Build a Better Fishing Pond
March 29, 2017
Want a better fishing pond on your property? A fisheries biologist explains what works.
Owning your own fishing pond can be a wonderful thing. A pond provides a place for family and friends to enjoy catching bass, bluegills, catfish and other species. It allows us to put fresh, healthy fish on our dinner tables. On a pond, we can enjoy hours of relaxation in the outdoors.
Being a pond owner also can be a lot of work, however. If your pond is to produce the types and sizes of fish you want to catch, you must manage it in a way that promotes the healthy growth of those fish. Sometimes this is easy and inexpensive. Other times it's extremely difficult and costly. Either way, for a pond to meet its full potential as a good fishing spot, we must learn the basics of pond management, examine our pond to see what is going right and what is wrong, and implement a plan that will correct problems and foster healthy fish populations.
Hundreds of books and tens of thousands of web pages have been devoted to the subject of pond management. It's not possible to learn all you need to know in this brief article. We can, however, help you grasp the basic concepts of pond management with the help of private fisheries biologist Bob Lusk.
Lusk is in his fourth decade as a private fisheries biologist and is the editor of Pond Boss magazine (www.pondboss.com). He's helped countless landowners turn their ponds into fishing paradises and has authored hundreds of articles on a wide array of pond-management topics.
With the help of a seasoned fisheries professional like Lusk, almost anyone can turn a so-so fishing lake or pond into a blue-ribbon angling hotspot. It takes time, money and expertise to make it happen, however.
GOALS AND EVALUATION
"When a client hires me, we start by discussing their goals," Lusk said. "That's important so I know what that landowner expects. Is their primary goal to have a healthy lake with healthy water? What about fish? Do they want lots of 2- to 5-pound bass with a chance to catch a huge fish? Or would they prefer to have lots of smaller fish for kids and grandkids to catch? I must know their dreams to make them real."
The next step is evaluating the lake and using that evaluation to build a management program. This entails sampling the fish to determine their health and age structure; testing the water chemistry to determine pH, alkalinity and hardness; and evaluating fish habitat to determine what is there and what is needed to support the types of fish the owner wants to propagate.
"The owner can do some of these things," Lusk says. "For example, as they catch fish, they can weigh and measure key species such as bass, bluegills and catfish. Are they fat? Skinny? Healthy? Keeping long-term records provides data for making solid management decisions.
"Other aspects, like testing water chemistry, require professional assistance," he continued. "You'll have to send a sample to a qualified lab, then use the information obtained to determine if the water needs amending with lime or some other mineral. Water chemistry results are the starting point for determining or ruling out potential problems."
Each pond has unique characteristics of design and location that make it different from all other ponds. But despite the many variables, the principles of managing private waters are solid and predictable. By understanding those principles, says Lusk, you'll be much more likely to experience success.
WATER AND ITS PROPERTIES
"First, learn as much as you can about the water in your pond and its properties," the biologist noted. "Water can be hard or soft, alkaline or acidic, have dissolved metals or minerals, and a wide variety of organic matter from fish waste to grass clippings to decaying plankton. Your job is to understand that water chemistry affects pond biology."
Lusk says it's not necessary for pond owners to learn everything about water chemistry and it effects on biology.
"What's important is that you know there are basic facts about water, such as pH and alkalinity, and that living greenery goes through photosynthesis and respiration, so you can be alert to impending issues you might have. You may not know as much as you'd like about pH, alkalinity, how to judge water color and visibility depths, but if you know the basic parameters of these items, a pond pro can help you choose what directions to go. Happy water, happy life within."
According to Lusk, from a fisheries standpoint, habitat — what fish need to be able to reproduce, feed, hide, ambush, loaf and live in a harmonious community — is the most important pond management principle.
"Rarely do I come across a pond that's complete with its habitat plan," he said. "Almost everyone thinks of habitat for their target species, especially those who want largemouth bass. But those same good stewards often forget to provide for forage species. If you plan to have bass, you need habitat for their forage fish, too. Bluegills are the backbone of the food chain, so you must provide what they need, too.
"Also, don't forget that each size of each different species prefers different habitat," he continues. "Baby bluegills have totally different habitat requirements than big bass. Big bluegills live differently than medium-sized bass. Redear sunfish are different than bluegills. And so forth. Your job is to understand habitat for the different sizes of the different species of fish you plan to stock and manage. Provide that habitat in the form of aquatic plants, logs, rock piles, riprap and artificial structures and your odds of success rise exponentially."
THE FOOD CHAIN
The next important principle to understand is the food chain. It takes about 10 pounds of baitfish for a game fish to gain a pound. That means your fishery is in the food-producing business — at least it had better be.
