Knowing the 5 Principles of Pond Management will help you succeed!
By Bob Lusk
Over decades of trying to figure out how ponds work, it’s become distinctly apparent that every pond is different, and each has its own quirks. Some seem to work in harmony with themselves and their owners, while others blow up and act like a rebellious teenager—and we become frustrated parents. A pond in a beautiful meadow can be pristine-looking and teeming with fish. One pasture over, a pond of similar size, in similar soils, can be obstructed with unsightly amounts of noxious plants and loaded with stunted fish. What gives between those two?
My wife and I live on twelve acres of land, with eight ponds on it. I don’t like to mow.
Each one of those ponds is completely different. Some by design, some because of the quirky nature of that particular pond site, with which we’ve had to adjust.
That’s part of the fun—trying to figure out what to do to get your body of water to match your vision, and then your expectations.
While there are many variables and few things consistent with so many different ponds, the principles of managing private waters are solid and predictable. Understand those principles, educate yourself to what they mean for your circumstance, and you have a greater chance of achieving those dream waters. Know these principles, and then learn the art of pond management, and you’ll be much more likely to have the success you expect.
There are five consistent fundamentals for every single pond—every one of them, regardless how they seem.
First, learn as much as you can about water and its properties. Water is an amazing substance. Scientists call it the Universal Solvent. Anything that can dissolve into water will do so. That goes for everything from Alka-Seltzer to parts of an old car. Your water, in terms of chemistry, 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 with water is to understand that its chemistry affects its biology. I wouldn’t dare ask you to understand water chemistry or how it affects the biology—I do this stuff for a living and often scratch my head while trying to understand those complex relationships. As long as you know there are basic facts about water, such as pH and alkalinity, and that living greenery goes through photosynthesis and respiration, you can be alert to impending issues you might have with that magic medium our fish call home. What’s your take-home point? Know about pH, alkalinity, how to judge water color, and visibility depths. You may not know as much as you’d like about what all this stuff means, 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.
From a pure fisheries standpoint, habitat is the most important principle of management. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve been invited to take a look at a proud landowner’s new pond. We’ll roll up on site, drive over the edge of a dam or levee, and see the fresh bed of a brand new lake, waiting for water. Maybe there’s a set of stumps next to a long log adjacent to shore, placed where water will be five feet deep. Over to the right is a rock pile, near a couple of old concrete culverts salvaged from the county commissioner’s junk pile, with a rotten fiberglass boat hull on top, a perk pulled from the backside of the property, long ago abandoned. Down in the bottom of the lake bed is a pyramid of stacked concrete blocks, a thoughtful addition. While all these pieces may be a good start to your habitat jigsaw puzzle, rarely does the pond bed in my crosshairs strike me as having the perfect habitat to meet a landowner’s dream-lake goals.
Habitat is what fish need to be able to reproduce, feed, hide, congregate, ambush, loaf, and live in a harmonious community. Heavy on the word community. While the elements described above are just fine, rarely do I come across a lake that’s complete with its habitat plan. Almost everyone thinks of habitat for their target species, especially those folks who want largemouth bass. But, what those same good stewards often forget is providing for the species which provide the buffet line for their revered game fish. If you plan to have bass, you need habitat for their forage fish, too. Bluegill are the backbone of the food chain. Provide what they need, too. Oh, and don’t forget, each size of each different species prefers different habitat. Baby bluegill have totally different habitat requirements than big bass. Big bluegill live differently than medium-sized bass. Redear sunfish are different than bluegills. Threadfin shad have totally different habitat choices than any other fish, and it’s the same with hybrid stripers, smallmouth bass, and so on. 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 and your odds of success rise exponentially. If I said, “ Let’s go fishing where we have a legitimate chance to catch a double-digit bass,” where would we go? How about this, “ Let’s go striper fishing.” Where is that? Lastly, “ Hey, let’s troll 80 feet deep for giant lake trout.” Where’s that? You probably had a good answer for the first two, and if you live in the north, you’d answer the last one, too. My point? You just solidified the concept of different habitat, because each of those fish has specific habitat requirements. That’s why they thrive where they do. As goes the habitat, so goes what lives there. Your job is to make sure the lake or pond you love has what it needs to provide the best habitat possible to meet your goals for the fishery.
Okay, so you understand that key principle. Personally, I love native aquatic plants in moderation around the perimeter of a body of water. Small fish love the density of American pondweed, for example. Know how the plants grow so they are an important part of the habitat rather than a nuisance salad bar that hangs lures and clogs trolling motors. Beyond that, I love logs, rock piles and riprap, with artificial structures, too. You have many choices. Choose best and remember that key word for habitat—community. Fish thrive in a community.
