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Fish Gardening

Glen E. Gebhart

Fisheries Extension Specialist

FISH CAN BE raised for home consumption in much the same way that vegetables are raised in millions of home gardens. The benefits are also similar: a fresh, wholesome, food product at a reasonable price, the personal satisfaction of producing some of your own food, plus, you have the fun of raising and catching the fish. This fact sheet could be entitled "creating your own fantastic fishing pond" since that is the end result.

Most ponds are not managed for fish at all, except for initial stocking of a few fish and maybe an occasional additional stocking. This would be similar to throwing a few handfuls of various vegetable seeds into a garden area and hoping to harvest full size vegetables a few months later. In order to produce an exceptional fish harvest, a little bit of thought and management are required.

I have produced an average harvest of 540 pounds of fish per year for seven years in my typical one acre farm pond. The primary cost has been in commercial fish food which averages about $200 per year for 1,050 pounds of food. In the process, I have created the best fishing spot I have seen in over forty years of fishing from Texas to Canada. My family and friends have also enjoyed eating fresh, healthful fish.

Fish Pond Management

Most ponds contain undesirable fish species, such as green sunfish, white crappie, bullhead catfish, or other rough fish. These fish are like weeds in the garden; they take up food and space, and, produce few harvestable size fish in return.

The first step is to renovate your pond by eliminating all fish. This can be done either by draining the pond, or, by using a fish toxicant such as rotenone. This treatment sounds drastic, but you would not leave all of the weeds in your garden plot before planting your first crop. Most ponds can be drained or reduced in volume by siphoning water over the dam through plastic pipe. This will reduce the cost for the fish toxicant. The optimum time to accomplish this is in the late summer, during dry weather. This will allow a runoff pond to refill by the following summer for fish restocking.

You must obtain permission from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation before using rotenone. They can supply rotenone at a bulk rate and can help you calculate the required amount.

The second, and most overlooked, point in fish pond management is to screen the spillway. The inflow will also need to be screened if there are fish anywhere above the pond. Many undesirable fish, such as green sunfish, migrate with any flowing water over considerable distances to quickly invade a pond without screens. Likewise, certain desirable fish species will migrate out of your pond during high water conditions. It is quite disheartening to spend a number of years and a fair expense raising a tremendous crop, only to have them disappear over the spillway during the first big rain. It is similar to growing a tremendous garden and watching the rabbits and raccoons devour it because it wasn't fenced.

The best way to increase fish production (standing crop) is to supply additional food in the form of commercial pelleted fish food. This is also the way to increase the growth rate of fish over the natural rate in an unfed pond. This is similar to increasing plant growth in a garden with fertilizers, manures, and composts.

Fish To Stock

The next step is to select fish for stocking that eat commercial pelleted fish food. The first fish, I recommend, for stocking in your new or renovated pond is the hybrid bluegill. The hybrid bluegill will supply guaranteed fishing year round and is excellent table fare. Adult hybrids can be caught on lures during warm weather and worms during cold weather. They are easy fish to catch since they are aggressive feeders. This is the perfect fish for kids of all ages.

Experience has proven that the male bluegill crossed with the female green sunfish produces the best hybrid sunfish combination. This cross produces approximately 90 percent male offspring. This eliminates the common problem of over populated stunted sunfish. The male also puts most of its growth energy into fish flesh rather than eggs. This fish readily eats pelleted food and grows to one pound in size. These fish can be purchased from private fish farmers, or you can produce your own. Stock between 500 and 1,000 hybrids per surface acre, depending upon how heavily you wish to feed the fish. The more fish you stock, the more you will be required to feed in order to produce harvestable fish in a short time.

To create your own hybrid cross, the pond must contain absolutely no sunfish. Next, you must positively identify brood stock of bluegill and green sunfish. These fish must be positively sexed to male bluegill and female green sunfish. If you are unsure about identification, obtain assistance from Langston University or other fisheries biologists in the state. The best time to identify and stock these fish is in June, when yellow eggs can be gently squeezed from the abdomen of female green sunfish, and, milky sperm can be squeezed from male bluegill. Stock at the rate of five to ten pairs of brood fish per acre, depending upon how heavily you plan to feed. The fish will spawn in early summer, and the offspring will accept pelleted food by late summer.

