Bossing Your Own Pond

Please note the publication date of this article. Statistics and seasonal information were accurate at the time of publication. Check links provided for the most current information.

By Larry D. Hodge

Published in Texas Wildlife, July 2005

Establishing goals is the first step in developing a plan for managing a pond. “Most people either want a lot of fish, or they want big fish,” says fisheries biologist Bob Lusk. “I look at a pond holistically. Everything that happens in and around the pond impacts everything that happens in the pond. I look at the water chemistry, plant life, depth of pond, and species of fish as a community and match up the condition of the pond with the landowner’s goals, and then figure out what to do to get where he or she wants to go. It’s really important to remember that when you create a lake, you are making decisions that will affect that piece of land for generations, and you need to be really careful about what you do.”

Managing a pond involves much, much more than just dumping some fish in and waiting for them to grow. “A pond is dynamic,” Lusk points out. “Fish come, fish go. Fish eat, are eaten. Plants grow and disappear, all in cycles. Once you figure out what those cycles are and how to adjust them to meet your goals, then you’re a pond manager.”

Recently I visited with Lusk and posed the following questions. His responses outline the basic principles of pond management; the list of resources at the end will enable you to pursue the subject to whatever depth you choose.

Q: Does pond management differ from one part of the state to another?

A: The basic principles are the same, but Texas has such diversity in geology, terrain, rainfall, flora and fauna, that you have to make adjustments. For example, the watershed of a pond near Abilene will be completely different from a watershed near Rusk. Abilene probably gets about 20 inches of rainfall a year, so it takes a larger drainage area to fill a pond and keep it full than it does around Rusk, which gets 50 to 55 inches of rain a year.

Another point is that in West Texas, the soils are laden with minerals and metals that dissolve in water and make the water hard. In East Texas the opposite is true. Minerals in the water promote the growth of phytoplankton, the basis of the food chain in ponds. Two things I like to look at are pH and alkalinity. Alkalinity needs to be in the range of 20 parts per million (ppm) for the pond to be fertile. Agricultural lime will raise it. In East Texas it’s common practice to amend pond water with ag lime just like a pasture, but you’ll never see a lime truck in Abilene.

The pH is how acid or base water is. It’s one of the first things that changes as water changes. So checking pH can be important as a reference point. As long as it’s between 5.5 and 8.5, that’s healthy. But when it rapidly changes in a pond, that’s a red flag to start looking for water problems. It could be due to decaying organic matter that decreased the water’s buffering capacity. Or there could be an outside source. One East Texas fishing club saw the native aquatic plants in their pond go away. A nearby oil well had begun to seep acid into their lake. They caught that by checking the pH.

Q: Besides water chemistry, what other things should a pond manager watch for?

A: You need to assess the status of the fishery periodically. There are two ways to do it. One way is to hire a professional to come in and electrofish the pond or seine the shoreline, do water analysis and evaluate the plant community. Or you can do some of the work on your own by keeping length/weight catch records of fish.

It’s important to understand that you are working with an entire community of fish, not just one fish or one kind of fish. A food chain has to be created and managed and cared for. If you have bass, you need bluegills. Bluegills spawn three or four times a year. They have small mouths, so they don’t compete with bass for food. Bluegills are the backbone of the food chain, and you need to provide cover for them. When a bluegill is a few days old, it takes five to six thousand to make a pound. After 45 days, it takes 30. It arguably takes 10 pounds of bluegills to make a pound of bass. So you need to keep them alive by providing dense cover like old Christmas trees or cedar bushes. I like coppernose bluegills, which get bigger than bluegills. Big bass eat big bluegills. In order to ensure a supply of food for the bass, you need to have some bluegills big enough that they don’t get eaten, and coppernose bluegills can reach that size.

You also need to consider the placement of cover and structure around the perimeter of a lake. That has a big impact on the amount of energy it takes fish to feed. Ranchers have a term to describe what happens when pastures first start to green up in the spring and cattle lose weight because they are burning more energy walking around grazing than they are getting back from what they eat. They call it chasing grass. The same thing can happen with fish. Each fish has its own lifestyle and behaviors. Little guys hang around in big schools for safety. Ten- to 13-inch bass run around in gangs chasing the little fish and eating them. Once a bass reaches 17 inches, its mouth is big enough for it to eat almost anything in the pond, and it becomes more territorial. Once it gets even larger, it creates a domain and waits in ambush for food to come to it.

