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Want to Build a Pond? Planning the Perfect Fishing Hole

The aroma of fresh-turned earth grabs your senses. There’s nothing like it. That big silver blade on the front of a bulldozer can cut, push, tumble, shape and re-shape nature’s landscape, almost at will. Cutting through topsoil, into sub soils and clay, these giant machines are maneuvered by artists sculpting, carving, creating a masterpiece that will soon be a living, breathing pond.

Your pond.

Sounds like your dream come true, doesn’t it? It can be. And, it can also be a nightmare.
Take time to properly plan. Don’t simply assume someone with a bulldozer can always create that perfect pond just by pushing some dirt here and there.  Here’s a case in point. A landowner in central-western North Carolina decided he wanted to build a fishing lake. He envisioned summer evenings with a cold lemonade, sitting on a comfortable Adirondack chair on his own dock, kids with cane poles and night crawlers, reeling in big bluegills one right after another…and maybe even one day catching a big fish himself.

For years, this land had been a working farm. The proud new owner, a successful baby boomer from Greensboro, recently bought this rolling 325 acres of mixed pasture and forest. His mission? Turn it into recreational paradise. He wanted to attract and grow deer and other wildlife, evaluate and manage his existing lake and design a brand new fishing lake in a pristine country setting.

He knew the first job was to keep his goals in focus and gather the best information to make the best decisions. He knew plenty about his business, but nothing about the business of creating a pond. He hired a pond consultant.

At the ranch, the two men greeted each other and took a quick tour of the farm. The consultant wanted to see the existing lake, first. When this eight-acre lake was built, the contractor removed every tree within 50 feet of the shoreline. Imagine meandering through gorgeous woods, only to open into a barren, eroded swale with a creamy-colored lake smack in the middle. Shorelines looked like an old washboard, years of erosion swallowing the shore, pushing dirt unnecessarily into the pond, creating the perfect zone for rapidly expanding cattails. No buffer zone, no esthetically appealing picnic areas, no grass…or even a place to launch a boat. Just a muddy puddle surrounded by red clay, eroded shores.

Designing a lake is a process. Take time to learn the process, create a workable plan and then oversee construction. You won’t be sorry. That dream can come true.

Write down your goals, first. Without a target, you are likely to miss. Keep those goals firmly entrenched in your mind. Planning a stock tank to water the animals? Your thought process will be completely different than designing the perfect fishing lake. Kids plan to swim in the lake? Plan now. Want to grow huge fish? Think about habitat…in your planning phase.

Next, get topographical maps and aerial photos. Maps and pictures help you see the ‘big picture.’ If you don’t know how to read a topographical map, ask for help. The best place to start is the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Find them in the USDA building, usually in the county seat of your county. From maps, determine watershed size. Watershed is the drainage area feeding your potential pond site. This information helps identify what size a pond should be. You may have five or six potential sites, and topographical maps help you decide whether to pursue or quickly eliminate a particular site.

Once past this first obstacle, learn about soils. Specifically, a pond dam needs clay. Clay, mixed proportionately with other soils, is some of the best pond building dirt available. You need clay.

Next, walk the sites, learn them, so you can choose the best. Look at surface soils, creek bottoms, trees, brush, rocks. The more you learn, the better decisions you can make. More than likely, you will identify the best site, once on the ground.

Then, have a knowledgeable contractor dig test holes deep into the ground where your dam will sit. This tool helps decide if soils are ‘good’ for a pond. Dirt is often layered, and once the machine cuts through topsoil, look at the layers below. Is there clay? Or layers of sand and gravel? You want a good foundation on which to build a dam. A dam is a structure and must be built on the proper foundation, with a core trench to prevent seepage. Never heard of a “core trench”? Learn about it.

If all systems are “go”, it’s time to lay out the dam. With engineering help from NRCS or nearby professionals, you will have excellent information to project earth-moving costs. With the center line, back toe and front toe staked, it’s easier to envision the dam. While you’re at it, have the shoreline flagged, so you can see all areas water will inundate. Avoid shallow water, if a fishing pond is your main goal.

While you are designing, understand a dam is a water management structure. Its job is to retain and then release excess water in an orderly fashion. Part of dam design includes spillway considerations. But, the dam has a role, and it’s your job to make sure it does what it’s supposed to do. Keep in mind, though, you aren’t just building a dam.  You are building a lake…a living environment, a habitat that will soon be home to a teeming population of your favorite fish and plants, in a healthy, wet environment.

Try to think of everything you want your pond to do. Hiking trail around the edges? Edge cover to protect deer as they come in for a drink? Grassy areas for ducks to feed? An island for geese to nest?

Last, and most fun, is to design that all-important habitat. The fish you choose need places to hide, to eat, to live and reproduce. Different species of fish prefer different types of structure, or cover. Design these assets in the beginning.

There’s plenty more to learn and do, but taking time to plan always pays off. Just ask our new friend in North Carolina. His new lake is almost finished. The dam is soundly built, the lake has plenty of cover for bluegill and bass, and you can’t wipe the smile off his face. All he needs now is rainfall, and his finely sculpted earthen swath will become the pond of his dreams.

Bob Lusk is the nation’s leading private fisheries consultant. He is also editor of Pond Boss magazine, the world’s leading resource for pond and fisheries management information. Check out more of his work at www.pondboss.com or contact Bob Lusk, the “Pond Boss” himself, at 903-564-6144. His books, Basic Pond Management, Raising Trophy Bass and Perfect Pond, Want One, may be purchased by calling 800-687-6075 or ordering online at www.pondboss.com.

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