How to Stock a Pond from Scratch
Here are the scenarios when considering how to stock a pond from scratch:
#1 – You have an existing farm pond. You’ve worked to enhance the pond but, for whatever reason, it isn’t meeting your expectations. That may mean too many little and medium size bass but no “lunkers”, which means there are too many bass and not enough food. In other words, the pond is “predator crowded” which means there is not enough food for the bass population to eat and grow big. There may be unwanted vegetation growth or the water quality isn’t up to snuff. It could be that somehow unwelcome or even invasive species are suddenly present. Time for a fresh start.
#2 – You have a piece of property and want a pond but you are not sure where to buy fish to stock a pond, the process, or even how to start. It’s more than just digging a big hole and waiting for it to fill from rain.
Norman Latona is president of Southeastern Pond Management, which offers services that cover the waterfront of pond development and management. SEPond provides ecosystem analysis, management programs, liming, fertilizing, fish inventory assessment, removal processes, stocking of forage and game fish and more, if you are in the Southeast and looking for “fishing stocking near me.”
“As far as fish stocking goes, if the pond is in the Southeastern footprint, be it Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, the Florida panhandle and parts of the Carolinas and even east Texas, we cover it,” Latona said.
Latona said that when you are starting from “scratch”, regardless of whether it is a newly constructed pond being stocked for the first time or an existing body of water that was reworked and needs a fresh lease on life, there are some steps that need to be considered.
The Pond Has to be Free of Fish
Latona said that whether the pond is going to be managed for trophy largemouth bass, trophy 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 prep 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 SEPond will come in and use a fish toxicant that will eradicate the existing fish population and in a short period of time will dissipate and leave a pond that is ready to stock. 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 fishing, whatever the species is, to have them undermined by what is already there, particularly adult predators who are just gobbling them up,” Latona said.
Latona pointed out that for existing ponds that are being drained or have streams flowing into them, the eradication process sometimes can be challenging. There may be potholes that fish get trapped in or they go up the feeding stream or creek.
“It can be a little labor intensive when you have to go in and kill the fish that remain and sometimes even have to go up the creek to the property line,” Latona said. “We want to eliminate as much competition as possible before stocking forage fish.’
Latona said that once the you have the best fish to stock a pond with, the desired forage species composition is established, and the predator fish (bass) are introduced, the presence of a few “wild” fish really isn’t an issue.
“Once we get those adult predators established and up to a size where they can out-compete the smaller creek fish that may sneak in, we aren’t worried and frankly, the bass stay on top of it and those creek fish may end up being additional food,” Latona said. “Still, it is important to wipe the canvas clean before you start.”
In terms of building a new pond/lake, Latona said that the most important thing is to have an adequate water supply.
“It doesn’t do a lot of good to build a lake where you got an inadequate watershed. The pond takes forever to fill up and it doesn’t stay full because there’s just not enough water, replenishing what exits the lake with evaporation and seepage,” Latona said. “On the other hand, if the watershed is too heavy, then you may get a flushing effect that turns the water over so rapidly that it becomes difficult to be effective with your management efforts, as in liming, fertilizing or both and sometimes even vegetation control.”
Latona said that his rule of thumb when it comes to the size of watersheds to the surface area of a pond, the ratio is 15-30 to one, depending on the typography of the property.
“That means you may have 15, 20 or even up to 30 acres of watershed for every one acre of impoundment,” Latona explained.
Once the pond has a guaranteed adequate water supply and is fish free, it is time to turn to stocking. Latona said that a popular misconception of pond owners is that the pond has to be fully full before stocking efforts start.
“We stock a lot of ponds that are a quarter or a third of the way full and that is typically plenty,” Latona said. “At that point, there are a lot of decisions to be made.”
The goal of the pond owner may be to produce largemouth bass. The goal may be to just catch lots of bass, not necessarily big ones. The stocking program for each one is different and SEPond can tweak each approach to meet the objectives.
While the management plan for each pond is different, the one big constant in stocking from scratch is that the forage fish always go in first and need time to establish themselves and start reproducing before you begin stocking a pond with bass.
“The more 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 and typically the bluegill 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 are of a size and ready to spawn,”
According to Latona it is critical that bluegill, the best fish for a small pond, and other forage species go through at least one spawning cycle before the predator fish are introduced.
“When a bluegill gets up to three inches it can spawn so when we stock those two-to-three-inch bass fingerlings, the bluegills are too big for them to eat and it is critical because the primary food source for those bass are the fry of those bluegills spawning,” Latona said. “Fathead minnows spawn in February and March and they don’t get very big so they are an additional food source for the bass as are threadfin shad.”
“Once the bass go in it becomes much more measurably difficult to get a forage species established simply because you’ve got bass predators in there gobbling them up as fast as you can put them in,” Latona noted. “Whereas before the bass go in there’s really nothing much that’s in there that is eating them.”
“When you can create these conditions, that is when you see bass that are two to three inches long stocked and by the end of the summer, they are eight to ten inches long and look like little footballs,” Latona added.
Depending on your pond management objectives, how many forage fish and largemouth bass should you stock?
When it comes to how many forage fish and largemouth bass should you stock to achieve your pond management goals? And how much does it cost to stock a pond? Many factors play into the cost of each job.
According to Latona, the time-honored standard is approximately 10 forage fish to one predator per acre which is a 10 to one ratio. That can change though depending on what you want to accomplish.
If your goal is to produce trophy bass you may cut down on the number of bass stocked or substantially increase the number of forage fish to make sure that those bass that you do stock have plenty to eat for maximum weight gain. On the other hand, if you want a bunch of medium size bass to catch just for the fun of it and aren’t really looking for trophy fish, the ratio of bass introduced may increase.
“If the goal is to manage a pond for trophy bass, we want to create a surplus of food so that the bass that are stocked eat nonstop and not have to put much effort into finding something to eat,” Latona concluded. “We’ve seen well managed ponds show bass growth in the three plus pounds per year range.”