Small Ponds For Big Bass
By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
I grew up in a time and place where the option for fishing for bass was limited primarily to smaller private ponds or lakes. The larger lakes in East Texas usually consisted of some oxbows off of the Red River or one of its tributaries. Other options were the water supply bodies built to serve local communities which were at best a couple of hundred acres, smaller farm ponds, or a trek to Caddo lake. The latter was always a special treat just for the scenery.
My game plan was to catch fish and like most fishermen at the time in the area, this usually meant using live bait on a cane pole with the quarry being bass, crappie, or anything else with fins that happened to get on the hook. I actually tried to occasionally use a six-inch long Lucky 13 on my Bronson Altoona casting reel (complete with a solid glass rod), and occasionally actually caught a berserk bass which did not mind tackling a bait which was almost as big as the fish. This was a purist's approach to catching bass that was not held in much respect by the older fishing crowd that my dad fished with since the minnow approach was much superior in both numbers and in the amount of the daytime you could catch fish. My overgrown topwaters were decidedly at a disadvantage at any time except for a narrow window of time at dawn and dusk.
Now don't jump to the conclusion that the fishing crowd did not have their own specifications for the bait they used. A bass fisherman wouldn't be caught with anything less than a bait that was close to filet size. Likewise, many of the crappie folks would want the smallest of the minnows for their prey. This made for some interesting counting for the selected dozen since the supplier was not blessed with a truck full of bait grown in a hatchery but rather whatever got in the seine of the guy with the minnow vat.
One thing I learned from my minnow dunking days was that a wide array of sized bass could be caught on minnows while only larger fish fell prey to my floating log with hooks. Then the light began to shine through in the form of my first closed face spin-cast reel. It actually got me into some real trouble with several of the older guys when I rigged it with a slip cork and could accurately pitch to areas, which were considerably beyond their presentation reach with the cane poles. The first accusation was that I would be hung up all day and they would have to waste valuable time in paddling over to get me off the brush.
The actual problem occurred when "the kid" caught more fish due in large part to the fact that the grownups did not have a prayer of getting their bait to as many spots as I was able to work while we were sitting in the same boat. This lesson registered to this day in that if you stay in one spot and the fish are not there, then you have to wait on them to come to you. If you cover more water in a selected approach, then you go find the fish.
It did not take long to figure out that the spincast could cast plugs that were much smaller than those I had used on the level wind reel. A friend's dad made the first cloth pen spinner bait about this time and called it a Skippy. You could throw this creature a mile, and it could be fished at various depths by simply slowing down the retrieve rate. It opened up a whole new concept of fishing for bass during the time of midday when the top water was less efficient. There surely was not going to be a bass in any farm pond in Lamar or Red River County that was safe any more. If there was such a bass, the introduction of the plastic worm by Mr. Nick Creme took care of completing the sweep.
This combination of events removed me forever from the minnow dunking fraternity and shoved me into the realm of the bass purist. The combination of these experiences on small ponds greatly influenced the way I fished when big lakes began to appear and my strategy for catching bass on the "giant" reservoirs.
There were some interesting observations made during the snake-and-chigger visiting days of my farm pond era. To begin with, the bass in these smaller bodies were skittish and a quiet approach worked best in presenting the bait. This is still something I strongly believe in when fishing shallow water in even a large lake. Obviously the small ponds were stocked with native bass since Florida bass and hybrids were on down the road and fortunately no one had heard or cared about grass carp. In fact the most productive of the farm ponds were those with clearer water and vegetation. The least productive for bass were the ones that stayed muddy and were bare bottomed. A lot can be learned from observations when a smaller pond is drained. It, in fact, confirmed my suspicion which was based on fishing such ponds. If they are not managed properly by having an appropriate balance of food fish and game species, the game species will eventually be represented with a few larger fish but a majority of small, skinny fish.
Another gem learned from years of fishing small waters was that a five-or six-pound bass was a large fish. Now we have Florida strain or crosses of such fish in both the large public impoundments and private lakes. So we have grown accustom to hearing stories of eight-pound fish as commonplace in Texas waters. However there are numerous privately owned small impoundments across our state, which are carefully managed by some of the best trained fisheries biologists. I have been privileged to fish some of these lakes and the difference in these and public waters is that the balance of the fish populations is easier to control. Because of their smaller size, corrective action can be taken easier to improve water quality by various treatments of the lake as necessary to produce the most productive aquatic environment. The other given is that the folks who own these bodies of water put some appreciable dollars into managing them. So the result of this attention is that the overall population of bass in such a lake usually has well-proportioned bodies regardless of age group.
