The Perfect Pond
By Bob Lusk
Look there, just down that hill. The most scenic, pristine-looking pond you’ve ever seen sits peacefully next to a small forest, adjacent to a meadow. Gorgeous, rippling blue water nestled in a pastoral valley, luring you down for a closer look. Gentle breeze, big fish roiling the surface of water so clear you can see the pond bottom. There’s a wooden row boat pulled ashore, a picturesque setting worthy of a magazine cover. Looks like that little boat you remember from camp, years ago when you were a kid.
This may be the most perfect pond you’ve ever seen…ever.
How did it get that way?
Too many ponds we see are the same color as chocolate milk or maybe so overloaded with underwater greenery it looks like the Sunday salad bar at Golden Corral. Or, maybe your pond suffers from an all too common malady…it leaks like a twisted bucket.
What must come together for a pond to be perfect?
There are a few fundamental rules to always remember.
Rule 1: Water exits. That’s an absolute truth worth pondering. That’s what water does. It comes and goes. It might come in torrents and leave in droplets, but you can bet water in your pond is destined to be on the go. It seeks the path of least resistance. That might be through leaky soils and a poorly constructed dam. It might be through a vein of gravel at the bottom of the pond. It might be through the bladder of a deer. Or, it might be through the magic of evaporation. Heaven knows, we’ve seen some evaporation during the entire summer of 2012. 28 states in “severe” to “extreme” drought understand the concept of evaporation.
Rule 2: See Rule 1 and plan accordingly. That gorgeous pond down in that pretty valley was built well, good slopes, plenty of depth and diverse habitat. Plan your pond way before a single spade of dirt is turned. It will pay dividends for years to come.
Rule 3: There’s always more to building a pond than you expect. Heck, thirty years ago all you had to do was pop in at the coffee shop about two hours before daylight, find the guy with bib overalls and fresh mud on his boots and ask if he’d build you a pond. You’d be on his list and a few weeks later, he’d roll up in a big truck, unload that giant yellow machine with the big silver blade and go to work. Several days of earthmoving and few rain dances later, you had a pond. It ain’t like that now, folks. Ponds are built with different purposes. Heck, on our little 12 acre homestead in north Texas, we have eight ponds…yes, eight ponds…each with a different reason to exist. One was built for swimming. But, there wasn’t enough dirt to build the dam at the site, so we moved good clay from a few hundred feet away. The holes excavated for the clay were turned into ponds, too. We got four ponds for the price of one. The ¾ acre swimming pond sits just upstream from an acre pond where we raise channel catfish for fun and food. The other two ponds sit upstream and are used as hatchery ponds where we grow fish for sale to stock local ponds. One pond is an experimental pond where we test fish feeds and another is just for fun trying to grow a variety of fish. Two others still haven’t figured out who they are, yet. Here’s the point: Know your goals and expectations. Design the pond, but understand there will be a lot more homework than you might think. The pond needs to fit the watershed. If the watershed is too small for the pond size you want, don’t expect it to fill without the help of a well…if that’s even possible. If the watershed is too big, your dam can blow out with the first big rain. Size the pond to the watershed. Know your soils. Nothing hurts worse than to listen to your better half snicker as you mow the grass in the bottom of a pond that doesn’t hold water. Oh, and we won’t even talk about the underwater bells and whistles commonly known as “habitat”. Structure, cover, rocks, and channels…stuff a happy angler puts in the pond bottom to support his favorite fishes. Think about all this before you start the project.
Rule 4: Pick the right contractor. Check references. Look at past work. An email crossed our path last week from an anxious pondmeister who had used three different contractors to build a half-acre fishing hole. The first one started with a tractor and box blade, figured out it was more than he could do as a part-time after-hours gig, so he told the landowner to find someone else. After a few panicky phone calls to friends of a friend of his neighbors, a newbie in the earthmoving business pulled in with a big smile and a used bulldozer dripping hydraulic oil all over the place. Three days later, deep in the hole that was supposed to be a pond, the dozer gave up with a final burst of fluid. With a repair bill and several delays, the second contractor was given his walking papers. Enter contractor number three who cleaned up the mess as best he could. Not only did the planning phase of this project not hold water, neither does the pond. Poor planning and poor execution. With a good plan and understanding the type of equipment needed for the job and a contractor who has “been there, done that”, your result can be much more pleasant. Know your needs and wants and make sure you choose the best contractor for the job. Notice the word “best”…not necessarily cheapest.
Rule 5: Hold your contractor accountable, but work with his/her talents. You may not need to be on site every day, but at least get a regular report. Talk about the issues and be involved. Once the contractor does what they do, they leave. You stay behind and live with it.
Rule 6: Timing is huge. Don’t move dirt when it’s raining. Build your dock before the pond fills with water. This whole pond-building thing is a step-by-step process. As your plan comes together, think about your timeline, start to finish. Oh, by the way, the guy who mows his pond bottom has a really cool dock where his wife perches herself and sips mimosas while watching him mow below. Timing… ‘er, make sure the pond will hold water.
Rule 7: As you visualize the pond, think about the amenities. Boat ramp, beach, hiking trail, pergola, fire pit, fish structure, zip line, picnic area, dock…there’s so much to think about, be sure to know how you intend to use your perfect pond.
Rule 8: Stock the pond properly. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this statement, “Well, Fish Man, we went over budget building the pond so we have to cut back on the fish stocking.” Baloney. You built the pond, spent good money. Stock it properly. Don’t cut corners. Have a good stocking program and then follow the plan. Work with a professional fisheries biologist or a hatchery that will work to meet your goals. Then, five years down the road you won’t be calling me, wondering why your largemouth bass aren’t any bigger than your daughter’s big toe.
Rule 9: Enjoy the journey. When properly planned and executed, building the pond or lake of your dreams is huge fun. Don’t let those dreams turn to nightmares. Keep in mind that the decisions you make will impact your land for generations to come. The choices you make will completely alter that ecosystem and create a new, wet one with at least a fifty year lifespan, maybe longer. So, seize the opportunity and enjoy it as you go. In the end, you stand a great chance to have that perfect pond.
Bob Lusk is a 36 year veteran private fisheries biologist and lake consultant, traveling the nation helping people design, build, stock and manage private fishing waters. He is also editor of Pond Boss magazine, the nation’s leading journal on pond management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.