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Home Food Fish Production In Ponds

By Kenneth Williams

Many pond owners enjoy providing fresh fish for the table. Ponds stocked for recreational fishing can provide an occasional meal but for those who would like to have fish on a regular basis other stocking and pond management strategies are needed. A properly managed and stocked 1 acre pond can provide 500 or more pounds of fresh fish annually at half the cost of retail frozen fish from the grocer.

 

Steps to successful food fish production:

Pond selection

Pond renovation

Species choice

Feeding

Pond management

Harvesting

Record keeping

Pond selection

A pond for home food fish production does not have to be large. Ponds 1/4 to 1 acre in surface area are ideal. Larger ponds can be more difficult and costly to manage. Depth is not as important as surface area; 6-12 feet of water is adequate. The pond should be conveniently located for regular easy access for feeding fish and harvesting the catch.

Pond renovation

Most ponds are stocked with a variety of fish species as part of a recreational sportfish stocking program. Fish also can enter the pond during heavy rains or can be stocked from bait buckets and angler releases. Few of these species are good candidates for home food fish production. They do not adapt well to pelleted feeds and are often predators of fingerlings that must be stocked into the pond.

New ponds containing no fish are ideal for home aquaculture. Appropriate species can be stocked immediately. However, older ponds or those already stocked with fish must be renovated and all fish removed.

Mid to late summer is the best time to renovate ponds. Water level is usually at its lowest and the pond is not likely to refill from rains before renovation is complete.

Begin renovation by lowering the water level as far as possible. Reduced water volume lowers the cost of rotenone, bleach or other chemical treatments used to eradicate fish. Ponds that can be drained completely dry will not require treatment with fish toxicants.

Several methods can be used to lower water level in ponds.

A back hoe can be used to cut through the pond dam. This method is fast but causes damage to the pond dam and may release bottom sediments into neighboring streams. Back hoes are a good choice if the pond owner plans to add a drain pipe through the pond dam at this time.

Siphon hoses 2 inches or larger in diameter can drain much of the water from a pond or a water pump can be used to pump water from the pond. A combination of siphon hoses and a water pump is effective Fish can be removed from the pond with a seine as water level drops below about 5 feet. Desirable species can be restocked into other ponds or harvested.

Permission must be obtained from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation before using rotenone. Contact your local game warden for information on rotenone for ponds.

Lowered pond level during renovation provides an opportunity to repair leaks, remove trees and do other maintenance projects on the pond. (See LU fact sheet titled "Pond Maintenance".)

A spillway screen also should be erected across the emergency spillway of the pond. The screen prevents loss of valuable fish from the pond and prevents wild fish from entering the pond during heavy rains. (See LU fact sheet titled "Spillway Construction".)

Choice species to stock

Hybrid bluegill, channel catfish or a combination of both are the best species to stock for food production.

Hybrid bluegill

Hybrid bluegill are aggressive feeders and reach a harvestable size of ˝ to 2/3 lb in 3 years. Some fish may reach harvestable (1/2 lb) size by the end of the second year. Hybrid bluegill can be caught quickly, often more than 1 fish per minute, with small artificial lures in summer and meal worms or earth worms in winter. Boneless fillets cut from these fish are tasty, mild and low in fat.

Hybrid bluegill are 90% male resulting in few offspring. Consequently, they must be restocked annually to maintain suitable numbers for harvest each year.

Hybrid bluegill are available from fingerling suppliers or the hybrid cross can be made by the pond owner.

How many to stock?

Stocking density for hybrid bluegill depends on how many pounds of fish will be harvested

annually and how regularly fish can be fed.

(See table 1.)

Stocking 500 fish / acre will provide most families with a fish dinner every week of the year.

Table 1. Estimate of the lb of bluegill desired for weekly harvest compared with the number of fish stocked per acre, lb of harvestable fish produced annually after the third year, and amount of fish feed required.

Desired weekly harvest (lb)

No. of fish to stock

Annual production

(lb)*

Feed required

(lb)**

1

100

66

130

2

200

132

260

3

250

165

330

6

500

330

660

10

750

495

990

13

1000

660

1320

14

1100

726

1450

15

1200

792

1580

 

* Based on an average harvestable weight of 2/3 lb.

** based on an average of 2 lb of feed per lb of gain.

Making the hybrid bluegill cross

Begin with a pond that contains no other fish.

