Small ponds and lakes represent a significant portion of Alabama’s freshwater resources. Our state has an estimated 50,000 ponds that cover approximately 150,000 acres. Most ponds that have been stocked with largemouth bass and bream (bluegill and redear sunfish) can provide excellent recreational opportunities when properly managed. Management, as it pertains to ponds, is anything that can be done to increase fish production and improve angling success.
The first step in good management is proper construction. A prospective pond owner should contact a representative of the U.S.D.A., Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is located in each county. The NRCS can make recommendations regarding location, design, and proper construction. The owner should also utilize a reputable contractor (with references) that is familiar with design and construction of ponds which meets NRCS engineering specifications.
While the pond is under construction, a fisheries biologist should be consulted regarding recommendations that would enhance the fishing. For example, brush piles or standing trees can be left in specified areas to serve as fish attractors. Advice can also be given regarding underwater contours (mounds or ditches), suitable sites for spawning substrate (gravel), or placement of docks and piers. While the pond is under construction is a good time apply agricultural limestone to the pond bottom.
When construction is completed, but before the pond is full, all wild fish should be eliminated from any water existing in the pond or watershed. Assume that fish are present even if none are seen. The elimination of all fish from the pond and watershed is one of the most important steps toward successful fishing. Suckers, shad, bullheads, green sunfish, shiners, and other fish will spawn in a pond and compete with stocked fish for food and space, much like weeds in a vegetable garden. The production of desirable fish will be greatly reduced, and pond failure is likely if wild fish are not eliminated.
Powdered or liquid formulations that contain 5% rotenone or its equivalent should be used to eliminate fish in the pond and watershed area. The amount of rotenone to apply will vary widely depending upon the site. Therefore, label instructions should be followed closely regarding application rates. A second treatment is often necessary to eliminate all fish. Rotenone is a restricted use pesticide and cannot be purchased without a valid permit. The local county extension agent should be contacted to obtain current label information regarding the purchase and application of rotenone.
After rotenone treatment, the pond is ready to be stocked with hatchery fish. Bluegill, redear sunfish and largemouth bass may be used to stock ponds that contain no fish and are at least ¼ surface acre in size (1/2 acre if pond is not to be fertilized). The Division no longer sells fish; pond owners will need to purchase fingerlings from private producers. Be sure you have the correct surface area of the pond before pricing fish.
No fish should be placed in the pond except those delivered from the hatchery unless recommended by a fisheries biologist. The number of fish desired depends on the size of the pond and if fertilization will be conducted; therefore, it is important that a reasonable estimate be made of the pond’s surface area. Ponds that are to be properly fertilized will be stocked with 1,000 bream (bluegill and redear) and 100 largemouth bass per surface acre. Ponds that will not be fertilized should receive one-half these amounts. Do not haphazardly stock fish from a neighbor’s pond or nearby stream, as poor fishing will likely result. Money spent on proper stocking will be cheaper than trying to correct a pond with an unbalanced fish population.
Liming is essential before most ponds can be effectively fertilized. Many times, ponds will not respond to fertilization if bottom muds are acidic. Under these conditions, agricultural limestone must be applied to correct the acidity. If the pond fails to develop a plankton bloom after repeated applications of fertilizer, mud samples should be taken from the pond’s bottom. Samples should be taken from several different areas of the pond, then mixed together while wet to form a representative sample. The sample should then be spread on a piece of plastic or wood to dry. After drying, a soil test box (from the county extension office) should be filled with the dried mud and sent to: Soils Testing Laboratory, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama 36849, for analysis. The sample box should be labeled "fish pond." A nominal fee will be charged for each analysis. (Note: Many ponds in Alabama’s Black Belt or those with limestone springs will not need lime. If in doubt, have a sample checked.)If pond owners wish to maximize fish production, fertilizer must be properly applied to increase natural fish food. Properly fertilized ponds normally produce three to seven times more pounds of bream and largemouth bass than unfertilized ponds. Before stocking fish, pond owners should decide if a fertilization program will be part of their long term management plan. Ponds cannot be fertilized economically if the water stays muddy, or if excessive amounts of water are flowing through the spillway during the spring and summer. In addition, if fish are not to be routinely harvested, the owner may elect not to fertilize.
Kind and amount of fertilizer: Fertilizers are typically labeled with percent composition of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). For example, fertilizer labeled 20-20-5 is comprised of 20% N, 20% P, and 5% K. Phosphorus is normally the limiting nutrient in most ponds. Owners should purchase and apply formulations that will give approximately 8 pounds of phosphorus per acre per application. For example, a 40 pound bag of 20-20-5 contains 8 pounds of phosphorus (40 x .20). One of the following formulations of fertilizer should be used per acre per application:
A. 50 pounds of 16-16-4 or 18-18-5.
B. 40 pounds of 20-20-5.
C. 3 to 4 quarts liquid fertilizer: 10-34-0 or 13-38-0.
- 4 to 6 pounds powdered fertilizer: 12-49-6 or 10-52-0.
