AS SEEN IN Pond Boss Magazine, July/August 2016: Written by Industry Expert, David Beasley, Fisheries Biologist & Director of Fisheries
Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a landowner who had an innate passion for the outdoors. He had recently closed on a farm with a seven-acre pond, and was looking to transform the property into a recreational paradise.
Tucked in the center of his property, where rolling hills lead to a perennial creek cutting through the landscape, the picturesque pond was full of character. Nestled in the creek bottom, the elongated waterbody is relatively deep, based on its narrow width. Access is limited in areas due to ridges which run its length. The natural topography of the land teamed with a large watershed, yielding year round flow, creating a unique area destined for a productive pond.
Rather than leaving his bass fishing to chance and inexperience, he decided to seek advice from a professional pond management company to help ensure the fishery developed properly. He was fully aware that developing a high quality fishery can be a daunting task. Although some fisheries become good over time if properly established, the best way to enhance his odds of creating a trophy fishery was to have a biologist collect appropriate data, make the observations required to foresee upcoming issues, and create a management plan.
When first meeting with the owner, it was apparent that growing big bass was important. Knowing this, we found ourselves at an important decision point, since having a goal of growing big bass is vague. The owner needed to key in on what defines big in his eyes. Growing largemouth bass on pelletized fish feed can yield bass between six and eight pounds, which are big fish. To produce trophy bass that reach double digits, natural forage teamed with low numbers of bass is required. We discussed the two major tradeoffs between these management strategies: fisheries with feed-trained bass will have higher catch rates due to a larger population, but adult fish top out at eight pounds, while bass grown on natural forage will have much lower catch rates due to a smaller population, but their growth potential has a much higher ceiling.
With his eyes set on bass reaching their full potential, the fishery management strategy of growing them using natural forage was most appealing, even if the catch rates were lower. To get started, the fishery needed to be assessed, a budget needed to be established, and management strategies needed to be implemented.
To start the process of transforming the fishery, the pond was sampled using an electrofishing boat, and water quality data was collected. The results of the electrofishing study illustrated the pond was predator heavy with a depleted forage base. The bass population was stunted, boasting an average relative weight (Wr) of only 87, with most fish ranging between 11 and 14 inches in length. Water quality data indicated the pond was eutrophic (nutrient rich), which was supported by the visual cues provided by the large biomass of aquatic vegetation.
This initial study occurred in May of 2014, and that summer a suitable management strategy was agreed on. The first improvement was restructuring the fish population. The forage base required significant support through stocking, while old, stunted predators needed to be replaced with young bass. If the goal were to create a decent bass fishery, the owner would have been able to simply harvest bass and stock forage. But with a vision of producing a trophy fishery, the entire bass population needed to be removed from the system. The best way to ensure that all bass would be removed was to apply rotenone and eradicate all fish.
To make this process less expensive, the water was drawn down over eight feet prior to applying rotenone. A month after the rotenone application, the pond was restocked with a mix of bluegill, redear sunfish, golden shiners, and fathead minnows. By this point, it was early fall and four directional fish feeders were being used to feed the baitfish. To help support a healthy fishery, a bottom diffused aeration system was also installed. The job of this system was to de-stratify the pond, resulting in improved oxygen levels while also reducing the availability of nutrients.
Based on observations made earlier that summer when the pond was down eight feet, fish cover needed to be enhanced as well. Previously, the pond’s only source of fish cover was aquatic vegetation. Since aquatic vegetation was going to be less prevalent moving forward, it was important that another form of cover was installed. The decision was made to use cedar trees and hardwoods since they were readily available. Using a tractor, the trees were cut and hauled to the edge of the pond where a pontoon boat ferried them into open water and then they were secured in place using cinderblocks.
Based on the large amount of work completed that summer and fall, the vision for the pond was starting to take form. The next spring (2015), the fishery was slated for stocking Age-one female bass. Although the pond’s forage base did not have many growing days to establish, the largemouth bass needed to be stocked that spring. The reason the bass needed to be stocked was result of the ponds ample supply of freshwater. Although this incoming water was a positive attribute, it comes with the cost that fish upstream can enter the pond at any given moment. As result, not much time could pass between stocking forage fish and stocking the predator fish.
Prior to stocking the female bass, the pond was sampled again with an electrofishing boat to assess the forage base. Based on the findings, it was determined that stocking more forage would help ensure the baitfish population had a secure advantage over the largemouth. We felt like the forage needed more time to develop, but instead, the landowner bought the time by adding more forage fish.
With the looming threat of incoming fish from upstream, the pond’s future female bass population was not going to remain female only for long. This meant that the owner would need to actively manage the fishery with a zero tolerance for all bass that enter the pond from upstream. To aid in this process, the female bass stocked were fin clipped and PIT tagged so that stocked fish could be identified, as well as allow growth rates to be tracked over time.
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David Beasley has over 12 years of experience growing and managing successful trophy fisheries. David earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Fisheries and Aquaculture from State University of New York in Cobleskill and is currently the Director of Fisheries for SOLitude Lake Management, servicing the eastern United States and offering fisheries consultations nationwide.
SOLitude Lake Management is committed to providing full service lake and pond management services that improve water quality, preserve natural resources, and reduce our environmental footprint. Lake, pond and fisheries management services, consulting, and aquatic products are available nationwide. Learn more about SOLitude Lake Management and purchase products at www.solitudelakemanagement.com.