HOW TO GET THERE Take I-270 West to Route 80 exit. Turn right on Route 80. Go west 1 1/2 miles to Park Mills Road.Turn left, go three miles to Lilypons Road and turn right.Monday through Saturday, 9 to 4; Sunday noon to 4. Phone: 301/874-5133.
Orange daylilies signal the turn to Lilypons, the home of "Three Springs Fisheries - Aquatic Plants and Exotic Fishes." Barn-swallows and dragonflies flit away from the dust the car trails behind it as it enters the gate. Then - why, they are just - ponds.
It is a place of endless ponds.
For some people, the scenic drive will be enough. Near Sugarloaf Mountain, Park Mills Road crests onto a panorama of farmlands, a view enjoyed by the tumble down headstones in a hilltop cemetery. The road passes through of Flint Hill - a dozen bungalows, a log cabin, a church, a grocery store, a VW repair shop. Crickets chirp along the road and sunny pastures give way to new-growth woods dotted by occasional signs of habitation: a discarded motorcycle settling into a cushion of weeds, a Chevy gaping for its missing front end. The sound of "Styx" whines from an old stucco house. And then the lilies.
It's quiet at Lilypons except for redwing blackbirds crying to each other and frogs that go "meep!" and splash out of sight as footsteps approach a pond. Now and again, a car streaks past on the road.
Here is an industry unpolluted by the rumbles and whines of machinery. "On this farm," says third-generation owner Charles Thomas, "we've been growing things like grandfather did." The water is circulated from pond to pond and then released into the Monocacy River in ideal condition for thewild fish, according to Thomas.
Now is the time to see the waterlilies in bloom. The part of his family's operation known as Lilypons Water Gardens grows and sells more than a hundred varieties of waterlilies. But that's just a sideline. There are nearly 12 million goldfish in the 500 ponds on 275 acres of bottomland.This is the prime time, too, for learning about harvesting goldfish at one of the country's biggest suppliers.
At the moment, if the truth be told, most of the fish are not gold. In the holding room of a two-story farm building, a bucket squirming with life is dumped out on a table. With the sensitive, cupped hands of a Silas Marner counting silver, Ernest Page slides shimmering grey-black fish by tens into another bucket, on their way to market. Page, 79, has been with the fisheries for almost 50 years. This time of year, every hundredth fish has turned gold early.
By September, most of the young will have turned gold with age, but Three Springs Fisheries can't wait that long. As with everything else, there is a shortage of goldfish. Used to be, a person would buy one or two fish a year for a pond or aquarium. But, Thomas says, "Now that there are a lot of tropical fish that require living food, the market has expanded greatly. People will come and buy a dozen or so goldfish at a time each week. "It doesn't really matter if they're gold, as long as they are about two inches long. Food is food. Some, of course, still end up as pets.
For excitement, "Some people come to see cows that aren't in cages at the zoo," says Thomas. (A recent visitor to the zoo reports it has not yet come to that.) "Our grounds-keepers are cows."
Four years ago there were the fish rustlers. "They came out here and hauled out fish by the netfull. Finally, one of our employees got a license number, and the state police found out where the home was and found the fish right there in a stream.
"They didn't think it through," said Thomas. "Fish are rather hard to fence. Silver, cameras, okay. But fish, they are quite perishable."
The pond water looks murky. "No," he says, "let's call it teeming with plant and animal life," helped along by what Thomas calls "a byproduct from Charles Town."
"That intensity of water is just the height of beauty." Thomas' nephew drives out to the pond to fling red meal over the water. Soon, a sprinkling of circles like tiny raindrops show where the young are feeding. Thomas guessed there were a third of a million of them in the pool.
As long as there are young around, the large gold breeder fish lay few eggs, so the aquaculturist takes the eggs out before they hatch. Usually, the fish hide their eggs in weeds along the bank, but at Lilypons the banks are covered in plastic. Instead, in the breeding ponds float wire frames woven with Spanish moss.The fish lay eggs here and the aquaculturist removes the frame and drops it into a rearing pond.
"If there are little ones in there the parents tend to be more inhibited about spawning," says Thomas. Three or five days later, the fry hatch. They are as thin as pins.
When the young reach marketable size, the pond is drained to a few inches of water. Then aquaculturist Ken Neils goes out in hip boots and dips the fish up in a bucket. He dumps them into another pond, into a "hoppa" - a net fish cradle slung from four posts.
"Hoppa," which isn't in the dictionary, may be a corruption of hopper. "Maybe it's Lilyponese," Thomas said.
At any rate, the fish clean themselves off in the water that flows through the hoppa. Neils nets them into another bucket, and the fish leave the lily ponds forever.
"Hoppa" would not be the first local corruption of language. Lily Ponds became Lilypons as an expression of Thomas' grandfather's admiration for a soprano. In June 1936, opera star Lily Pons even visited the ponds and the post office (since closed) was renamed for her. A band played; the governor spoke.
In the farm building that once housed the little post office, a building that has not changed much since grandfather's day, someone has drawn a sign and hung it on the wall. It reads, "Man masters nature not by force but by understanding." CAPTION: Picture, KEN NEILS LIVES THE ULTIMATE FISH STORY, NETTING THOUSANDS A DAY AT LILYPONS. By Pamela Whitehead.