- 25 to 40 pounds annual time-release fertilizer: 10-50-0.
When to fertilize: Fertilization should be initiated when water temperatures stabilize above 60° F, usually late February to early April, dependent upon the region of the state in which the pond is located. Fertilization should begin each year at this time in ponds with established fish populations as well as in new ponds that have been stocked with bream but have not yet received largemouth bass fingerlings. Applications of fertilizer should continue throughout each spring and summer as follows:
1. Make the first application when water temperature stabilizes above 60oF (usually February to April).
2. Make the next 2 applications at 2-week intervals.
3. Make the fourth and subsequent applications when the water visibility exceeds 18 inches (usually every 3 to 5 weeks)
4. Discontinue fertilization when the water becomes cold (below 60oF) in October or November.
5. Repeat the above steps each year. (Note: Some ponds cannot be effectively or economically fertilized because of excessive flow. Contact the local fisheries biologist, if in doubt.)
Most ponds in Alabama require about 10 to 12 applications of fertilizer each year; however, the time between applications may vary. Ponds with high lime content or those that receive run-off from a heavily fertilized watershed may require less fertilizer. Ponds that receive heavy rains or those on moderate streams may require more frequent applications to maintain a desirable plankton bloom. Therefore, ponds should be fertilized based on water visibility rather than a regimented time interval. Visibility refers to a green color from plankton growth, not a muddy color from run-off. If the green water visibility is over 18 inches, then additional fertilizer should be added. A 12 to 18 inch green visibility is ideal. If visibility is less than 12 inches, the pond is too dark and fertilizer should not be added until the water clears to 18 inches or better. A simple method for checking visibility is to attach a round white object (6 inches in diameter) to a yardstick. Submerse the object in the pond, then read the inches on the yardstick when the object disappears to determine the visibility.
In addition to fertilization, some pond owners may wish to supplementally feed the bream. Commercial fish rations (manufactured for catfish) are available from most feed and seed stores. Bream can be trained to take the pellets, which increases their growth and size considerably. Although bass do not actually consume the pellets they do benefit from improved bluegill reproduction. Bluegill should be fed about twice a day by hand or by automatic feeders. A small, floating, BB-sized pellet should be used that the bream can easily consume. They should be given only what they can eat in a 10-15 minute interval. Feeding should be done in the warmer months (March – November), but can also be done on a smaller scale in the winter during mild weather. Usually, sinking feed is better in the winter. (Note: Supplemental feeding of bream is not absolutely necessary to maintain a quality pond).
New ponds may be fished one year after the bass are stocked. Prior fish harvest can cause problems in pond balance because largemouth bass will not spawn until they are 1 year old. After the bass have spawned, there is usually no reason to delay fishing.
Annual maximum harvests should be limited to about 125-150 pounds of bream and 25-30 pounds of largemouth bass per acre for a properly fertilized pond (half these limits for unfertilized ponds). The total catch should not be made during a 1- or 2-month period, but evenly distributed throughout the year. Harvest records (weight and numbers for each species) should be documented to eliminate guesswork. If proper management and harvest is practiced, ponds will sustain a fishery indefinitely. Contrary to popular belief, ponds do not have to be drained every few years.
A common problem in large ponds (over 5 acres) is inadequate bass harvest. Bass may become so abundant that they become stunted and skinny. If overcrowding occurs and owners wish to improve bass size, then they must fish heavily for bass and remove all that are caught. Owners may have difficulty removing enough bass to correct this problem in a large pond. Preventative measures are usually best by routinely harvesting a minimum of 25-30 pounds of bass per acre each year (beginning one year after the bass are stocked) so that overcrowding is avoided.
There is no "only way to fish." Fishing success may be improved by studying the habits of fish or by watching other anglers. The most successful angler fishes often, uses effective baits or lures, and is willing to experiment with new baits or techniques. If fish are not biting, simply try again another day.
Pond owners may experience problems with fish population balance (current ratios of bass to bream), aquatic plants, fish kills or animal pests. Under these circumstances, the district fisheries biologist should be contacted to identify the problem and advise of corrective measures.
Farm ponds, when properly managed, can provide outstanding recreational opportunities. Are you getting the most out of your farm pond?
For more information, see our on-line Sportfish Management in Alabama Ponds.