Tips on choosing a fisheries professional
By Bob Lusk
Ask any do-it-yourself carpenter, or shade tree mechanic. There's a special sense of pride that comes from accomplishing a task on your own.
But when it comes to a fishing pond, you may not have the right hammer or the correct set of wrenches to do the job. In the learning curve of an amateur pond manager, there comes a time when it's best to acknowledge your limitations and call on a professional.
For the sticky challenges of pond management -- stubborn aquatic vegetation, water that never gets clear -- you can be dollars ahead retaining the services of a professional.
This is seldom more important than when choosing which species of fish to put in your pond, how many to stock and when.
Maybe you're trying to improve bass fishing in your 10-acre "pool" in Virginia. Perhaps you're hoping to raise one-pound bluegill in your half-acre farm pond in Iowa. At some point, you will need to find a respected pro with the education, background and field experience that you lack.
So how do you choose the fisheries consultant and fish supplier you can trust? After all, fisheries management is as much art as it is science.
Pick up the phone, educate yourself. Start with a call to the local county extension agent office. Those overworked souls always have an unbiased set of local stocking recommendations. Besides, reading government propaganda gives you a good starting point. And, when it comes time to shop, you will have better questions to toss at fish hatchery people.
One deep trap a pondmeister can fall in is buying too many fingerlings, in the wrong species. And there are horror stories out there ... Tales of gullible pondmeisters who spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars and wind up with an expensive mud hole chock full of stunted fish.
These sad tales share a common theme -- of wingless fish-hawks preying on trusting pond owners, with little fear of reprisal in a fairly new industry that is just now beginning to police its own ranks.
Have your doubts about a fish broker or pond consultant? See if any complaints have been filed with the local Better Business Bureau office.
Better yet, ask for references, and follow up.
As with any purchase, the best consumer is a knowledgeable one. Information is your first line of defense. The more of it you have, the more likely you are to receive fair-market value in services and stocker fish you need. Underline value, because cheapest is not always best.
Here are some basic stocking principles, established by the American Fisheries Society, for a balanced bluegill-bass-catfish pond to use for comparison's sake in the south:
Start by stocking three to five pounds of fathead minnows per surface acre, plus 500 bluegill per acre (1,000 if pond is fertilized), 100 channel cat per acre (200 if fertilized and up to 1,000 if fed).
Introduce these species in the fall, or spring, and allow the baitfish to spawn and become established. After six months, stock fingerling largemouth bass, at a rate of 50-100 per surface acre.
- In an existing pond, stocking rates vary according to the fish already present and your goals for the fisheries. For instance, in ponds where the largemouth are skinny, the answer may not be stocking more bass, as a fish broker may claim, but reducing the number of predators and adding more adult bluegill to produce extra forage.
A consultant or fish broker, who has a financial stake in boosting his sales, may urge you to increase the number of stocker fish. Wonder why? Ask him to support his recommendation with facts. A stocking program, well thought out, makes good common sense.
Regionally, stocking rates vary. But, with geography in mind, and many years in the rear view mirror, reputable scientists have developed stocking rates, by species, in an orderly attempt to accomplish your goals.
Rates may vary by elevation and climate, but when a fish broker promotes his own agenda to an unwary public, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, gags on his tongue, ask yourself who has more incentive to boost the stocking rate? A Ph.D. at Auburn University or Michigan Departinent of Natural Resources, who makes the same salary, no matter what you stock? Or someone who hauls fish for a living?
This is not to say every fish farmer or fish broker is less than honest. We all know there really are honest, reputable used car dealers. Those are the folks who keep getting our comeback business. Fisheries management is the same.
Pond management is still in its infancy, but the industry is growing on the backs of honest men and women who are working to build their businesses one satisfied customer at a time. Check the Source Guide in Pond Boss Magazine. You will find honest, high-quality pros who are in the pond industry for the, uh, long haul. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)
In fact, I queried some of the nation's leading fish suppliers and managers, from Alabama to Michigan, and here's their stocking rates for a balanced pond:
In southern waters, Norman Latona of Southeastern Pond Management recommends 1,000 bluegill per acre (10-15 percent should be redear sunfish or "shellcracker") and 1,000 fathead minnows/acre.
"We stock forage fish in November, December, all the way into Match, then stock bass at 50-75 per acre, depending on management goals," Latona said. "Sometimes we'll go as high as 100 to the acre, late May through June.
"For channel catfish, if they want to catch and eat them, we'll stock 50-100 per acre, sometimes fewer, and often wait until bass have spawned, then stock 6-8" catfish later."
Up north, long-time fish farmer and consultant Dave Ouawinga of Stoney Creek in Grant, MI takes a completely different tact.
For large, deep lakes -- defined as covering more than one surface acre and deeper than 14 feet -- Ouawinga recommends stocking 1,000 fish per acre, total. One breakdown, by species, could be 500 bluegills 3-4 inches long, 200 trout 4-6 inches, 100 channel cat 4-6 inches, 100 4-5 inch yellow perch, 100 3-5 inch largemouth bass and three gallons of minnows.