"Each size class of each species of fish has its own food chain needs," says Lusk. "Think through that as you plot your stocking and management strategy. If you plan to focus on largemouth bass, you need to know bluegills are the backbone of their food chain, so you should provide food for bluegills, too."
To understand this point, think about this, Lusk says. When a baby fish is first hatched, it's tiny. For example, 12,000 newly hatched bluegills weigh 1 pound. If you can keep them alive for 45 days, they'll weigh close to 30 per pound. So, how do you do that?
"First, focus on the needs of those tiniest babies," Lusk says. "They have small mouths and glean microscopic food off plants, rocks or from the water column itself. Crystal clear water, during the spawn, is basically sterile for these little fish. That's one reason biologists sometimes suggest fertilization. Fertile water grows plankton, key food for tiny fish. Feed those babies and survival rates are higher."
If your water isn't fertile, Lusk says, you can also consider feeding a high-quality fish food. "Feeding your fish a high-quality fish food, such as Purina's AquaMax 500, makes them grow much, much larger than they'd ever grow in any natural environment," he says. "I've seen fed bluegills push way beyond 2 pounds in many, many ponds."
Genetics play a significant role in all fisheries, says Lusk, especially if you expect to grow large fish.
"Cattle ranchers and deer breeders know how important genetics are," he says. "Dog trainers understand genetics play a role in behavior and the way a champion dog looks and responds. I'll never understand why someone builds a pond, spends lots of money constructing it, does lots of work creating habitat, pulls the trigger on the project and has something to be proud of — only to stock it as an afterthought.
"Can't I just put in a few fish from my neighbor's pond? I'm often asked. No, you can't if you want a quality fishery. If you want big largemouth bass, you need Florida genetics. Want huge bluegills? Genetics are important for that, too. When you make a thoughtful stocking plan, think about genetics as well. It's much better to do it at the beginning rather than as an afterthought."
The final fundamental of pond management is harvest. With great habitat and a nourishing food chain for fish with the best genetics, harvest becomes the most important concept for day-to-day management.
"A pond is like a garden," says Lusk. "You plow, plant, feed, watch it grow and finally harvest. Likewise, at some point, you'll need to remove some fish from your pond. Which fish? That depends on your goals.
"I remember a conversation I had with that famous fisherman, Bill Dance. He said, 'Bob, I have a lake where we used to catch lots of big bass. Now, we don't catch as many. How can we change that?' I asked him, 'Do you take any fish out?' His response was quick. 'Yes, we harvest quite a few. Early on, we took out small fish like we were told. Now, we take out all bass 4 pounds and under.' I chuckled and said, 'A 4-pound bass cannot grow to 8 or 10 pounds '¦ in a skillet.' He busted out laughing. I explained my point further. 'Those 4-pound bass are all females. If you take them out, you're robbing the lake of its next generation of big fish. Those are the junior varsity, on their way to the varsity. You should take small fish. Those are the ones that disrupt the food chain and cause most of the issues.'"
When first stocked, a healthy pond takes about three years to develop to the point you need a harvest plan. The biggest mistake most people make is harvesting fish they originally stocked.
"Those are your best candidates to be the biggest stars," says Lusk. "Give them time to grow. After a few years, they'll begin to reproduce. Their babies are the fish that will disrupt the harmony of the fishery, and if you're watching the fishery, you'll know when it's time to cull some. With largemouth bass, you'll begin to harvest fish at 10-12 inches. Plus, you'll see under-performers from the originally stocked fish — they aren't growing, or they're males, which don't grow as large as females. Those are the fish to cull. Start culling channel catfish at 2 pounds plus. Bluegills? Don't ever harvest the biggest ones. Take the next size down."
With great water, outstanding habitat, a well-managed food chain, thoughtful genetics and a solid harvest plan, you'll have a dream fishery, Lusk says.
"Will there be hiccups?" he asks. "Yes, there will. That's the nature of this beast we call pond management. But, if you have a solid understanding of these key principles, your odds of success rise proportionately — if only your pond absorbs your attempts to bring it to harmony rather than its own desires to be obstinate."
The multi-faceted aspects of pond management can seem very technical, but much can be learned through resources available in books and online. One of the best is Bob Lusk's Pond Boss magazine (www.pondboss.com, 800-687-6075). Every issue includes articles written in layman's terms that can help you understand every aspect of pond management. A sample issue and articles can be downloaded free from the website.
Lusk's book "Perfect Pond '¦ Want One?" is considered a classic of the genre and is available through the website, too. Other pondboss.com resources include videos, podcasts and an "Ask the Boss" forum.