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OUTDOORS: Too many bass: A common farm-pond problem

Biologists say the beauty of the bass/bluegill system lies in its simplicity

Farm ponds are indelibly etched in modern American angling history. Countless fishermen have wet their first hook and caught their first fish from the confines of these diminutive rural waterways. What’s more, many anglers never outgrow their fondness for the mini “reservoirs.” Large or small, the privately owned farm pond will likely always be a prime fishing destination for a large percentage of the angling public.

“Pond fishing is something many of us cut our angling teeth on and grew up doing,” said avid small-water fisherman George Harper. “Most of us also consider it just as much fun now as it was when we were younger. A good number of anglers, I think, have at least minimal access to one or more farm ponds within easy driving distance of home. As an added bonus, most ponds are easy to fish. They don’t require a lot of expense and a pond, if it’s well managed, can rival or exceed some of the best big lakes in fishing quality.”

The largemouth bass and bluegill sunfish (bream) combination has for many years been the most common strategy for stocking private ponds in the Southeast. Managed properly, this species-specific technique works well in most ponds larger than one-half acre and generally provides excellent fishing for both bass and panfish.

Most fisheries biologists say the beauty of the bass/bluegill system lies in its simplicity. In a well-fertilized pond, zooplankton and insect larvae are usually plentiful enough to supply ample food for bass fry and all sizes of bluegill. The bluegills grow rapidly and reproduce repeatedly throughout spring and summer, thus providing the bass with an abundant supply of forage. With proper harvest techniques, bass grow off quickly enough to prevent bluegill overcrowding. Enough large bluegills will survive bass predation and sustain good bream populations. This, in turn, provides the opportunity to catch bluegills in good numbers and sizes as well.

Of course, many pond owners and pond fishermen also find that fishing for largemouth bass is an exciting pastime and regularly practice catch-and-release of this species. They believe this to be the best way to ensure a proper fish “balance,” especially where largemouths are concerned. This catch-and-release mindset arose years ago when big-water bass fishermen became more conservation minded and began releasing most if not all the largemouths they caught.

A good practice?

Not necessarily, especially where small ponds are concerned.

“Fisheries scientists know that this practice in ponds is often not a good idea,” said biologist Dave Armstrong. “Returning all largemouth bass to a pond can create a problem. In a pond where bass are under-harvested, the bass population continues to build as each year passes. As the population increases, less food is available for each individual fish. This situation can cause poor growth rates and the average size of the bass will inevitably decrease.”

In short, he explained, the bass will be starved if their numbers are too high. Eventually, bass predation on bream, the preferred food of farm-pond bass, drastically reduces the bream numbers. The results are very few bream growing to adult size and poor bream fishing. This is especially common in ponds that are not adequately fertilized.

“Fertilization of a pond increases the natural food supplies (plankton and insects) that bream require,” Armstrong said. “In fact, proper fertilization of a pond can increase fish production by three to seven times that of unfertilized ponds. The increase in natural food increases the bream population and, in turn, provides more bream as food for the bass. We see bass-crowding as a problem common to ponds that are under-fertilized and where the bass are under-harvested, particularly in bodies of water over three acres in size.”

According to Armstrong and other biologists, pond fishermen can prevent overcrowded bass populations by first attempting to adequately harvest bass. In a well-managed pond, where fertilization occurs ten to twelve times a year, bass should be harvested at a rate of 25 to 30 pounds of fish per acre on an annual basis.

“Adequate bass harvest reduces the bass population, promotes good individual bass growth, and allows for adequate production of bream,” Armstrong explained. “In an unfertilized pond, since there is much less bream production, bass harvest should be about one-third the amount recommended for fertilized waters.”

“Preventive measures are usually best,” added biologist Mike Newman, “to keep bass from becoming so abundant that they become stunted and ’skinny.’ If overcrowding does occur, then the bass must be heavily fished and all that are caught should be removed from the pond until balance is once again reached.”

Scientists also point out, of course, that other problems may also contribute to the improper balance of a pond. Among these are unwanted aquatic plants, fish kills, and animal pests. In these cases, do-it-yourself remedies are not enough. A fisheries biologist should be contacted to identify the problem and recommend corrective measures.

“Farm ponds, when properly managed, provide outstanding recreational opportunities,” Newman concluded. “Owners should take care to get the most out of theirs.”