Traffic on South High Street sped by as Brandon Holcomb opened the tanks Thursday. In the parking lot of the Rockingham Cooperative in Harrisonburg, thousands of juvenile aquatic animals stirred.
Holcomb quickly set about doling out the gilled goods — minnows, bass and other fish — to area residents looking to stock their ponds from his position atop the bed of a red truck emblazoned with the words “Fish Wagon.”
Holcomb, 32, and his father, Keith Holcomb, 64, have been working together for 14 years, as Brandon took a job with Fish Wagon straight out of high school in Harrisburg, Ark., where the company is based.
Since then, Holcomb and his father have driven around more than a dozen states in their journeys to deliver live aquatic stock to individual customers and commercial clients alike.
Teams like the Holcombs rack up roughly 70,000 miles as the business delivers hundreds of thousands of fish annually, according to business owner Bill Elliot.
“You got to be able to get along driving around this much,” Brandon Holcomb said, while his father was in the passenger seat of the truck, checking names and taking checks from customers Thursday.
Elliot said the fish come from a hatchery in Arkansas, and there is a lot of work to do in planning and advertising before the rubber tires of the trucks meet the road.
Fish Wagon teams begin delivering fish to Southern states including Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas around Jan. 15 and then slowly start to move farther north as the weather heats up. For greater distances, feeder trucks are used to top-up delivery vehicles, Elliot said.
Then, during the hottest weeks of summer, there is a break for four to five weeks. After, crews are back on the road until early December for another break, he said.
Over all the miles, eight to 10 species of fish are supplied with air in 22 compartments on the truck beds, according to Elliot.
“We run a fairly sophisticated oxygen system and they’re reasonably fail-safe, but things do happen and we’ll occasionally lose a tank of fish,” he said.
Many of the fish are preordered, but sales can also be made on the spot, if stock is available, he said.
On Thursday, Chris Andrews, 50, of Bridgewater, was picking up 25 bass and 4 pounds of minnows to stock his farm pond for fishing with his grandson, Brayden, 4. Andrews already has fish in the pond, including catfish and crappies.
“We go down there and feed them every evening” when Brayden is on the farm, Andrews said.
He said the Fish Wagon is his primary source of fish for his pond.
“This is the only way I get them,” Andrews said.
Another grandfather buying from Fish Wagon on Thursday was Bud Schultz, of Bridgewater, whose grandson, Peace Schultz, 4, was with him.
He also said fishing is part of the relationship he has with his grandson and other members of his family.
“All the grandkids like it,” Schultz said.
Fish Wagon is not a unique business to Arkansas, but that doesn’t change how interesting the work is, Brandon Holcomb said.
Elliot and his wife Debbie bought the company 17 years ago as part of an effort to scratch an “entrepreneurial itch,” Bill Elliot, a former banker, said.
“I’d always wanted to own my own business and [I] was a tournament fisherman. It was a hand-in-glove type deal and the opportunity came along and we just did it,” he said.
And Elliot said they’ve had no regrets.
“It hasn’t been without its moments, and I think there are very few small businessmen that would tell you life’s always been a bed of roses, but I will tell you, knock on wood, thus far, the good has certainly outweighed the challenging times,” Elliot said.
And sometimes journeys can be challenging, especially on a day like Thursday, when Brandon Holcomb was looking forward to seeing his wife and three sons again after having been away for 10 days.
Thursday morning stops in Timberville and Harrisonburg, another in Elkton in the afternoon and then a roughly 12-hour drive back to Arkansas would get Brandon Holcomb home to his wife and three sons by 1 a.m. Arkansas time. Then, a good four-day break before the work begins again.
“It’s about time to go home,” he said, lugging a bag of fish, the creatures darting around in the water.