by Bob Lusk, Pond Boss Magazine
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.
#1 Water Quality. 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.
#2 Habitat. From a pure fisheries standpoint, habitat is the most important principle of management. 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. 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. 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. As goes the habitat, so goes what lives there. You have many choices. Choose best and remember that key word for habitat—community. Fish thrive in a community.
#3 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. Feeding the food chain is a widely accepted strategy. First, it can supplement Nature’s shortcomings. Secondly, good quality fish food, dispensed on a regular daily basis from an automatic fish feeder, expedites the process of growing fish. One other thing I’ve learned over time: feeding a high-quality fish food, such as Purina’s AquaMax 500, on a feeding program using automatic fish feeders, such as Texas Hunter Fish Feeders, 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.
#4 Genetics. 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.
#5 Harvest. 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.
Your goals dictate your harvest plan. 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.
Fisheries biologist Bob Lusk is editor of the nation’s leading pond management publication, Pond Boss magazine. You can subscribe to Pond Boss at www.pondboss.com and reach Bob through that website, or his business website at www.bobluskoutdoors.com.