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January/February 2013

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On Golden Pond

Transform your private fishing hole into angling heaven by avoiding these common pitfalls.

By Craig Bonds

To an outsider, I’m sure it looked like just a pond.

There was nothing visually extraordinary about it. In fact, it appeared unremarkably similar to the thousands of private ponds that dot the rural and suburban Texas landscape. But my grandmother’s livestock pond, a stone’s throw away from my boyhood home in the black clay prairie of Central Texas, was so much more to me.

So many rich life experiences happened there, as well as at other ponds nearby and afar, forming the tapestries that cloak the window into my past. Certainly, my passion for fishing and outdoor recreation was nurtured there, though my adolescent mind contained no prescient consideration that a career in fisheries management would trace its roots to a place where cattle came to drink.

If I’d known then what I know now, that pond could have received proper management and offered even greater rewards. Fortunately for pond and lake owners, a plethora of resources is now available. Maxi­mizing those good memories for your family and friends primarily requires exercising good management.

Good management begins with a firm understanding of your pond or lake’s capabilities and limitations, and developing objectives based on a realistic set of goals.

My grandmother’s pond would never have made a good trophy bass or crappie fishery; at about an acre, it was too small. Pond owners have to accept the reality of their situation and do the best they can with what they’ve got. I’ve seen a lot of hard-earned money go down the proverbial pond drain because the owners failed to understand and embrace the limitations of their pond.

Here are four pitfalls to avoid when managing your little slice of heaven.

Fish stocking

Part of good pond management is proper fish stocking. Be sure to choose the correct size and species of fish.

Pitfall 1: Not matching pond characteristics with stocking recommendations

As a general rule of thumb, small ponds (less than one acre) and those with cloudy water are good candidates for catfish fishing. Largemouth bass will not typically reach their growth potential in small ponds, as low visibility inhibits the largemouth’s sight-feeding capabilities. In these ponds, bass stocked with sunfish will keep the sunfish from overpopulating and provide a little fun for novice anglers.

Larger ponds and lakes (especially those larger than 10 acres) can grow trophy-size largemouth bass given proper management. There, the largemouth bass prey base can be expanded from the traditional bluegill to also include threadfin shad and other species. Genetics play a role when stocking larger ponds and lakes; stocking Florida largemouth bass will increase your probability of catching trophy-size fish.

I fondly recall a couple of ponds that illustrate these concepts. The ponds were owned by one of my high school teachers. The larger of the two offered relatively clear water, aquatic plants and very cooperative largemouth bass. The largemouth were perfectly suited, as sight-feeding predators, to feed on the abundant bluegill. The other pond was chronically muddy and devoid of habitat, but offered plenty of channel catfish fed on a pellet diet. In both cases, stockings were successfully matched to pond characteristics.

Sometimes, my classmates and I were invited to partake in the bounty. We sought to cure a particularly virulent case of “senioritis” at these ponds one spring day when we should have been at school. I still remember the dread I felt as I watched my principal’s truck bounce up that dusty ranch road, coming to fetch us back to school. We never figured out how he discovered our location, but we did learn that an anonymous delivery of fresh catfish fillets would soften the punishment for playing hooky.

Hybrid striped bass are gaining recognition as a pond stocking option. This cross between a white bass and a striped bass is commercially available and readily accepts pellet feed. It’s a perfect fit for properties with multiple ponds, where owners would like to diversify the fishing opportunities. Even though these fish readily take food pellets, they are a lot of fun to catch on artificial lures. Hybrid striped bass are arguably, pound for pound, one of the feistiest sport fishes in fresh water.

But in my experience, the hardest-pulling catch on rod-and-reel was my border collie. In my defense, I repeatedly told him to stop snapping at my lure on each back cast. I’ve had the fortune of catching jack crevalle and king mackerel in the blue Gulf waters on bass tackle, but neither stripped line like old Chief sprinting for home.

Pitfall 2: Failure to use selective fish harvest

When stocked fish turn into family pets, you can run into problems. The most common management issue is failing to harvest enough fish, not harvesting too many. A pond can support only a certain amount of fish, generally agreed to be about 1,000 pounds of fish per surface acre. Exceed that carrying capacity, and you’re just asking for trouble. Sure, intensive aquaculture practices can push the envelope, but such methods require close water quality monitoring and frequent aerating and flushing to avoid problems. Here are two common examples.