For medium-sized ponds covering a half-acre and 10-12 feet deep, the total number of stocker fingerlings remains at 1,000 fish per acre, but the ratios change. Ouawinga recommends 300 3-4 inch bluegills, 75 4-6 inch trout, 75 4-6 inch channel cat, 75 4-5 inch yellow perch, 50 3-5 inch bass and two gallons minnows.
For a small pond, defined by Ouawinga as one-third surface acre and 8-10 feet deep, stock 250 3-4 inch bluegill, 50 4-6 inch channel cat, 50 4-5 inch yellow perch, 25 3-5 inch bass and two gallons minnows. In a puddle that size, he does not recommend stocking trout.
As you see, stocking rates may vary, but the reputable sources quote their recommendations in advance. Going in, you know what to expect so do your homework. Here's a classic endorsement of caveat emptor:
A subscriber came to visit the sprawling Pond Boss World Headquarters in Texas and played a tape from a telephone conversation he had with a fish broker from a neighboring state. For 10 minutes the subscriber's battery-powered memory bank spewed some of the worst advice ever given. Turns out, this broker is one of several who run ads in local papers advertising "free fish." It's eye-catching, but it's also a scam. This particular broker seldom if ever answers the phone number in the ad. Pond owners are required to leave a message, then you might get a return call on a cell phone from a truck.
Here are direct quotes from the transcript on the audio tape ... Look for the red flags and draw your own conclusions:
"You ever see those trucks that go to feed stores and co-ops?" the broker said. "We are trying to run those people out of business."
(My reaction: And I thought this benevolent broker was just out to give us free fish ... My red flag's up). "Those trucks are crooks who sell fish that die in your ponds," the broker said. "What we do is give you one free fish for each fish you buy. You buy a thousand, we give you a thousand."
"You buy a million, we give you a million. We guarantee our prices to be the lowest in the entire United States, or we will give you $10,000, just as simple as that. We stock more than 200 ponds every day, and sell more than a million fish a week."
(Reaction: I have been in business in Texas for 21years, and never heard of him until recently.)
"Sir, for your pond, you need to stock 300 channel catfish, 400 bass, 400 hybrid bream, and 400 coppernose bream."
(All those fish, crammed in a half- acre pond! Will they fit?)
The subscriber asked about stocking minnows.
"Minnows in a new pond is throwing your money away," the broker said. "They cannot produce enough to feed your gamefish."
(How bizarre. Pond professionals coast-to-coast recognize fathead minnows as a tried-and-true staple for kick-starting the forage base, for both trout and bass.)
Seconds later, the broker tells our reader he has "2,000 acres of minnow ponds."
(If minnows are bad, why has he set aside 2,000 acres for tbem?)
The subscriber suggests the stocking rate is too high.
"It's the minimum number we allow. You should be stocking twice that many . . . And your total bill will only be $598.00, and that's a good deal by anybody's means, cuz your gettin' $2,500 worth of fish."
Next, the guy promises catchable size fish within 60 days.
Then the broker puts his would-be customer on the clock, saying he must place his order by 3 o'clock that very afternoon in order to get fish.
(Why the deadline?)
Each fish, the broker said, must be "vaccinated," with paperwork to prove their health.
(Did he really say that?)
The truth? A half-acre pond is usually too small for largemouth. The system is so small it can not sustain numbers of a top-end predator. Remember Dave Ouawinga's advice on trout? He does not recommend them in small ponds, for the same reason.
But, this pondmeister, nearing retirement age, wants bass, so he can name them and watch them grow old, in water next to an ancient oak tree.
A better recommendation would be to stock 50 or 60 channel cat, a few pounds of fathead minnows to promote the first year's growth of his bass and 300 bluegill to support largemouth bass. Stock 25-30 bass, not 400.
Never once did the fish salesman ask the pond owner's goals and objectives. Had he done so, the broker could have come closer to providing the appropriate species of fingerlings, in the right number.
Good thing this pondmeister was light on his feet. Not only did he recognize when the fish broker was throwing him a line, he was alert enough to record the sales pitch.
By the way, the subscriber stocked the pond correctly, meaning 100 channel cat fingerlings, 300 coppernose bluegill, 50 redear sunfish and three pounds of fathead minnows. Twenty bass will come later, when the forage base is built.
All told, our man spent $200 for his stocker fish, well below the $598 quoted by the broker who placed the ad for "free fish." Free fish.
Unfortunately, a few fish purchases do not have such a happy ending. To protect yourself and your pond, get sound advice from solid professionals, but understand that the business end of pond management can be fairly competitive. There may be a difference in opinion out there, but as long as the biology holds up, it will make cents to you.
Pick a biologist, hatchery man, or a consultant carefully, then stay with him. If you did your homework in finding them in the first place, you will see results. If not, you may find the fish hawk in your wallet.
Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine