean old guy.

“But later, once I was older and more wise I realized that Mr. Brown cared about us,” May said. “That’s why he was so tough on us. He cared about what we did with our lives. He didn’t want us out there wasting our lives.”

In the car, Mr. Brown turned to his student.

“He said ‘What are you gonna major in when you graduate,’” May tells the story. “This was March and I was graduating in May. I said ‘probably ag education.’ I had a brother that graduated in ag education. He had a good job, a nice home. I could do that.”

Mr. Brown asked if he had ever thought about majoring in fisheries.

“I said, ‘What? No man, what is fisheries?’” May continued. “He said, ‘I don’t know but you just think about it’ and he took the paper and threw it in my lap.”

May was driving so he pocketed the paper and continued the drive. Later, as he was taking off his suit jacket he felt the paper crinkling in his pocket. It was the curriculum that showed the coursework for the degree program, as well as a scholarship application.

May said he and a friend had planned out their college life which included partying for the first two years and then getting serious for the last two.

“So, I had the plan,” May said. “I was looking at this curriculum and they had hard courses the very first year. This is going to cut into my social life. So, I said I didn’t know anything about this fisheries thing but I’m going to try to get a scholarship. If I get this scholarship that’s God way of telling me I’m supposed to do this. I got the scholarship that year. I got the scholarship three more years. I went to graduate school on a teaching assistantship so I didn’t pay for that either. So I got my bachelor’s and my master’s. I guess I was supposed to do this.”

“I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t do this because this is not what I do. This is who I am.”

Living a life of adventure

Out of college, May worked in several wildlife refuges. He worked in the Florida Everglades with alligators and drove air boats. Later, he attended a school to learn explosives and at one time was a wildlife fire fighter.

“It’s been an awesome ride,” May said. “I’ve flown in an airplane and counted wildlife. I’ve been in places and seen things that the average person will never see in their whole life. I’ve had adventures on this job.”

May advocates living a life of adventure.

“It’s not a job that has been a grinder,” he said. “I’ve had some hard days but even my hard days were interesting days. I would do it all again…I’d rerun the tape. I don’t know if I would make every decision but I would redo the tape for 30 years. That’s how good a run it’s been.”

Life with the fish

“We’ve always got something going on here at the fish hatchery,” May said.

A staple of the fish hatchery is the Rainbow Trout mitigation program. Some 25,000-30,000 fish are produced and sent to Lake Taneycomo.

The Pallid Sturgeon program is also ongoing.

“We’re still doing our Pallid Sturgeon program,” May said. “We have 29 of the brood fish here right now. We’re hoping to cycle these fish and eventually spawn them and they’ll eventually go back to the Missouri River.”

May said the hatchery is currently doing work with fresh water mussels that he wants to continue.

“One of the things that I would like to do is take our mussel program to the next level,” he said. “We’ve been doing some experimentation trying to get our techniques down on how to deal with them.”

Mussels are kind of a new kid on the block, May said. It’s a brand new field with few experienced biologists.

They hope to take the glochidia, the small mussels, and inoculate them to host fish.

“They have to spend a period of time on the host fish,” May said. “Then they will drop off and eventually those mussels are stocked back out into the environment. That’s what we would like to eventually do with that program. Just the way we do fish. We’re a little ways from that point now but our goal is to make it to that point.”

A small endangered minnow called the Topeka Shiner is also at the hatchery.

“The people that have raised them have raised them in a pond environment,” May said. “We didn’t have an extra pond that we could dedicate to Shiners so we actually are raising ours in two extra raceway series which is kind of innovative.”

The raceways normally have flowing water but they have stopped the flow and put clear panels on top to help the sun warm the water.

“We eventually got those fish to spawn in raceway conditions,” May said. “That’s the first time it’s ever been done. That was really, really exciting.”

The Topeka Shiner is a unique fish that needs an Orange Spotted Sunfish to raise its young. The Sunfish makes the nest and the Shiner’s sneak in and spawn in its nest. The Sunfish young and the Shiner young grow together.

“People that we got our fish from told us that they tried it without the Sunfish and they didn’t get any Shiners,” he said. “You’ve got to have both. It’s a pretty cool relationship.”

Another new project at the hatchery is a hiking and wildlife trail going in on US Fish and Wildlife property outside of Neosho.

“We own some land around the four springs that bring our water here,” he said. “We have land that we would like to develop into a hiking trail and we’ll have some butterfly habitat out there. A big deal now is Monarch Butterfly habitat and pollinator habitat. Pollinators are having a really hard time right now.”

A hiking trail will allow visitors to get exercise and see nature. Kiosks will help visitors know what they are seeing. May said the hiking loop has been brush hogged and they hope it will be ready for visitors next summer.

“I never want to stand still,” May said. “We always need to try to get to the next level. If you’re not progressing, you’ll get left behind. It’s just that simple.”

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