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Managing the Mini-Pond: Raising Tilapia

It’ s a good feeling to grow some of your own food, especially fish. Tilapia for dinner.

It’ s a good feeling to grow some of your own food, especially fish. Tilapia for dinner.

During my career as a private sector fisheries biologist, I’ ve seen a lot. For mini-ponds, some of the uses have fascinated me, while others simply escape me. Four decades ago, small ponds served basically one purpose…to water livestock. Sure, there were special cases, but more than 90% of those little ponds I saw in the early 80’ s were for four-legged creatures to drink. Fast forward a few gray hairs and today’ s world is quite different. I’ve seen small ponds scratched into small forested areas to provide water for wildlife, both furry and feathered. I’ve seen small ponds for fire protection and to get lower insurance rates for rural dwellers. Some small ponds serve as a place of contemplation. Others are mostly for irrigation. Others are used to support adjoining fishing lakes to grow fish to stock. Rarely, mini-ponds have been used to grow food. But, today’ s trends are leaning more toward food production than even a few years ago.

During my travels over the last few years, more and more people are asking what they can do to grow food for themselves. These questions started about six or seven years ago because some folks were worried about the economy and things such as quantitative easing, where the government was printing money like crazy to prop up the economy and keep interest rates down. I bet I heard from two dozen people who wanted to learn about how to grow fish, harvest and provide food for themselves and their families, or to have something to barter if and when the economy crashed, and the dollar lost its value. More recently, people are skeptical about the nation’ s food supply. They don’t necessarily trust corporate food producers. Those opinions are bolstered by news reports of food recalls, bacterial problems, too many preservatives and foods too rich in processed carbohydrates.

Raising Tilapia

Some of the tilapia we harvested and filleted.

So, can you use your mini-pond to grow food? Yes, you can, especially if you have a good source of water and the pond tends to flush itself with fresh spring water or rainfall, or if you have a well.

I’ll just use our ponds here at LL,2 as examples of what I’m talking about. We’ ve got a pond at the bottom of the hill that covers about ¾ acre. Since it was built, we’ ve used it to grow channel catfish for two main purposes. First, it’s for kids who’ ve never caught a fish before. It’s huge fun to watch a kiddo tie into a five or six-pound catfish as it jerks the drag, making it sing as the youngster holds on for dear life. Otherwise, we raise catfish for food. A well-fed channel catfish around two pounds is pretty tasty. We try to harvest 200-300 pounds of catfish per year. Look at it this way; that’ s four to six pounds of good protein per week. If we pushed that pond, we could harvest much, much more…upwards of 1,000-2,000 pounds per year. That would take more attention than I’m willing to give at the moment.

Harvesting and sorting tilapia. It’ s work, but it’ s also fun.

Harvesting and sorting tilapia. It’ s work, but it’ s also fun.

We have two 1/10th acre ponds we use to grow fish for different reasons. In the spring, we stock tilapia. This spring, we will stock 1,000 small tilapia that we’ve overwintered in our aquaponics system into each of those two ponds. By the fall, we’ll have close to 600 pounds of adult tilapia in each pond, along with thousands of babies. We’ll sell some of those fish and fillet the rest. Last fall, we froze 250 fillets, which we’ ve mostly eaten. We’ll do the same next fall. Right now, those two ponds are in the final stages of a winter crop. In the north pond, we stocked 225 hybrid striped bass that were 8-10”, fish we’d used for the summer for our aquaponics program to keep the filters active. We’ll harvest those fish before this issue of the magazine goes to press and likely move them back into the aquaponics project.

The south pond was stocked last November with 350 5-7” rainbow trout. We’ve fed them faithfully since then, at least twice daily, and they are now 10-13” with the largest going around a pound. We’ll harvest those fish when they stop feeding, which will be late April, early May. I know we’ve had some attrition, because we had to string a nylon cord around the pond to keep Debbie’s ‘ol buddy, Lurch, the great blue heron, at bay. We know he gets an occasional feast, but we expect to retrieve at least 250 fish when it’s time. That will extrapolate to at least 200 pounds, upwards of 250 pounds of trout, vacuum-sealed and ready to eat. Our plan is to go ahead and smoke about half and then freeze them and the rest of the fish, two or three to a bag. That provides more protein.

When we stock the tilapia in those two ponds, we’re planning something different. After talking with Craig Upstrom and Pond Boss VI Conference and Expo, he’ s convinced us we could have some luck stocking freshwater shrimp, Machrobrachium rosenbergii with the tilapia. He expects the shrimp will feed on what the tilapia miss and help keep the water clean. Then, next fall, we’ll harvest tilapia and shrimp and see what that prospect holds. Craig produces freshwater shrimp, also called, Prawns, from his base west of Fort Worth, Texas. If you are interested in some prawns, email me and I’ll forward to Craig.

eaching kids how to clean a fish and then showing them how to cook it pays rewards.

eaching kids how to clean a fish and then showing them how to cook it pays rewards.

If you decide to try to grow some food, think about a harvest plan. For tilapia and prawns, they’ ll die when the water gets cold. Neither bites a hook, so the pond needs to be drained. Here, we can do that. Each pond has a drain and is filled from our well. If you can’t drain your mini-pond, don’t pick fish that die when it gets cold. Choose catfish or hybrid stripers.

What about cost? For catfish, expect to buy the fingerlings at a cost of $.35 each or more, depending what size you buy. Feed a quality feed to get the best conversion. Grain-based feed is good, and they convert it around 2 to 1. That means you’ll spend about $.70 per pound to grow catfish (and tilapia). If you aren’t efficient, that cost will be a little higher, but still less money than you’d pay at the grocery store. With the bad press foreign tilapia are getting, it’s worth the effort just to know what you are getting since you did it. For feed-trained largemouth bass or hybrid stripers, feed fish-meal based fish food. That jumps your cost up to nearly $1.00 per pound, but way less than you’d pay at the store. Plus, good feed grows good, healthy fish.

Typical catfish from our catfish pond.

Typical catfish from our catfish pond.

For us, we have one pond, ¾ acre, isn’ t pushed to its limits, and two 1/10 acre ponds that are, and these ponds yield enough fish that we can eat more than 15 pounds each week. That’ s a pretty good supplement, especially considering our aquaponics program that supplies greens and a raised bed garden that puts out seasonal vegetables.

If we had enough room for four-legged food sources, we’d do that, too.

As it is, we have catfish, trout, hybrid stripers, tilapia, and (fingers crossed) prawns next fall.

So, to answer the question, “Can you raise fish for food in a mini-pond?” I say the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

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