Choosing the Right Mix of Fish for Pond Stocking
It is simply a fact of fishing pond life, in terms of different kinds of fish for pond stocking, bass are the top gun for most ponds in the southeast. Of course, there will be bluegill and possibly even crappie but bass, whether a largemouth or a hybrid, rule the roost. A big part of the reason for that is they thrive in warmer water and can grow to trophy size.
Still, it isn’t a matter of just dumping a bunch of bass into a pond and expecting to have a top-notch fishery before long. There is much more to the narrative.
One of the first considerations is what type of pond do you have? Is it an existing pond or is it a just constructed brand new pond that has no resident fish population? While this sounds like it is unrelated to the right fish mixture, the reality is that you need to know what you have before you stock what you want, define what you want and then go on from there.
Kind of sounds confusing but not if you think about it.
Existing Ponds – Old or New
Norman Latona is president of Southeastern Pond Management, which offers services that cover the waterfront of pond development and management. SE Pond provides ecosystem analysis, management programs, pond construction, liming, fertilizing, fish inventory assessment, removal processes, stocking of forage and game fish, maintenance and more throughout the southeast.
The Pond Has to be Free of Fish
According to Latona, whether the pond is going to be managed for trophy largemouth bass, big “slab” bluegill or to be a balanced fishing lake with no emphasis on growing exceptionally large fish, it absolutely has to be fish free.
“When you are restocking or stocking fish for the first time it is critical that the water we are stocking is free of fish,” Latona said. “We need to prepare it properly and make sure that there is nothing that will compete with what we are going to introduce and interfere with that dynamic.”
To that end for existing ponds, SEPond will come in and use a fish toxicant that will eradicate the existing fish population and, in a short period of time, the toxicant will dissipate and leave a pond that is ready to stock. This killing of fish is necessary because the last thing a pond owner wants is to introduce fingerling fish stock that will be easy prey for undesirable species.
“There is nothing worse than to stock a lake or pond full of genetically improved high quality fingerling fish, whatever the species is, to have them undermined by what is already there, particularly adult predators who are just gobbling them up,” Latona said.
Starting with a Clean Slate
The next question in the stocking process is to define what are your expectations and vision for the pond in terms of fishing and in general?
As a pond owner, what are your goals? Is it just to produce catchable largemouth bass and lots of them but not necessarily big ones? Is your goal to have a clear sparkling pond for the kids or grandkids to swim in and catch some decent size or larger bream and respectable bass? The stocking program for each one varies and SEPond can tweak each situation and approach to meet the objectives.
While the management plan for each pond is different, an important constant in stocking from scratch is that the forage fish always go in first and need time to establish themselves and start reproducing.
“The more secure and abundant the food source, the faster the bass are going to grow. When I say forage fish, I’m talking about everything from bluegill to shellcrackers, fathead minnows, golden shiners and even threadfin shad. Typically, the bluegill that we stock are in the one-to-two-inch size range,” Latona said. “The ideal forage stocking timeline is from early fall all the way to late winter.”
“We just let those fish kind of stew in there and grow, spawn and expand and by the time we start stocking bass in late May or early June, the bluegill and forage fish that we stocked some months ago are of a size and ready to spawn,”
Latona emphasized that it is critical that bluegill and other forage species go through at least one spawning cycle before the predator fish are introduced. That way there are lots of newly “hatched” fry hanging around for the smaller bass to gobble up.
“When bluegill reach three to five inches in length, they are sexually mature. They are also too large at this point for the newly introduced bass fingerlings to consume. Newly stocked bass, typically two to three inches in length, depend on reproduction of bluegill and other forage species present. Other forage fish, such as fathead minnows, for example, frequently spawn in February and early March. Having an abundance of suitable size food for the largemouth bass fingerlings is obviously critical to their survival,” Latona pointed out.
The bottom line is that for bass to grow they need to eat a lot and they like to eat. Research shows that a bass needs to consume 8-10 pounds of food in order to gain one pound of weight and they can eat themselves out of house and home if there isn’t a good balance between the predators (bass) and the forage fish population. Therein lies the reason to make sure that the forage fish base is vibrant enough to feed these predators and make sure that the number of bass are in sync with the forage base.
“When you can create these conditions, that is when you see bass that are two to three inches long when stocked and by the end of the summer, they are eight to ten inches long and look like little footballs,” Latona added.
Ratios of Forage Fish to Predators and What to Stock
If you are stocking bass and want a healthy predator to prey ratio, think “10 to 1” per acre. In other words for every predator (bass) per acre you should have approximately 10 forage fish but that really depends on the goals of the pond owner.
According to Latona, SEPond frequently manipulates this ratio to tailor a program to the specific goals of the lake owner.
“If the goal is to produce trophy bass, the ratio of forage to predator may be increased; likewise, the predator to prey ratio may be shifted the other way, in cases where “quality” and “trophy” bass production is not a stated objective,” Latona said. “The important point is, pond management has evolved to the point where we better understand predator/prey dynamics and the role that initial stocking ratios play.”
Forage Fish For Pond Stocking
As I mentioned, Latona’s “Go To” forage fish for pond stocking are the venerable bluegill, threadfin and gizzard shad primarily because they spawn multiple times and can grow to become a good bass mouthful. That active reproduction and quick growth rate makes them an “enduring” forage fish that can produce a sustainable population and not have to be re-introduced every year. He adds golden shiners, fathead minnows, shellcrackers, even tilapia and rainbow trout, depending on the goals of the pond owner and stocking restrictions.
“We stock tilapia, where they are allowed, in April and May and they will spawn multiple times all the way up to the fall but they can’t tolerate it when the water gets down to 40 or 50 degrees,” Latona said. “It is the opposite for rainbow trout which we stock in the fall because they can’t live in the summer water temperature but they do great in the winter and are fun to catch and eat and are good short-term forage for trophy bass.”
The bottom line in all of this is that if you have an emphasis on having a healthy bass and bream pond population that is in balance you need to make sure that they have enough to eat to grow to whatever size you want and that the pond environment is conducive with adequate structure to allow the forage fish base to thrive. That means maintaining a balance between predator and prey.
It is basically a big circle.