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Growing Fish Naturally

Growing Fish Naturally There ain't no fast-food-drive-through recipe for managing a pond naturally. Here's what we mean.

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Big fish

If you're a fan of our "Ask the Boss" section, you likely saw a note we received from a reader turned off by the seeming predominance of feeding fish. It just doesn't seem natural to quite a few people, especially our new buddy from Bris- tow, Oklahoma. Fair enough.
   There were ponds teeming with fish long before there was fish food. But, there were many more ponds out there that couldn't grow a fish if its life depended on it, either. To set the table for this article, so to speak, let's look back a few decades.
   Commercial fish farming in the United States didn't really get a notable start until the 1960's, out of need. There was a burgeoning demand for fish for food, due to increasing populations and dwindling ocean catches.
   The grandfather of pond management as we know it was Dr. H.S. Swingle, fisheries professor from Auburn University. His mission in life was to figure out how to grow as many bass and blue- gill in ponds as he could, not necessarily for sport fishing as much as for much needed protein to feed people back in the 1930's, 40's, and 50's.
   During the 1960's there was a push to convert agricultural land along the Mississippi delta into catfish production. Land was flat, water was abundant, and a market dictated those decisions. When that started, farmers needed to feed the fish. That's about the time fish food became a viable choice in fish management—and research into fish nutrition began. Sport fishing ponds were not the norm in those
   When the sport of bass fishing began to blossom, due in huge part to our dear friend, Ray Scott, perceptions began to change. That industry was born and continues to boom today.
   Public lakes were built during the late 1940's, 50's, 60's into the 1970's and a few into the 1980's. Those lakes were mostly designed to store water for urban use to drink or generate electricity, but the recreational benefits were significant, too.
   If you had a pond in the 1950's, 60's and 70's, it was likely for livestock water. If it grew some good fish, that was an added bonus. After all, we've heard the tales of those storied fishing holes.
   In the 1980's that paradigm began to shift.
   So did landowner thinking. Small family farms began to go away. Baby boomers with this little thing called "disposable income" made their hay in the big city, far away from their roots in the country. In the 80's and 90's these folks began buying family farms, but for a different purpose. They wanted to drift back to those roots, even if just on weekends, to become conservationists and naturalists, returning that land to its original glory—or a perceived glory for recreation.
   Along that path, we had to remind ourselves that most of these people weren't quite like their parents and grandparents. Mom and dad and the grandparents grew some of their own food, cooked their meals, and did what they could to live off the land. Sure, folks had migrated to the city by then, but two and three generations ago, many scratched out a living doing what they could do. This generation of baby boomers and their two generations of descendants are used to driving around a building, talking to a nameless voice in a speaker, then driving a few feet, offering a credit card and then consuming whatever is passed through the final window.
   We live in a fast-food world.
   Much of today's pond management strategies are centered around a similar thought process. So, let's fast forward into the past and overcome this type of mentality and see how it applies to the purest sense of fisheries management.
   Sure, you can have a natural fish pond. You don't have to feed. You don't have to fertilize. That's absolutely not any requirement.
   Here's what to do. Know your goals. We preach that concept incessantly.
   Next, with the world of resources available, learn all you can about each species of fish you'll want or need in your pond to support a viable, healthy fish population. As you learn about each species, understand that each species has habitat requirements. Not only do they have their own specific habitat needs, each size class within each species offish has different habitat needs.
   For example, if largemouth bass are your primary target species, learn what largemouth bass need in terms of habitat. What do they need to be able to spawn, feed, hide, congregate and loaf, all along having habitat to minimize the risk that they get eaten along life's path? Then, learn what largemouth bass need to eat. That's pretty simple. They eat whatever swims and fits into their mouth. That means you need a food chain. Learn everything you can about that food chain, then figure out what the habitat is for those forage fish. Sound complicated, yet? It's really not. Bluegill are the backbone of the food chain for bass. It takes roughly ten pounds of baitfish for a bass to gain a pound. Does that mean you need ten times the habitat for bluegill than you need for bass? That's a big "yes," you do.
   Design the best habitat for all species of fish you need and they'll thrive in that habitat.
   Next up, food chain. If your water is rich in nutrients, it will grow the basis of the food chain— plankton and insects. If your water is fundamentally sterile, it won't grow much at all.
   Either way, learn about your water and its capabilities.
   Those capabilities are based on what's dissolved in the wet stuff, whether your dirt added it or your neighbor's farming practices did.
   Here's a case in point. Remember Bruce Kania, from Shepherd, Montana? He's the guy who invented the artificial floating islands, designed to sequester excess phosphorus dissolved in his water. His islands are a recycled plastic matrix that looks somewhat like an expanded Brillo pad; floating in the water and tethered where he wants them. He plants a variety of plants whose roots make their way into the water column, absorb nutrients from the water and turn those nutrients into biomass, some of which is edible. Along the way, periphyton grows all over the floating island substrate and some on the roots of the plants, providing food for insects in the water. In his six acre pond, he's got excellent habitat and climate for yellow perch. They feed prolifically on the periphyton and Bruce harvests way-too-abundant amounts of yellow perch.
   The key to his success lies in his progressive thinking, building the habitat to support the food chain and his target species, and plenty of time to harvest the bounty, naturally. But, there's an important point to make here. If it wasn't for farmers irrigating out of the Yellowstone River, fertilizing their crops, primarily corn, Bruce likely wouldn't have much water and it wouldn't be overburdened with too much phosphorus, courtesy of surrounding farming practices.
   Is that what we mean by natural?
   From the simplest terms, managing a fishery naturally means stocking the pond properly in the beginning with fish that reproduce and support each other, with the pond owner or manager primarily managing that fishery by harvesting fish as they need to be harvested and letting the pond do whatever it can do.
   I'm fine with that.. .if you are.
   If you truly want to be a steward of your waters, and manage it naturally, figure out what your water has to offer. Figure out what your soils have to offer beyond plasticity, in terms of nutrients and minerals, and then design the living, breathing part of the pond via a healthy, diverse habitat design. Think about the microbial inhabitants and give them substrate. That might be rocks, it might be brush, it might be tree trunks, it might even be a trunk lid from an old car buried on the farm. You pick. Think about the invertebrates which feed on those microbes. Supply what they need. Think about the insects which feed in that basic food chain and supply their habitat. Nymphs love riprap-style rocks and places near shore where they can hide. Think about your amphibians and supply them necessary spots. Oh, of course, now that you've set the table, figure out what you need to do about your fish and stock the proper species suited to your situation, climate, and goals.
   Then, prepare to harvest.
   That's the easy part...sometimes. The easy part is recognizing when your fish are gaining weight and when they aren't. It's easy to see trends based on what you are catching. The hard part of this natural idea is to deduce what's missing under water that you can't see. That often means you are reacting to circumstances rather than being proactive to keep the healthy dynamics of your pond flowing in an upward motion.
   Here's the bottom line. Sure, you can manage a pond naturally based on what your pond and its design has to offer. There are no rules out there dictating that you must feed the fish. Just understand your own as well as your pond's limits and work within those bounds. If you have the best habitat for every living element your pond has, you will have a nice bounty. If you don't, the bounty will be less. That's the way nature works.
   There ain't no fast-food-drive-through recipe for managing a pond naturally. Your pond will depend more on the nuggets you learn and implement than those nutritious nuggets you can buy in a bag.

 

Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine

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