How to Build a Farm Pond with Best Practices
So, you want to know how to build a farm pond? You probably think that all you have to do is get a bulldozer, dig a hole in a low spot and let the rain fill it up.
Wrong! Instead take more time to decide:
* where you need to put a pond that will fill up very quickly, and most importantly, where the dam won’t eventually burst;
* what time of year you need to stock baitfish in your pond and why;
* farm pond builders near me;
* farm pond construction methods;
* when you should put sport fish in your pond;
* how fast you want the fish to grow; and
* how much money you’re willing to spend to accelerate the numbers and/or sizes of the fish in the pond or lake.
To get the lowdown on the best ways to build, stock and finance a farm pond Great Days Outdoors interviewed Norm Latona, president of Southeastern Ponds of Calera, Alabama and a representative from Alabama Ag Credit.
Norman Latona on Building a Pond
GDO: When’s the Best Time to Build a Lake or a Pond?
Latona: We prefer to start construction on a pond in the warmer months – late spring, summer or early fall – which means fewer delays due to rain or mud that can slow down construction. Hopefully the lake will fill-up fairly rapidly with fall and winter rains. Then we can start stocking fish before the spring.
One mistake that new pond owners often make is they believe that the lake has to be absolutely full before we can stock fish. Once 10-15% of the pond is filled, we can begin stocking.
GDO: What’s First?
Latona: We recommend that our company first look at a map and a topographic map to learn what the land contours are, and where the best watershed may be before we consider farm pond design. We’ll visit the site to verify what we’ve seen on the map and make sure the best place for your pond or lake to take advantage of the watershed.
We build primarily hillside or watershed lakes in locations where we can build a dam, and the water that runs off both hillsides into the valley will be backed-up by the dam.
We search for a site where the two hills come together the closest, which will allow us to build an effective dam without having to move so much dirt and will save everyone time and money. We also want to look at how much land the water will run off of once the dam is built, so the lake stays full all year long.
GDO: What’s Next?
Latona: We need to know what soil types are on this land closest to where we’ll build the dam. Some soils have the ability to hold water, and others don’t. The soils with high clay content are usually the best soils to use for dam building, since they tend to be the most-impermeable to water.
Water tends to pour through sandy or gravelly soil. The least-expensive way to build a dam is for our company to locate soil with a lot of clay content on the land where we want to build a dam, and particularly on the lake site.
Bringing in the right type of soil from another property and having to haul it to the dam site becomes very expensive. Southeastern Pond also wants soil that’s very compactable. Water will find a way to go through a dam, if there are any cracks or crevices. Building a dam and backing up water in a pond puts the water under pressure, increasing the likelihood that the dam will leak, if you don’t use the correct materials.
GDO: How do you decide what type of structure to clear, put in or leave in the bottom of the lake?
Latona: Most of the lakes we build are for recreational sport fishing and are designed to attract and concentrate sport fish. We construct the bottoms of our ponds not only to make the fish happy, but to give our anglers specific targets at the bottoms where they can catch fish.
We believe in leaving and planting structure in the bottom of a lake and at different levels of the lake bed where baitfish can hold, predator fish can ambush them, and where sport fish and prey fish can bed and produce young.
The least-expensive kind of structure is what’s already there – tree stumps, treetops, brush and/or windrows. Usually before a lake’s filled, a lot of wood structure needs to be cut. We recommend leaving an abundance of stumps and wood brush in the lake before it’s filled.
We strategically place that wood to be the most attractive for fish to hold on it. We also bring in rocks and other materials to enhance the bottom and the sides of the bottom before the water’s raised.
We use earth-moving equipment to create shallow-water areas around the pond, ditches that run from shallow water to deep water, humps on the bottom of the pond and spawning areas in relatively-shallow water. Shaping some of the sides of the ponds enables us to create natural bedding areas.
We may add sand or gravel to those spots to attract fish to spawn. We use various techniques to make the pond the most attractive it can be for the fish and the fisherman.
GDO: When You Can Start Stocking a Pond?