The first story follows a typical plot. The pond owner purchases fingerling channel catfish at the recommended stocking rate and begins a supplemental feeding program. The whole family enjoys watching the fish come to the surface and consume the protein-rich feed. They’re amazed at how fast the catfish grow and may even name a few of the recognizable ones. Where’s the problem? The stocking rate was based on the expectation that the fish would be harvested when they reached about two pounds. Say they stock 200 channel catfish in a one-acre pond, and the fish do well at first. If the fish are allowed to grow to five pounds, the carrying capacity comes into play. As fish respiration and bacterial decomposition of food waste exceed oxygen production overnight or on calm, cloudy summer days, dissolved oxygen can crash, causing a severe fish kill.

The second selective harvest storyline involves excessive catch-and-release bass fishing. Releasing largemouth bass can allow some fish to grow to more desirable sizes; however, problems arise when too many small bass are protected from harvest. The bass outstrip their food supply, and their growth slows dramatically. The whole idea behind selective harvest is for anglers to remove fish at appropriate sizes. Pond owners are encouraged to remove surplus small bass, and release larger, more recreationally valuable fish.

Carp

Triploid grass carp can provide excellent control for certain plants.

Pitfall 3: Incorrect aquatic plant control measures

Nuisance aquatic vegetation is one of the most common pond and lake management challenges, and treatments are quite varied. Control strategies are often specific to a single category of plants. For example, triploid grass carp, when stocked at recommended rates and under an approved permit, can provide excellent control of plants they favor. But higher stocking rates are required for less palatable plants, while other invasives are not good candidates for control with grass carp.

Numerous EPA-approved aquatic herbicides are available commercially, each labeled for specific target plants and treatment conditions. But when they’re used outside labeling guidelines, it’s not only ineffective, it’s illegal. Diuron (often sold under the brand name Karmex) is harmful to aquatic environments and is not approved for such use, despite occasional misguided recommendations from supply stores. Pond owners should first identify their nuisance aquatic plants and then use the appropriate resources to control them.

Hybrid

Hybrid striped bass are an increasingly popular stocking option, as in this pond in Midlothian.

Pitfall 4: Believing that fish stocking is the only tool in the box

Stocking can establish fish populations where none exist, and can supplement existing populations under specific circumstances. Some pond owners mistakenly assume that stocking more fish is the cure-all strategy for poor fishing. However, adding bass to an already stunted population or into a poor habitat will not improve fishing.

Sometimes, underlying water quality or watershed issues affect the pond and result in poor fishing. One individual with an eight-acre private lake wanted to stock more bass to improve fishing. Fish sampling revealed a slow-growing bass population; water samples indicated low alkalinity and suspended clay. He was advised to try a water-quality improvement regimen, rather than simply stocking more fish. He added lime to increase alkalinity and gypsum to increase water clarity, followed by a fertilizing program to kick-start the food chain. Subsequent fish sampling revealed drastic improvements to bass and sunfish populations. The landowner was thrilled to experience better fishing without stocking a single fish.

While private pond and lake management is a complicated and nuanced process, there are countless resources available to help ensure success. With a little research and patience, these little slices of heaven can provide memorable moments for many generations.

Additional private pond and lake management resources:

TPWD private water management web page:
http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/water/habitats/private_water/

Texas Chapter American Fisheries Society's Pond Management Manual (PDF):
http://www.sdafs.org/tcafs/manuals/tcafs_pond_manual_2005.pdf

Aquatic plant and algae identification and control strategies:
http://aquaplant.tamu.edu/

Southeast Resources Aquaculture Center publications:
https://srac.tamu.edu/

TPWD biologists (phone consultation):
http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/business/about/divisions/inland_fisheries/offices/index.phtml#biologist

Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension:
http://wildlife.tamu.edu/

Private pond management consultants and fish retailer list (PDF):
http://www.texasaquaculture.org/2011%20TAA%20AvailList.pdf

 


Related stories

Confessions of a Pond Jumper

Tricks for Catching Catfish

Read more articles on fishing on TP&W magazine's Fishing Page

 

 

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