There's Gold in Ponds
By Larry D. Hodge
Published in Texas Wildlife, January 2005
It may come as a shock to many landowners to learn that fishing is twice as popular as hunting in Texas. In 2001, 2.4 million people fished in Texas, compared to 1.2 million who hunted. Anglers spent nearly $2 billion—that’s billion—in Texas in 2001, half a billion more than hunters spent.
How can you, the private landowner, take advantage of this huge market?
The answer may be as simple as making better use of ponds already on your land, or ones you plan to construct. Landowners who improve fishing in their ponds can increase the value of hunting leases on their property by $1 to $2 an acre, especially if they allow year-around access for fishing.
However, while Texas ranchers are well versed in how to handle a herd of Herefords, fish are, well, a different kettle of fish. Pond construction, stocking and management should not be left to chance any more than cattle should be left to fend for themselves. Managing a pond is more complicated than stocking a few fingerlings and waiting for them to multiply—a lot more complicated. This article will cover enough of the basics to help you understand there’s a lot more you need to know about each of the topics below. See the Resources section at the end of this article for where to go for additional information.
First, Build a Pond...
If you use an existing pond, it’s important to remove all fish in it as your first step. The type and number of fish in a pond must be known and carefully managed if you are to achieve your management objectives.
When building a new pond, before you move a bucket of dirt, decide what kind and size of fish you want. Most people want largemouth bass, and ponds of less than one acre are extremely difficult to manage for bass. In small ponds, it’s best to stock catfish alone. Ponds larger than one acre can be stocked with a variety of species, including bass.
Consider the quality
of water in your pond. If your pond is muddy and you want to grow bass,
you’ll have to treat the water to clear it. Catfish
do fine in muddy water. Also, test the water for alkalinity and correct
If the water level in the pond will fluctuate, provide water 12 to 16 feet deep in part of the pond. A drastic drop in water level can concentrate fish in a small area and make them more susceptible to predation. Draw-downs may also lead to oxygen depletion, especially during hot summer months. Having a deep-water refuge for the fish can minimize these problems.
Largemouth bass are the number one sportfish in Texas. If you intend to lease fishing rights, bass anglers will probably constitute your largest potential market. However, a put-and-take catfishing operation is another possibility. You can also opt for a combination. Just be aware that the type and number of fish you stock will have profound implications for how the pond must be managed. For example, catfish growth can be enhanced by supplemental feeding, but since this adds nutrients to the water, you won’t need to fertilize as much. (Adding commercial inorganic fertilizer to a pond can greatly increase fish production, but using too much can lead to oxygen depletion.)
Most commonly, pond managers will stock a combination of bluegills and largemouth bass in larger ponds. In a well-fertilized pond, zooplankton and insect larvae will supply enough food for the bluegills and small bass fry, and the larger bass will eat the bluegills. It’s possible for such a system to be virtually self-supporting. Some channel catfish can be added to such a pond.
When setting up a bass pond, the bluegills must be stocked first, during the fall before the bass are added. The bluegills will spawn the following spring, and when bass are stocked in early summer, their food supply will be waiting.
The pond is in, it has fish, and it’s time to go fishing. You might think your problems are all behind you, but they’re just beginning. Building and maintaining a quality fishery is a juggling act. Just as you must be careful about what you put into the pond, you must be careful about what you take out.
The key word to remember is patience. No bass should be harvested for the first two years. If bass are overharvested during the first year, bluegills will overpopulate the pond, and production of young bass will be low. However, after three years, some bass will need to be harvested. If your goal is to produce large bass, you’ll need to concentrate on harvesting bass from 8 to 12 inches long. This leaves more food for the remaining bass. Releasing all bass more than 15 inches long for the first three years will ensure that some grow to larger size.
Setting length limits for anglers and requiring them to keep accurate harvest records are important management tools. Harvest records are especially important for catfish-only ponds. At least half the original fish should be caught before more fish are stocked. You also need to keep the total weight of catfish in the pond to less than 1,000 pounds per surface acre to decrease the risk of oxygen depletion during the warm months. If catfish are stocked in combination with bass and bluegills, total weight of catfish should not exceed 250 pounds per surface acre. Using various sampling methods we won’t go into here (but which you can read all about using the Resources section), you should assess the fish population in your pond every one to two years and take corrective measures as needed.
If all this sounds complicated, it is—and we haven’t even addressed such issues as control of aquatic vegetation, techniques for analyzing fish populations, constructing fish shelters, aeration and destratification, not to mention water level manipulation to provide fall and winter habitat for waterfowl (and thereby generate income from waterfowl hunting).
But who ever told you ranching would be easy?
- Rural landowners are accustomed to working closely with the TPWD wildlife biologist for their area. However, TPWD does not provide stocking or on-site consulting service for private ponds. For information on building, management and stocking, visit our Private Lake Management Page or contact your Texas Agricultural Extension agent.
- You may choose to manage your pond yourself. Another option is to contract with a fishing club to manage your pond and sublease fishing to its members, paying you based on usage, similar to day-hunting. The club handles reservations, access and management; all you have to do is take the money to the bank. One such is the Great American Bass Club; contact them at 214/871-0044 or visit their web site at www.gtbc.com.
- Pond Boss magazine delivers helpful hints and timely advice right to your mailbox. Visit their web site at www.pondboss.com or call 903/564-6144.
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