Latona: When to begin stocking a pond isn’t an easy question to answer, since the size of the pond, the size of the watershed and the frequency of rain impact that decision.
For instance, a watershed that requires 10 acres of land to catch one acre of water won’t fill-up very fast. A one-acre pond with a 30–40-acre watershed will fill-up fast with normal rainfall.
Another consideration is how deep the pond will be. If the pond you’re considering building has 20-30-foot-deep water in it, that lake will require much longer to fill than a six- to eight-foot-deep pond will. We’ll know from our site inspection and your desire to have specific water depths about how fast a pond will fill-up.
GDO: Best Fish To Stock a Pond With First and Why?
Latona: The first fish we put in the lake are the forage fish that bass will feed on once they’re in the pond, which are fathead minnows. Also, generally 80-90% bluegills and 10-20% shellcrackers are put in that pond that bass and even bigger bream will eat.
Lakes and ponds at an adequate level for stocking in December or January means we can begin adding forage fish to the ponds then. The traditional stocking rate of forage fish is about 1,000 bluegills and shellcrackers and 1,000 fathead minnows per acre of water. Our goal is to let those fish grow and start reproducing before the bass are introduced.
Fathead minnows may begin reproducing as early as February, but the bluegills won’t reproduce until the water reaches 70–80 degrees, which usually occurs in the South in late May or June. Once the forage fish are reproducing, we’ll bring in fingerling bass.
These stocking rates were developed 30 years ago and are 1,000 bluegill/shellcracker mix and 100 bass fingerlings per acre. Depending on how fast a pond owner wants his bass to grow, we will deviate from that traditional stocking rate.
GDO: What type of bluegills and bass do you use for stocking, and what makes them grow?
Latona: We prefer to stock a strain of bluegills called coppernose, but you can stock the regular northern strain of bluegills just as easily. The coppernose bluegill seem to have the tendency to grow faster and produce more offspring. The last 20 years have seen a great improvement in the genetics of sport fish like bluegills and bass.
The bass we are stocking now is an intergrade commonly known as F1, a cross between the northern strain and the Florida strain of black bass. The northern strain seems to be a more-aggressive feeder than the Florida strain, however, the Florida strain seems to grow faster.
Although genetics plays an important role in how fast a bass grows big, our company believes that the same factors that cause deer to grow bigger and have larger antlers in a short time, which include genetics, age and nutrition are the same factors that cause bass to grow bigger, quicker.
A trophy bass needs time to grow. But regardless of what genetics that bass has or how old it is, if you put it in a bathtub and feed it one goldfish a month, that bass probably won’t be bigger than 1-1/2-pounds – even in five to eight years. Nutrition is a huge factor in growing bass quicker.
Other factors that speed up the growth of the bass is managing the quality of the water where the bass live by putting lime and fertilizer in the water, controlling weeds in the water and supplementary feeding.
Factors that Impact the Growth of Bass:
GDO: About how fast can a landowner grow a bass to three to four pounds and what food is required?
Latona: With more natural food, not pelleted food, shad, shiners, fathead minnows, shellcrackers and bluegills added to a pond, I’ve seen bass reach three to four pounds in one year. Since a bass requires about 10 pounds of food for every pound it adds, a bass has to be able to eat 30-40 pounds of forage fish in that first year of growth to reach that weight.
GDO: How can pond owners maximize the accelerated growth of bass during that first year of stocking?
Latona: We suggest putting layer after layer of additional forage fish like shad, shiners, fathead minnows and tilapia into the pond. We recommend placing feeders around the lakes too to feed the bluegills and the shellcrackers, so they grow faster. Then the bass have bigger meals to eat. Managing the fertility of the water by fertilizing and liming the pond regularly helps the bass grow quicker too.
We also manipulate the recommended stocking rate. A 10:1 ratio of forage to bass which was developed in the 1950s by Dr. Swingle and his colleagues at Auburn University to produce a large number of bass a pond owner could feed to his family. However, today most people who fish a pond will throw back 90% of the fish they catch since generally people prefer quality over quantity.