Structure is a social gathering place or place for fish to hide, but don’t have too much cover or it makes it hard to fish. Too much cover disperses fish too much. Think about the anglers and how they will fish a pond when designing it. Schooling size bass like the canopy of a small tree. Big bass like more defined cover like a log or tree trunk. They like drop-offs with quick access to deep water. Every time I design a lake or pond, I keep those things in mind.

Q: Can I use anglers to help manage the fishery?

A: Look at catch-and-release and slot limits as tools in the pond manager’s toolbox. Catch-and-release is a great tool, but if overused, it can kill a pond. A pond is a garden, and now and again you have to harvest some fish. Ponds are completely different from public lakes in that most ponds don’t get enough fishing pressure. A common problem is too many bass that need to be harvested. You have to keep a balance. If you want big bass, you have to harvest smaller fish.

But be picky about what you take. You don’t pick green tomatoes unless you are going to eat them. Don’t pick your fish when they are “green.” Every double-digit bass was once a four-pound bass. When you keep track of lengths and weights, the fish will tell you if some need to be taken out. The American Fisheries Society produces a table (see below) that shows how much a largemouth bass should weigh at a given length. A 12-inch fish should weigh 14 ounces; an 18-inch fish should weigh 3 pounds, 4 ounces and so on. A 12-inch bass that weighs 10 ounces has lost weight because it is not getting enough to eat. This is how you identify slot limit bass that need to be harvested. You can almost see it on paper easier than you can see it in a boat. If you catch 20 bass and 15 are underweight, and you have done it several times, it’s a sure sign you need to cull some of those fish. There is a given amount of food through the course of a season for the number of mouths, and the easiest way to fix an imbalance is to correct the number of mouths, so the good news is, you get to go fishing.

An alternative is to beef up the food chain to increase productivity. But ultimately, at some point you have to take some fish out or nature will do it for you, just like deer. Once you get 20 to 25 percent of the bass above 17 inches, they can do some of the work for you. They will eat some of the smaller bass. A 22-inch bass can eat a 14-inch bass.

Standard Weights for Largemouth Bass
Length (inches) 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
Weight 5oz 7oz 9oz 11oz 14oz 1# 3oz 1# 7oz 1# 13oz 2# 4oz. 2# 12oz 3# 4oz 3# 14oz. 4# 9oz. 5# 6oz. 6# 4oz 7# 3oz

Q: Are there seasonal aspects to pond management?

A: Realtors say location, location, location. Pond managers should say timing, timing, timing. The calendar of events for pond management should revolve around the temperature of the water. Everything is related to water temperature. There are times to stock fish and not to stock fish, and those times are different in Brownsville than they are in Amarillo.

Plants grow at different temperatures, fish spawn at different temperatures. In mid-spring, aquatic plants are beginning their heaviest growth cycle. If you wait until plants are growing to fertilize the pond, you may fertilize the plants instead of the plankton that is the basis of the food chain. A common practice is to fertilize clear water. Once the water temperature is consistently above 55 degrees in the spring, that’s the time to start fertilizing the water. If you pay attention to water temperature, you can predict what plants will grow when and be ready for them.

Bluegill will feed at temperatures down into the 40s, while other fish wait until the temperature reaches the 50s. So when the water warms to the 50s, that’s a good time to start feeding fish.

There is some controversy about fishing for bedded bass during the spawn. [That’s the time of year when most really big bass are caught, because they move into shallow water to spawn and become more accessible to anglers. However, the Budweiser ShareLunker program has proved that if anglers and biologists handle fish properly, survival rates of big females caught during the spawning season can be very high. However, I don’t think catching fish off nests in ponds has an impact on the fish population. Most ponds can maintain 50 to 75 pounds of bass per surface acre. A two-pound female can lay 8,000 to 10,000 eggs, and if just a few survive, the pond will become overstocked. So there are times when it would be better if the fish did not reproduce.

Managing a pond is like managing deer. You need good habitat, good food at the right time, the right genetics and a harvest strategy based on your management goals. Every management plan I write is based on those four things.
Genetics is the area where buying fish from a hatchery for stocking plays a significant role. If you want big bass, you have to have Florida bass genes to enhance your existing bass population.

Land managers routinely set goals they want to achieve through management of livestock and wildlife. One person may want to manage for maximum production of deer, while another may opt to concentrate on growing a limited number of trophy bucks. Yet when stocking a pond for fishing, these same people may not realize good fishing is no accident. “People in Texas used to think that pecans, watermelons and fish were free,” jokes Lusk. “But you have to manage a pond to get what you want.”


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Pond Management Resources

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does not provide fish for stocking or on-site consulting services for private lakes and ponds. However, other resources are available to assist managers of private fisheries:

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