As a high school student, Brian Simmons (BSFR ’93) landed a summer job at a local fish farm.
It began as a way to earn some cash, but then Simmons began to meet other professionals—including Jay Shelton, who at the time was working for UGA Extension’s Griffin office. He kept with the job through his early years at Middle Georgia College, and began working there full-time after graduating from Warnell.
Turns out, that high school job was a great catch for Simmons. He ended up coming in on the ground floor of a burgeoning fish farming industry that has since grown and perfected its products over the past few decades. Today, Simmons is CEO of Owen and Williams Fish Farm, the same place he worked in high school, and as a result he’s had a front-row seat to the changes in the industry. What began as an operation to supply catfish for a local restaurant is now one of a handful of fisheries across the country that grows triploid grass carp for use in recreational landscaping.
“We haven’t raised food fish in 30 years, and it’s going to continue to evolve,” says Simmons. “When it first started, the ponds were pretty much aquatic gardens. Now, everything has pretty much shifted to recreation.”
Today’s anglers tend to fish because they want to, not because they have to. As a result, there is a growing demand for larger catches. For agencies and other aquatic managers who stock waterways with sport fish, this translates into a need to keep fish longer and feed them more before releasing them into the wild.
That’s where Simmons and his Hawkinsville, Georgia, company come in. More than half the fish farm’s business is in raising and selling bluegill and threadfin shad to feed bass destined for local waterways. If you’ve recently caught a larger bass, you might have Owen and Williams to thank for it, in a way.
The grass carp is also what sets the company apart. They are bred to be sterile—to be sure the non-native fish aren’t reproducing in the wild—and are used to control algae and other unwanted vegetation in places such as water hazards on golf courses. It’s a highly specific need that Simmons is happy to fill.
“That’s what attracted me to it. Very few people know a lot about fisheries, and the small crowd appealed to me,” he says.
Today, his daughter is a college student, causing Simmons to reflect more about how he found his path at that age. His original destination was a degree from Auburn University, but when Shelton was hired to teach at Warnell, Simmons took a closer look at Warnell’s aquatic sciences program. He ended up being one of Shelton’s first students.
“I’m hoping my daughter will find something she loves to do as much as I have,” says Simmons. “I was very fortunate to have that career path chosen that early.”