To produce those big bass for lake and pond owners, we manipulate the stocking rate of forage for bass up as high as 50 forage fish per bass in the initial stocking of the pond to create a pond that’s forage-crowded.
I’ve seen plenty of three-year-old bass weighing eight pounds each that have been in ponds stocked heavily at 50-70 forage fish to one bass, the water fertilized and limed regularly and a supplemental feeding program in place.
These principles can accelerate the female bass growth in the pond to where a one-year-old bass weighs three plus pounds during the first year and at two years old, a female bass may weigh five to six pounds, and a three-year-old bass may weigh six to eight pounds.
However, to grow past that six-to-eight-pound range after three years, we have to stock a different-sized forage fish to continue that growth. Most pond owners are happy with their ponds holding six to eight pounders.
GDO: Using this management strategy, how fast will the bluegills and shellcrackers grow?
Latona: Bluegills will grow to seven to nine inches possibly in a year or two. To grow a bluegill to ten to twelve inches and weighing up to a pound, usually will require five years. Most anglers are excited to catch a bluegill that big.
GDO: To learn more about how to build a fish pond or lake, how to manage that pond, and how to grow their bass and bluegills, how do they get in touch with you?
Southeastern Pond Management
Your Financial Advisor Can Help You Have the Lake of Your Dreams
Unless you’re a farmer or a rancher, you may not be acquainted with an Agricultural Federal Credit Union, but you may have heard the words Federal Land Bank, known today as Farm Credit. Farm Credit lends money to farmers, ranchers and individuals who want to buy and/or improve land or create a business or plant a crop on the land.
Some advantages of working with a state Agricultural Credit Union is that it will understand the needs of farmers, ranchers and other people who make a portion of their livings or have an interest in using the land. They understand the needs for credit, if you’re buying a large ranch or a five-acre tract in the country.
An Agricultural Credit Union is a lending institution that also pays dividends, and when you borrow money from one, you become a member of that credit union. These institutions understand how building a farm pond definitely increases the value of the land and can be used to generate more income from that property. Farm-credit organizations are located all over the United States.
To get a better understanding of Agricultural Credit Unions, we talked with a relationship manager for Alabama Ag Credit. “One of the advantages of having a local Ag Credit Union is that we better understand the wants and needs of the people who buy or own land in our area,” he said.
“We finance every kind of property, business or interest and everything related to agriculture like tractors. We provide lines of credit for farmers, and we also loan money for the construction, stocking and maintenance of farm ponds, boat docks and piers. My Alabama Ag Credit appraiser estimates that a pond or a lake increases the value of land by $4,000-$5,000 per acre.”
“We can offer a loan that’s like a construction loan in that you don’t have to borrow the total amount of money you’ll need to build a farm pond, and you don’t pay interest on any money you already haven’t borrowed. You either borrow exactly what you think you’ll need for the farm-pond construction, or you can get a line of credit that allows you to borrow as you build.”
One of the advantages of a line of credit is that often construction projects like building a pond may exceed the estimated costs.
If you need more money, you can draw it out of the agricultural credit union. An advantage of having a term loan is that an Ag Credit Union often will fix a rate of interest over 20 years, rather than 5-10 years, and you’ll have a longer time to pay back the loan.
“Alabama Ag Credit does a wide variety of recreational loans that relate to the land. Besides loaning money for the construction, the stocking and the management of the pond, we do rural-construction loans for houses too.”
Alabama Ag Credit
How Erosion Created Trophy Bass Fishing
Trey Montgomery and his wife, Pam, the owners of Leavellwood Lodge and the Lakes of Leavellwood, have been in the pay-to-bass-fish business for over 20 years. What started out as a conservation project has resulted in their fishing business and they had to learn about how to build a farm pond from scratch.
“One of the reasons we decided to build a lake was due to the erosion on our property,” Montgomery recalls. “Because of poor farming practices in the 1970s and 1980s, a piece of the land we’d bought was facing some serious erosion problems.
To stop the erosion, we built our first lake and then a chain of lakes to slow down the runoff on the property. One lake wouldn’t hold all the runoff from our land. Building lakes that flowed into other lakes enabled us to stair-step the rainwater down and stop the erosion.
