BALTIC, Ohio — From the driver’s seat of his green and yellow John Deere Gator, Dennis Fender points to the many ponds he owns, telling stories about the fish business and his rural upbringing.
At one place along an old country road, he points to a vacated log cabin where, 80 years ago, he was born.
Fender has lived on his family’s llama, crop and fish farm all his life, except for a couple years when he served in the Korean Conflict.
In 1956, he and his wife, Janet, had a problem; they wanted fish to stock their ponds, but didn’t have anywhere to get them. That’s when their business began, one that now covers nearly 80 ponds in Wayne, Holmes and Coshocton counties.
The fish they sell go to all parts of the state, including more than half of Ohio’s soil and water conservation districts.
Fender and his family were among the first major fish hatcheries in the state.
“I don’t know a (darn) thing about it,” jokes Dennis Fender, whose son has even written a book about pond fisheries.
While many fish farmers choose to use indoor tank systems, which rely on water filtration and recirculation, Fender is happy with ponds and says it’s the same way the Indians raised fish hundreds of years earlier.
“We raise fish the way Mother Nature intended to,” he said. “The fish like to be out in the natural environment.”
With the help of son, Steve Fender, a daughter, Cheryl Scherer and her husband, John, and a grandson, Jason Scherer, it’s very much a family business. Together, they farm ponds on nearly 200 acres.
Roughly 10-15 varieties of fish are hatched in the ponds, then transported in tanks to a centralized processing facility, where they’re placed into containers for delivery or pickup.
With so many fish in so many different stages of development, and in so many locations, it might seem like a lot to remember. Dennis Fender points to his head to showing that his records are in his head, and not on a machine.
“We don’t need a computer,” he said. “We have a computer, but I don’t even know how to turn it on.”
“I have trouble remembering somebody’s name but I remember which fish I’ve got in a certain pond,” he said.
Back at the processing plant — along Township Road 220 and Coshocton County Road 12 — the family helps some new customers bag goldfish for their pond.
John Scherer, his hands wet from bagging fish while his wife fills the bags with water and oxygen, comments on the fun he’s had with the business over the past 40 or so years.
“It’s really a great business because of the diversity,” he said. “It’s amazing who we meet out on the road. It’s incredible.”
The Fenders are well located in their business circle, Scherer said, and have many far-reaching customers. In addition to fish, the Fenders and their son, Steve, and his wife, Veronica, grow hay and raise llamas.
But Dennis and his fish are the center of attention, and what has built the family name across Ohio. Walking from tank to tank, Dennis scoops different kinds of fish into his net, showing the differences in size, color and temperament.
Most attractive are the Japanese Koi, which he first encountered while serving in Japan, during the Korean Conflict. Their golden color makes for a unique standout in a dark tank of water.
Outside, at one of the ponds used for holding fish until they are packaged, Dennis tosses handfuls of fish food to a responsive group of trout splashing through the surface.
His 50-plus years of fish farming are many times more than some who enter the business. And although the industry is doing well, he says newcomers need to do their research, and prepare to learn. After all, he’s still learning today, he says, and mistakes have become important lessons.
But he’s had a lot of fun along the way, something evident in the many jokes he tells. A larger-than-life replica of a fish hangs inside his processing barn, a thing he exchanged a llama with a man to get. “It took me three days to land him,” he said, almost seriously.
Dennis really doesn’t see himself all that differently from other farmers.
“We grow the fish like other people grow the livestock or crops,” he said.
The work is mostly seasonal and depends on the melting of ice from ponds. Each person has a job to do, and if there’s any disputes, Dennis settles them.
“That’s what my cane is for,” he said.
While the Fenders do well with ponds, many other fish farmers are turning to recirculating tank systems. To read about one Ohio producer who uses them, click here.