Blue-winged teal fly overhead, passing through western Kansas on their way to southern climates for the winter.
Quail hunker down in a nearby corn field. A muskrat slithers through the wind-swept waters, dipping its head underneath and moving on to his destination.
Channel cat, large-mouth bass and bluegill fish swim under the surface of the water, awaiting a potential fisherman to cast and outguess the sub-surface fish varieties.
It’s all part of the Put ‘em Back Pond, once known as Jameson Pond, a half-acre fishing pond located just south and east of the Dairy Farmers of America plant in Garden City.
Three years in the making, Put ‘em Back Pond, a catch and release program, was the brainchild of local insurance man Neil Hawley. But along the way, he’s had plenty of help in developing what he hopes will serve the greater community of western Kansas — children and families — with a potential relaxing outdoor activity that is quite close to the neighboring population.
“My son and I came out to fish here a long time ago after getting permission,” said Hawley, who indicated the property and adjoining acreage are now owned by the City of Garden City after purchasing it from the Jameson family, who owned a large section of farmland on the north edge of the Arkansas River. “I don’t know how long before there has been water in the pond, but it was a Huber sandpit at one time. There were fish varieties before, but we’ve added some more.”
It was Hawley who came up with the naming of the pond, basically saying it had a nice sound to it and certainly reflected the philosophy of catch and release.
Nearly all the water in the pond comes from the 2 million gallons per day the city sanitation plant sends down the ditch to the Arkansas River. Some of it backwashes into the pond and keeps it at a high level most of the year, Hawley said.
“The water is cleaned and tested regularly for biological contamination,” he said. “The city gets good reports for their efficiency there, but there can be chemicals that aren’t removed in the sanitation process. That’s why we have the signs up that says don’t keep the fish — just ‘put ‘em back’.”
With large and small donations from local and area businesses and individuals, many improvements have been made to the immediate area adjacent to the pond. Weeds have been mowed, and mounds leveled off by use of motor graders from Hutton Construction and Meis & Sons Trucking. Lee Construction and Huber Sand teamed up to improve the area on the west side, Hawley said. The Roth brothers, who farm the land there, have been mowing the weeds
But the biggest support to help advance the project came from Dr. Luther and Ardis Fry. Fry, a local opthamologist, and his wife liked the idea of a family place for fishing that was close to the community at large.
Ryan Unsworth, a Garden City youth and a member of the local Boy Scouts of America, has as part of his Eagle Scout project, built a shelter and additional park benches. The shelter will cover a picnic table, which sits on a concrete slab, again made possible by donations.
“We will also put in some of those park benches at different locations around the pond,” Hawley said. Large trash cans also will be placed at locations around the pond to keep the area attractive.
It was in October 2015 that Hawley went to the Garden City commissioners and asked them to consider a catch-and-release pond for kids. City officials told him they were unsure of whether they actually owned the pond.
The Army Corps of Engineers came in and pinpointed the property and identified it as part of the Arkansas River Valley, which belongs to the people of Kansas.
“A lot of nice things have happened all the way along,” Hawley said of the project. “I know there are a lot of people using it based upon what we see left there. One of my recent visits out here was seeing a dad and three kids fishing.”
Hawley, with assistance from other businesses and individuals, also has installed a dock, which juts out into the pond approximately 20 feet, with a 10-foot arm extension. It has bumpers along the edges to provide unobstructed fishing opportunities, yet prevent a wheel chair from rolling into the water.
“From the city, to the Corps of Engineers, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, to the banks I visited for donations, no one told me ‘No, you can’t do that,’” Hawley said. “Everyone offered support or suggestions on how to get it done. It has all been a positive experience.”
Hawley said it is one of his intended goals that people use the pond and the area as a place to relax and enjoy quiet time alone or with family and friends, and a place to learn how to fish.
“I hope people will treat this as an opportunity to have something they can enjoy, appreciate, and learn something about the abundant wildlife we have in western Kansas,” Hawley said. “The Boy Scouts will use it and other people can picnic, fish and use it to their heart’s content.”
The pond was stocked with fish — 50 bass, 100-pounds of channel cat and 200 bluegill — this past spring. The Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department advised Hawley on how many and where to buy the fish.
Hawley said he has been pleased with all of the improvements made at the pond, and really likes the concept of "Put 'em Back."
“The fish we bought were expensive, and small,” he said. “But with the abundant food sources already in the pond, if people will buy into the ‘Put ‘em Back’ idea, they will grow rapidly. In two years or more, we will have some very fun fishing there.”