'As good as it has ever been': Oklahoma's fishing boss, Barry Bolton, retires after a 43-year career

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Barry Bolton, 66, has been chief of the fisheries division for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation since 2007. Before that, he served 18 years as the assistant chief and has worked for the Wildlife Department since 1979.

After 43 years at the Wildlife Department, Bolton is retiring on Jan. 31 and plans to spend more time pursuing his hobbies of backpacking, woodworking and photography. He answered some questions from The Oklahoman about his career and the future of fishing in the state.

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In your 43 years at the Wildlife Department, what has been some of the biggest changes in Oklahoma fishing?

Bolton: Some of my fisheries division co-workers have joked that the invention of the outboard motor must have been the biggest change to fishing during my career. Seriously, I do believe fishing in Oklahoma in 2022 is as good as it has ever been. We have developed world class fisheries for striped bass, paddlefish, blue catfish, largemouth bass and crappie. I could go on but the point is Oklahoma has incredible fishing opportunities in every corner of the state. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation never loses sight of the fact that we are funded by license revenues from hunters and anglers. We work diligently to ensure that we are providing a quality product to our constituents.

Barry Bolton holds a striper caught on Lake Texoma. Bolton, who has been chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for the past 15 years and has worked more than 40 years for the agency, is retiring Jan. 31.
Barry Bolton holds a striper caught on Lake Texoma. Bolton, who has been chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for the past 15 years and has worked more than 40 years for the agency, is retiring Jan. 31.

What do you think have been the biggest accomplishments during your time as head of fisheries?

Bolton: First, it is important to point out that accomplishments in fisheries under my watch were a team effort. I have 75 incredible individuals on my staff that are passionate about Oklahoma's fisheries resources. That said, I am very proud of over $20 million of boating and fishing access projects we have funded across the state. Our hatchery staff continue to produce record numbers of fish for stocking in public and private waters. Recently, we initiated a program to propagate threatened and endangered fish and species of greatest conservation need. We have also pushed to increase awareness regarding native, nongame fishes. Our research and management personnel collect and analyze the data that form the basis of sound management decisions.

We were able to create a streams management team to focus additional effort on those resources. I am very proud of the professionalism displayed by my staff when working with constituents, elected officials, and fisheries managers from other states. We have challenged our staff to make our department lakes showplaces and they have responded with enhanced access for anglers across the state. I have pushed to improve our research process and provided opportunities for employees to present their data at professional meetings. I have embraced an open door policy and encouraged open, honest communication with my field staff.

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Barry Bolton holds a 53-pound king salmon that he caught in British Columbia.
Barry Bolton holds a 53-pound king salmon that he caught in British Columbia.

What have been the biggest disappointments?

Bolton: Without a doubt my biggest disappointment has been my inability to move the needle on the importance of setting aside water in our streams and rivers for fish and wildlife. Many of our watersheds have been over-appropriated leaving little water for aquatic species. Oklahoma is one of only two states that does not provide water specifically for fish and wildlife.

What are the major issues that Oklahoma fisheries are going to be facing in the near future?

Bolton: Clearly, the biggest threats to managing Oklahoma's aquatic resources will be issues related to water quantity and water quality. If fish and wildlife resources continue to take the back seat to competing water uses, we will look up and many of our fisheries will be severely compromised. Oklahoma must find a way to turn the corner on water permitting, water conservation and water quality.

What was the most difficult part of the job as head of fisheries?

I believe state fish and wildlife agencies are most effective when we base our management decisions on sound biological and human dimensions data. I have struggled to embrace the notion that decisions can sometimes be driven by ever-shifting political winds. When this occurs, the resource often suffers.

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What has been the most rewarding part of the job?

Bolton: My greatest joy has come from mentoring young fisheries professionals and witnessing the passion of this next generation of resource managers.

Oklahoma seems to have a diverse set of fisheries for an inland state. Is this true?

Bolton: Oklahoma is blessed with an incredible diversity of aquatic resources. Taxonomists recognize 177 species of fish across our various ecoregions. With 52 major reservoirs, thousands of smaller lakes and ponds and 78,000 miles of rivers and streams, fishing opportunities are available just outside your back door. It is important to point out that the fishing industry in Oklahoma generates annual sales of over $1.4 billion.

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Is there any kind of fishing that we don't have here that you think might work?

Bolton: Historically, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has provided some additional fishing opportunities with non-native species. The Lake Texoma striped bass fishery is certainly one success story. Potential impacts to native species must be carefully weighed when any non-native species is introduced into the state. Going forward, I see few additional opportunities to develop non-native fisheries in Oklahoma.

What advice do you have for your successor?

I have had the privilege of working for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for 43 years. Our employees are passionate about our mission and I sincerely believe we provide constituents a great product for the cost of their fishing or hunting license. We should remain diligent in our efforts to manage fisheries resources based on sound biological and human dimensions data. I would suggest that managing Oklahoma's aquatic resources during the next 40 years will be even more difficult for reasons I mentioned earlier. Education and outreach regarding these water issues will be a key to success. I absolutely believe that the next generation of fisheries managers are up to the task.

Reporter Ed Godfrey looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at egodfrey@oklahoman.com or on Twitter @EdGodfrey. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma fisheries boss to retire in January after 43-year career