The second fish I recommend is the channel catfish. The channel catfish will supply large quantities of meat for the table and tremendous sport when they attain a large size. Channel catfish will often not reproduce in a pond unless a nesting cavity such as a cream can or other hollow item is provided, although they can dig holes in the bottom and successfully spawn. Catfish reproduction by providing nesting structures is often discouraged because of the over population problem that occurs when a number of catfish successfully reproduce. If you are not equipped to remove excess catfish reproduction, then it is best to stock a known number of fingerlings in your pond. Stock between 250 and 750 channel catfish per acre, depending upon how heavily you wish to feed. Obtain the largest catfish fingerlings you can find (usually six to eight inches) and stock them in the spring or early summer.

Another fish that has excellent potential in a fed pond is the hybrid striped bass. This is the cross between the female striped bass and the male white bass. This fish readily eats pelleted fish food, grows quickly to a large size, produces a fantastic fighting sport fish, and is good table fare. It will not reproduce, which allows you to control the fish population.

This fish feeds even in cool water which allows it to be caught throughout most of the year. Reproducing this cross is a complex process which is only done by a few hatcheries. It is a relatively new fish and is somewhat difficult to find. They can be purchased from a few private fish farmers in Oklahoma or shipped in from other states.

It is difficult to quantify an optimum stocking rate for the hybrid striped bass; however, I would recommend a fairly low rate of 100 to 200 per acre. Larger hybrids will consume smaller fish. Consequently, you probably want to thin their population prior to restocking other small fish.

A highly recommended fish to add to the fish garden pond is the fathead minnow. This is a prolific, slow swimming minnow and serves as excellent forage for all of the food fish in the pond. Stock about one gallon of fathead minnows per acre. These should be stocked early in the first year to allow plenty of time for spawning before they are eaten. The fathead minnows spawn on the underside of vegetation or rocks. You can add spawning substrate by placing old wooden loading pallets or brush piles in the pond. Cedar trees provide excellent cover and spawning sites.

Another fish that you will probably want to stock is the grass carp. This fish is used to control aquatic vegetation. The grass carp is not the same species as the common carp and will not reproduce in ponds. The correct stocking rate will vary depending on pond depth and fertility. A fed pond will tend to grow more aquatic vegetation than one that is not fed due to increased fertility. Generally about five grass carp per acre will control most of the rooted aquatic vegetation in the typical pond. You may have to add more grass carp if aquatic vegetation hinders harvest (fishing) in your pond. Refer to the Langston University Fact Sheet "Controlling Aquatic Vegetation with Grass Carp" for more information on this subject.

Many pond owners also want to stock largemouth bass primarily as a sport fish. I do not recommend largemouth bass in the fish garden pond for two reasons. First, they eat large quantities of small fish. This makes it difficult to restock fingerling fish because the largemouth bass will eat them. Second, this stocking strategy does not provide adequate long term forage for largemouth bass. If you want largemouth bass in your pond, you will need to stock straight bluegill sunfish in order to produce adequate forage for the bass. Contact Langston University for specific advice on stocking strategies for largemouth bass ponds.

Feeding Strategies

The key to turning an average pond into an excellent pond is additional food. A rough rule of thumb is that it will take about two pounds of food to produce one pound of fish. For example, 400 pounds of feed would be required to harvest 200 pounds of fish. You should use a quality floating fish food that contains at least 32 percent protein. Use a 1/8 inch pellet size if it is available so the smaller fish can eat the feed. You will get much better growth and feed conversion efficiency using a 36 percent protein food if you can find it in your area.

You should start feeding when the channel catfish fingerlings are stocked. Feed all that the fish will consume in about ten minutes. I favor feeding on an every other day schedule as soon as the hybrid bluegill start to feed actively. Hybrid bluegill feed so aggressively that they will force feed through their digestive tract without efficiently utilizing it if fed every day or fed too much. Reduce feeding frequency as the weather cools, down to once per week in cold weather. Increase feeding frequency again as the weather warms in the spring. Never feed more than 15 pounds per surface acre per day, which could lead to a low oxygen fish kill.

Restocking

You will occasionally need to restock fingerling fish as their numbers decrease below your harvest goals. Over time you will learn to manage the fish population to suit your individual needs.

 

 

 

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