With your brain wrapped around this important principle, the next most important one is the Food Chain. It takes about ten pounds of baitfish for a game fish to gain a pound. That means your fishery is in the food-producing business—at least it better be. Each size class of each species of fish has its own food chain needs. Think through that as you plot your stocking and management strategy. If you plan to focus on largemouth bass, you need to know bluegill are the backbone of the food chain for those big-mouthed monsters of the waterway. Bluegills spawn multiple times in most environments. They are the primary food chain, so doesn’t it make sense you provide food for bluegill, too? Bluegills are actually predator fish, limited by mouth size. So, bluegills have a completely different food chain than bass, even though they are part of the food chain for bass. To push this point, think about this: when a baby fish is first hatched, it’s tiny. Someone figured out 12,000 newly hatched bluegill weigh one pound. If you can keep them alive for 45 days, they’ll weigh close to 30 per pound. How to do that? First, focus on the needs of those tiniest babies. When any fish is first hatched, its nutrition comes from what was the yolk of its egg. Once that precious nourishment is absorbed, this tiny fry must eat. Imagine how small their mouths are. They glean microscopic food from where they can get it—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 suggest fertilization, in some cases. Fertile water grows plankton, key food for tiny fish. Feed those babies and survival rates are higher. When a baby fish absorbs that yolk, it must eat immediately. If not, it will quickly starve. They have no energy stores at that point. Food is imperative. If your water isn’t fertile, you can also consider feeding a high quality fish food such as Purina’s AquaMax. Feeding the food chain is a widely accepted strategy. What about other species of fish to provide a food chain for your game fish? Sure, that’s a great idea. Just be sure you understand those fish species and the role they play in your waters. Fathead minnows are outstanding—if you are starting a new pond that has no fish, or if you want a natural food chain for a catfish pond. Don’t put fathead minnows in an existing fishery. They don’t stand a chance to survive or reproduce. That concept completely changes their role and value for your management strategy. Redear sunfish? Could be wise. They live in a different niche than bluegills and have a different food chain, too. Threadfin shad? Maybe so, maybe no. Learn about those fish and make your choices. Want to feed your fish from a bag? There are specialized feeds on the market, so you can target different species and even different sizes classes of those species, based on their nutritional needs. Fish food does several important things for a fishery. First, it can supplement Nature’s shortcomings. Secondly, good quality fish food expedites the process of growing fish. Face it, we live in a fast food world. Pull to the drive through, talk into a box, listen to a scratchy no-face voice repeat your order, and then pull around, pay and eat before you get two miles down the road. That mindset influences the way we manage our lakes and ponds. Lots of people are in a hurry, and don’t want to wait for Nature to do what she does. Feeding your fish makes fish grow faster. One other thing I’ve learned over time: feeding a high-quality fish food, such as Purina’s AquaMax 500, makes fish grow much, much larger than they’d ever grow in any natural environment. I’ve seen bluegills push way beyond two pounds in many, many lakes.
Genetics play a significant role in any fishery, especially if you expect to grow large fish. Cattle ranchers and deer breeders know how important genetics are. Dog trainers understand genetics play a role in behavior and the way a champion dog looks, acts, and responds. I’ll never understand why someone decides to build a lake, spends a significant amount of money constructing it, does lots of homework to create 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?” 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 now, at the beginning, rather than as an afterthought.
The last key component to 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 or lake is like a garden that you plow, plant, feed, watch it grow, and finally you 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 one day near Memphis, in the office of the famous fisherman, Bill Dance. He asked, “ Bob, I have a lake in the country and I used to catch quite a few big bass. Now, we don’t catch nearly as many. What can we do to 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, just like we were told. Over time, that limit changed. Now, we take out all bass four pounds and under.” I chuckled a little bit, leaned over his desk and said, “ Bill, listen to this. I didn’t learn this at Texas A&M during my college days. I had to figure this out on my own…a four pound bass cannot grow to 8 or 10 pounds…in a skillet.” He busted out laughing. I explained my point further, “ Those four pound bass are females, every one of them. If you take out those females, you are robbing the lake of its next generation of big fish. Those are the junior varsity, on its way to the varsity. Take small fish, those are the ones which disrupt the food chain and cause most of the issues you’ll be dealing with over time.”
Your goals dictate your harvest plan. When first stocked, it takes a healthy pond about three years to develop and get to the point you’ll need to look at a harvest plan. Where people often make mistakes about harvesting fish is this—don’t harvest your originally stocked fish. Those are your best candidates to be the biggest stars. Give them the time they need to grow. After a few years, they’ll begin to reproduce. Their babies are the fish which tend to disrupt the harmony of a fishery. When it’s time to begin to cull some fish, you’ll need to figure out which fish to take. Watch the fishery and it will tell you when it’s time to take some. Rapid growth rates within a certain size class will begin to wane. If you’re watching lengths and weights, you’ll see as that time approaches. Weight gain will slow, some of your fish will start looking average. That’s your signal to start taking fish. Most of the time, especially with largemouth bass, you’ll begin to harvest young fish as they grow into the 10-12” size class. Plus, you’ll see the under-performers from the originally stocked fish—they aren’t growing, or they’re males. Males don’t grow as large as females. Those are the fish to cull. If you have channel catfish, start culling them when they push to two pounds plus. Bluegills? Here’s a big secret to bluegills. Don’t ever harvest the biggest ones. Take the next size down. The biggest ones defend the beds, keeping most of the younger fish at bay. If a bluegill can’t spawn, its energy stays focused on growth.
With great water, outstanding habitat, a well-managed food chain, thoughtful genetics and a solid harvest plan, you’ll have a dream fishery. Will there be hiccups? 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 obstinent.