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How to Build a Fish Pond

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Great habitat means creating living spaces for all sizes of all species, plus what they need to be able to spawn, feed, loaf, congregate, and for some fish, to ambush.

What do Fish Really Want?

By Bob Lusk

Fish are amazing creatures, and in some ways, strangely mysterious. Ask any angler, fish are predictably unpredictable. But fishermen are collectively willing to spend millions of dollars each year in the pursuit of doing battle with these creatures of the deep.

What do fish really want?

Even though fish are truly complex mysteries, what they really want is simple. They want to eat, reproduce, and survive. That’s pretty much it. They won’t contribute to peace in the Middle East, but fish contribute handily to helping solve world hunger, although they don’t really do it of their own volition. They don’t have volition, even though they are persnickety…thus the “mysterious” label.

Fish behavior is based on instinct and conditioning. They are born with instinct. You, dear pondmeister, have the ability to influence their conditioning.

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Want big bass? Then, have habitat for all species, as well as big fish.

If you want happy fish, then build their home thoughtfully and complete. Under your water, fish thrive in a community environment. If you provide all the elements, and place habitat, structure, and cover where fish can live in harmony, you’ll have happy fish.

Here’s what all this fluffy talk means. Different sizes of different species of fish prefer different styles of habitat. As the seasons change throughout the year, these habitat requirements shift. When baby fish are first hatched, they are tiny little fry, maybe smaller than a pencil lead. Their immediate needs are to eat and survive. With mouths smaller than the head of a pin, they eat tiny food, like phytoplankton and stuff that grows on the surface of plants, rocks and wood. Provide areas where tiny food can thrive. At the same time, these little-bitty fish are trying to keep from being eaten, a formidable task in every pond. If you were a tiny little morsel, swimming for your life, and searching for food for a lean, little body, where would you go? Someplace where the bigger fish can’t eat you, that’s where. Provide dense cover and structure for small fish. They love rock piles, shoreline vegetation, dense treetops, and thick brush.

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Rocky outcroppings are good for some species.

“But,” you might ask, “aren’t we raising small fish so they CAN be eaten by the game fish?”

Yes, you are, but give the little guys some time to grow. Newly hatched bluegill sunfish might weigh 12,000 per pound. But, give those little scooters 45 days of good food and places to hide, and they will grow to 30 per pound. That’s much more significant, especially since it takes ten pounds of forage fish for a game fish to gain one pound.

So, provide habitat for your little fish.

What about the larger fish? Ah, consider them, too. Build your habitat for small fish in fairly shallow water; say less than eight feet deep. Adjacent to that, add habitat that intermediate fish prefer. Take largemouth bass, for example. Yearling largemouth bass are like proverbial gang members. They are on the prowl, looking to pillage and defend a turf. They run in schools, along the seedy edges of cover and structure, waiting for a little fish to dart out and tease it. When that happens, like a flash, the bass strikes and eats its prey.

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This spawning bed was added to enhance reproduction in this small pond.

Intermediate-sized game fish and large sunfish are attracted to the edge of rock piles and aquatic vegetation. They like channels, cuts, humps, and habitat of the sort where they can condition and orient. If that hump over there, in five feet of water, gives them a place to hide and ambush their favorite food, they’ll go there regularly. Intermediate-sized bass love to be on the move, so corridors, under water funnels, and well-designed travel routes are important. They also love to linger in underwater tree canopies.

What about the big dogs of your pond? Those giant fish everyone loves to see and do battle with? They want the premium places to hide. Big bass, for example, love to linger in fairly shallow water off a point (next to deeper water), and perch next to a big log, ready to ambush its next meal.

Combine all these elements and you’ll have a thriving underwater community for all your fish. So, how do you do that? Here’s your homework: First, set your goals and learn which species of fish are best suited to your mission. Second, learn all you can about the lifestyles of each species of fish. Once you understand how each fish lives and what they need, your job will be to provide those key components. Third, learn how each species of fish spawns and provide that type of habitat. And fourth, learn how each fish eats and provide them with restaurants, boutiques, and health food joints. They’ll show their appreciation by growing fast and giving you a tussle on the end of light line.

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Riprap is excellent cover for small fish, especially sunfish.

Some fish will be your game fish; others will be the food chain. Too often, pondmeisters unknowingly focus too strongly on building underwater habitat for their biggest fish. Do provide for your game fish, but don’t neglect those little guys. They will be the buffet table for your bigger fish. Heck, every big fish WAS a little fish at some point.

Position these different elements in proximity where each different segment benefits the other. You don’t see a kid’s park in the middle of the desert. A wise builder puts the playground next to the apartment complex, just up the street from the convenience store, and not far from the mall. If you do the same in your pond, your fish stand a much better chance to grow and thrive.

The last piece of today’s advice revolves around your kids or grandkids…or you. Even though you may design the best habitat, complete with spawning beds, ambush points, hiding places, travel paths, and funnels…and you’ve mixed it up at different depths…don’t forget about the anglers. Design all this important habitat where you can actually catch the fish which are attracted to it. Put some around the dock, place some near the most convenient shore, and add some fish safe-haven’s near your feeder. If you love to fly fish, set up something attractive to your favorite targets within casting distance. One other key point today…90% of your fish will tend to live in 10% of your pond. That 10% changes as the seasons change. Think about that as you design that perfect home for your willing fish.

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Shoreline habitat is excellent…for certain sizes of certain species.

As water inundates these new digs and you stock those slick little wet fingerlings, you’ll giggle to yourself as you watch your fish swarm and thrive in their new home. Over time, with your favorite sidekick helping dangle a worm at the end of a cane pole or pitch a spinnerbait next to that big log you placed, those mysterious creatures of the deep will return the favor by adding even more joy to your satisfying life.

Remember that semi-famous axiom, “Happy fish, happy life”… ‘er something like that.

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