What do Fish Really Want?
How to Build a Pond for Happy Fish
By Bob Lusk
Fish are amazing creatures, and in some ways, strangely mysterious. Ask any serious angler, fish are predictably unpredictable when it comes to coaxing them to the business end of a rod and reel. But, fishermen are collectively willing to spend millions of dollars each year in the pursuit of doing battle with these creatures of the deep.
We know what anglers are after.
What do fish really want?
Even though fish are truly complex mysteries, what they actually 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. They aren’t hatched with brain parts for reasoning or any type of thought process. If they were, catching them would be near impossible. Thus, the reason for conditioning. Via a process as Pavlov’s Dogs, fish, over time, become conditioned to their environment such as water quality, habitat and food chain. You, dear pondmeister, have the ability to influence their conditioning.
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 thriving in the water column, and stuff that grows on the surface of plants, rocks and wood. Science buffs call that stuff periphyton. 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. That’s instinct. But, another instinct is the need to feed. So, when those little fish venture beyond the safety of dense cover to eat, the risk is great. A bigger fish awaits, to eat that precious little darling.
Provide dense cover and structure for small fish. They love rock piles, shoreline vegetation, dense treetops, and thick brush.
“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, for example, 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. Give them a little time to compound, like a penny growing to a quarter. 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, near shore. Adjacent to dense cover for tiny fish, add habitat that intermediate-sized 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 the shallows, in pursuit of smaller prey.
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 the little nougat.
Intermediate-sized game fish and large sunfish are attracted to the edges of rock piles and aquatic vegetation. They like channels, cuts, humps, and habitat of the sort where they can condition and orient around larger spaces. 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. Think cedar trees without the greenery.
What about the big dogs of your pond, the hawgs? 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. Huge bass are notorious for hanging near the best structure, awaiting the next meal to swim near so it can burst and inhale in an instant. Big bass prefer big meals, near bigger structure than its smaller cousins.
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.
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.
And, offer thought to the different species of fish. Bass spawn in solitary nests, swept clean of dust and debris, usually in gravel, often in other opportune spots, one nest at a time, in water three to six feet deep. Bluegills, and most other sunfish, spawn in colonies of crater-like nests in shallower water. Channel catfish need cavities, if you want them to spawn. As newly hatched fry grow into tiny fingerlings, they need dense places such as rock piles, aquatic plants or brush, in shallow areas. Provide this type of habitat and you’ll see your pond productivity increase and support more game fish.
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.
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 pitching a spinnerbait next to that big log you purposely placed, those mysterious creatures of the deep will return the favor by adding even more joy to your satisfying life, at the end of someone’s line.
Remember that semi-famous axiom, “Happy fish, happy life”… ‘er something like that.
Bob Lusk, the “Pond Boss” is in his 38th year as a private fisheries biologist, traveling the nation designing, building, stocking, and managing premier fishing lakes. He’s written hundreds of articles and three books on the topic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.