By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

STOCKTON -- It was enough to make even the most casual angler drool.

After all, who in their right mind could stand idly by and watch as 90 channel catfish -- all 8- to 9-pounders -- were dropped into water mere feet away.

Or, a short 30 minutes later watch as more than 640 2- to 4-pound catfish were dipped from a holding tank into a plastic barrel and then unceremoniously dumped into the same waters.

Even a passerby, heading back to Hays, grumbled he didn't have a fishing pole with him.

The fish-stocking activities Tuesday at Rooks State Fishing Lake, a short drive southwest of Stockton, has put the lake on track for what could be a summer of fun.

That's a stark difference from what it had been.

Drained in 2002 to repair the spillway and dam, the lake remained dry until last fall. On Tuesday, winds splashed water over the top of the spillway.

Meanwhile, a host of Marks, with a Chris thrown in for good measure, were busy stocking the lake with a ready-to-catch supply of channel catfish.

Behind the restoration is Mark Shaw, fisheries biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. He was joined by Chris Schuler.

Rather than stock the lake with young fish and close the area for up to three years to let the fish grow, Shaw pushed hard to obtain keeper-size fish for the lake.

While the lake already had more than 600 channel catfish stocked in it, Tuesday was something of a heyday.

Mark Aumberg, from KDWP's Pratt fish hatchery, delivered 90 fish, weighing in at about 81ΓΆΓλ2 pounds each. They would be about 6 years old, castoffs, if you will, by the hatchery because they've simply grown too big.

"We get rid of them after two years of spawning," Aumberg said, all because they are just too big for the cream cans they use to obtain the eggs to hatch.

Shaw is hopeful the big fish released Tuesday will spawn, setting the stage for additional hatches down the road and a future supply of fish for the lake.

In addition to the catfish, Shaw plans to soon head to Nebraska to pick up 30,000 bluegill for stocking in the lake.

In May, he will start sampling for bass in area lakes. Those bass very well could serve as a source of supply for the Rooks lake. Farm ponds overwhelmed by a supply of bass also could provide fish.

And he hopes to get some big enough -- more than 14 inches long -- so the bass will spawn as well.

"Right now, we're trying to get it started up," he said of the lake.

Generally, when a lake is either built or renovated, officials keep the lake closed to fishing for several years to give the fish a head start.

"We want to open it up right away," he said.

That's because in the case of this lake, fed by a small, intermittent stream, the wet-dry cycle is expected to range from eight to 11 years.

In other words, evaporation should outpace inflow in that time period, perhaps leaving the lake dry.

Of course, Shaw noted, no one expected the lake to remain dry for six years after it was renovated.

That's about the time Mark Harbin of Harbin Fish Farm near Anthony drove in.

He delivered 1,341 pounds of catfish, about 670 fish if they weighed an average of 2 pounds each.

Shaw said the fish cost KDWP about $2 a pound delivered, a deal worked out because Harbin is a state contractor to grow the bigger fish. State hatcheries, he said, hatch the eggs and grow them until they are about a third of a pound, when they are stocked in lakes.

"Mark, he grows them to a put-and-take size," Shaw said. "Some of them were probably 4 pounds."

The bigger fish might spawn this year, he said.

The 67-acre lake isn't up to preferred stocking rates just yet, but Shaw hopes to hit that point later this year when a ready supply of smaller fish come from department hatcheries.

"So I'll have young fish up to 81ΓΆΓλ2 pounds," he said of the lake. "People should have a reasonable chance of catching some now."