“Currently we have 107 acres of water on this property, Leavellwood Lake with 35 acres, 42 acre Sleepy Hollow Lake and 24 acre Sawgrass Lake. When I built my first lake, a friend of mine, Paul Bracknell, already had built and managed several trophy bass lakes called Dream Lakes in central Alabama. He shared with me his years of experience of building, managing and growing numbers of big and trophy bass.
He also shared with me why he had put structure in the lake and the type of structure before he filled the lake with water. I learned from Paul how to manage hot water, cold water and the effects of shadow and shade. I also learned why structures of concrete and wood seemed to hold up the longest and provide the best habitat for bass. I listened to his advice and began to build my lakes from his recommendations.
“I also took the knowledge I’d learned from fishing on Alabama’s Gulf Coast about how artificial reefs could attract and hold red snapper. We discussed the type of structure we wanted to put into our lakes even before construction began.
I had a friend in the dirt moving business, who had built cattle-watering ponds and commercial catfish ponds. I hired him, and we sat down and discussed my goals and hopes for building lakes for trophy-bass fishing for a fee. I was convinced he was the man to build my lake.
“I visited the lake site every day. We built underwater mounds and put pea gravel on top of them as bedding sites for bass and bluegills. We also dug ditches and drains from what would be shallow water out to what would become the deepest part of the lake and left some trees in the lake. We used a bulldozer to move around and place some concrete structures and brush.
“Back then, we relied heavily on the Fisheries Section of Alabama’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, and if you built a pond or a lake on your property, the state would stock that water for you with fish, free-of-charge. But eventually when the state stopped doing that, I sought advice and purchased fish from pond management companies, and other people who had built fish ponds or lakes on their properties.”
Before the Montgomerys got into the fishing business, they had farmed corn and soybeans. Then when the market for corn and soybeans bottomed out, they started raising hay and cattle. Although the Montgomerys began building lakes to stop erosion, they discovered that lake building could become expensive very quickly. Trey Montgomery decided to begin selling weekend fishing trips to try and help defray the cost of building the lakes and began to learn how to build a farm pond.
“As people came and paid to catch bass and bluegills, we realized this could be a very-good business for us,” Montgomery remembers. “I guess you’d have to say that we more or less backed into our fish-for-fees program.”
What Leavellwood Lakes Charge and Learning About the Bass There
According to Montgomery, “Today our rates are $325 per person to fish for the day, which includes a boat and a motor and lunch at our lodge. For our overnight packages, we charge $450 per day which includes three meals, lodging and the use of a boat and a motor. All you need to bring is your fishing tackle and overnight bag.
“If you want to hire a guide, our rates are an extra $100- $175 per day, if the guide furnishes his own boat and tackle. Our guides have fished these lakes for a long time, and they’re familiar with what the bass are doing, and where the bass like to hang-out at certain times of the day.
“When I’m asked how many bass can a person catch in a day here, I ask, ‘What’s your experience level in bass fishing, and what type of tackle do you have?’ If an angler is a fair bass fisherman and has pretty-good equipment, he or she can catch and release 40-50 bass per day. Even catches of 100 bass per day aren’t uncommon. An angler who catches 40 bass in a day will pull in some good-sized bass, generally several three to five pound bass.
“Our lake record on numbers of bass caught is one boat catching and releasing 247 bass in one day. Our biggest bass was a 15-pounder caught on Sleepy Hollow Lake that was released back into the lake. Leavellwood Lake’s record bass weighed 13 pounds, 4 ounces, and Sawgrass Lake’s record bass was a 12-pounder, with both bass released back into the lake.”
When the Montgomerys first built their lakes, they wanted to provide a place where anglers could come and have one of their greatest days of bass fishing ever, anywhere, and have the possibility to catch the biggest bass of their bass-fishing careers. Leavellwood doesn’t promote its bluegill fishing, but their lakes home numbers of good-sized bluegills. Often, a customer may start out bass fishing, and then once he or she sees the size of bluegills available, he may choose to finish off his day fishing for bluegills.