There does seem to be another issue associated with small bodies of water and that is some governance as to maximum growth potential of a bass. When the balance of fish-per-acre gets off course, stratification of sizes in the population seems to occur and at least one explanation is the lack of food for certain year groups. However that is not a big problem with the privately managed lakes in that there are controls ranging from selective harvest to the actual infusion of threadfin shad as determined to be needed.
So why do we not have new state and national records from one of these well managed private waters? Certainly there has been adequate time from when folks started trying with infusion of Florida bass and well controlled environments. This is exactly what I felt would happen when we began to have Florida bass available for stocking in private lakes. These fish have everything provided to them to the level of having someone see they have plenty to eat. Even with the good life these sources of bass have yielded only a few unique contributions to the top 25 largest bass in Texas (two from Echo Lake) while the vast number of the top bass come from public waters. It sure is not from the lack of trying to create giant bass nor due to the limit to the numbers of sites where close control of the bass population is occurring in private water. Don't get me wrong, privately managed lakes product great fisheries with numerous bass of nine+ pounds but so does Lake Fork. The difference between these private waters and the public waters is usually in the quantity as well as the average quality of the individual bass. The fact remains based on the present records, you cannot put a bass in a bathtub and force food down it and grow a new record bass.
Let's talk about a game plan required to fish small waters. The difference in the productivity of my large Lucky 13 and all of the many other choices that the spin cast reel let me cast is based on several factors. The first is I could use lighter and smaller baits, which in any setting lets you get more strikes and catch more fish. The next is that you have to be able to fish different strata of the lake or pond. At times the fish are going to be locked into a feeding pattern similar to those in a large lake where your best bet is for a presentation on the bottom, whereas on other days the fish will hit shallower worked bait.
I had mentioned the topwater as representing my earlier experiences with fishing small bodies of water. The thing about topwaters is that they are one of the most exciting baits to use in that you see the strike. However as I learned early on in fishing small ponds and it is true with larger lakes, the most productive time for their use is a period around dawn or dusk. The other factor is that fish will at times simply not want to break the water for bait when they will strike subsurface bait. Finally topwater fishing is limited to productivity not only usually to low light conditions but also based on water temperature. Forget topwaters when the water gets cold.
So what should you expect when fishing small bodies of water and what would I suggest you use to catch fish? You start by thinking through what they are feeding on in such environments. Interestingly the fish in small bodies are usually not going to feed on shad since these are usually found in waters where there is, or has been, connectivity to a larger stream (unless as in club lakes someone puts them in occasionally).
There are numerous small silver minnows that make up some of the food chain, but the fish in small waters are very opportunistic feeders. While sunfish and crayfish make up most of their diet, they will feed on any creature that looks easy to grab and will fit into their mouth. They are focused on abundant food sources that are seasonal. These include tadpoles and baby bass during the spring and grasshoppers during the summer particularly during those periods when they are flushed into the lake by watering cattle. I have seen the bass in a small pond seem to recognize the presence of a cattle herd as the equivalent of a dinner bell when it came to the sudden presence of easily caught grasshoppers.
One of the things I would advise you do when fishing small bodies of waters is to downsize. Giant plugs catch large fish, but in a small pond a smaller version will get better response from the different populations, which populate the body of water. In fact if I fish small backups, creeks, or coves on larger lakes, I use the same tactics I would in a small pond. I respect the fact that some folks are not concerned with noise as much as I may be when fishing. However, I really believe it is important in smaller water even if the smaller waters are part of large lakes.
The baits of choice for smaller waters include topwaters (but with the recognition as to their limit), soft plastics, and cranks. When it comes to topwaters I still prefer one that makes less commotion such a Devil's Horse or a Tiny Torpedo when fishing ponds. The original Creme worm which came with a small spinner on a two hook leader rig will still drive the fish crazy in small waters particularly when you can let it free fall adjacent to a moss line. Shallow cranks such as a Rogue and deeper cranks such as a Bomber Number 7 Model A will produce, but remember the potential food sources when matching color. Finally, a Texas rig is ideal for both working the bottom of a small water impoundment as well as occasionally working it in a slow swimming manner on retrieve.
In either case, you need to downsize the weight and simply develop more patience in allowing the bait to settle to the desired depth since there is as much competition for an individual morsel falling into the pond as in concentrated schools of bass in a large lake.
I guarantee you can certainly catch good-sized bass out of small waters and often those of us with large fast bass boats forget the opportunities that such environments offer for learning experiences about bass as well as a slower paced appreciation for nature.