The best hybrid sunfish cross is produced by crossing male bluegill with female green sunfish. Species and sex must be positively identified to produce the desired cross. Sexes are best identified in June during spawning season. Small cream colored eggs can be gently squeezed from the abdomen of the female green sunfish and milky colored milt can be squeezed from male bluegill. If eggs or milt can not be squeezed from the fish, do not use it! If unsure of species identification or sex, contact Langston University or other state fisheries biologists for assistance.

Stock 5-10 brood pairs per acre. Experience has shown that 3 pairs of brood fish stocked in a 1/4 acre pond can produce 25-50,000 fingerling hybrid bluegill in 1 year.

Channel catfish

Channel catfish are a good choice for the food production pond because they take feeds readily and grow quickly. Most 6 in. fingerlings can weigh 1 lb at the end of the first 6 month growing season with regular feeding. Where as unfed channel catfish require 2-3 years to attain a weight of 1 lb. Channel catfish do not take a hook as easily as hybrid bluegill.

How many to stock?

When stocking only channel catfish, stock no more than 750 per acre and begin harvest as soon as fish begin to weigh about 3/4 lb. Fewer numbers can be stocked as desired. Harvest fish often. By the end of the second or third years, with adequate feeding, unharvested catfish may reach weights exceeding 3 lb. If no fish are harvested, total weight of catfish in the pond can exceed 2,000 lb / acre. Fish kills caused by low dissolved oxygen levels may result.

Restock channel catfish every 1-2 years depending on the number harvested. Keep good records of fish harvest and only restock about as many fish as are harvested annually.

Channel catfish can become wary of hooks and difficult to catch; leading the pond owner to believe there are fewer fish in the pond than are actually there. Consequently, the owner may be tempted to restock more fish than is safe for the pond.

Combination hybrid bluegill / channel catfish

Almost any combination of channel catfish can be stocked with hybrid bluegill. Numbers of each species stocked are not as important as total fish weight in the pond. Total fish weight should not exceed 1000-1200 lb/acre to avoid water quality problems and fish kills. Up to 200 channel catfish can be added to any of the hybrid bluegill densities shown in table 1, however, regular harvest is necessary to prevent oxygen problems at hybrid bluegill / catfish densities above 1,000 fish per acre.

Channel catfish beneficially prey on less desirable second generation hybrid bluegill offspring. Stocked at a rate of 50-100 per acre, catfish will keep hybrid bluegill numbers in check.

Up to 100 channel catfish / acre can be stocked into existing bass / bluegill ponds. Use the largest fingerlings available (9 in+) when stocking catfish into ponds with an existing bass population to help limit losses due to bass predation. Fingerlings smaller than 6 in. generally are consumed by bass within a few months of stocking. Catfish fingerling survival can be increased by providing cover in the form of anchored clumps of cedar trees or other brush. Place brush piles in water 4-6 feet deep.

Fathead minnows

Fathead minnows can be stocked at the rate of 1 gallon / acre. Although fathead minnows are not a replacement for fish rations, they do provide excellent supplemental forage for hybrid bluegill and channel catfish. Stock minnows early in the first year to allow time for spawning before all brood stock are eaten. Fathead minnows are highly vulnerable to predation and are almost always eliminated from the pond within 2-3 years. Stock fathead minnows in May in ponds with existing fish populations to allow spawning to occur before the minnows are consumed. Minnow spawning success can be increased by placing cedar brush piles or old pallets along the shore at a depth of 1-2 feet.

Grass Carp

Grass carp are a necessary addition to many food fish production ponds. Uneaten fish food and waste from fed fish fertilizes aquatic plants. Plant growth can reach nuisance levels that prevent successful fish harvest. Grass carp can eat their weight in aquatic vegetation each day and will control most species of rooted aquatic plants. Stocking rates depend upon extent of weed coverage in the pond, water clarity and fertility. Weed control is usually maintained with about 5-6 grass carp stocked per acre. Grass carp live about 8 years and provide weed control throughout their lives, although they are most active during the first 4-5 years of life. Metabolism and growth rate slow as the fish matures and weed control is less effective.

Grass carp can be taken with hook and line and provide excellent sport fishing. Large grass carp are excellent table fare. Bones are large enough to cause no problems and the flesh is mild and flaky.

Feeds and feeding

Fish must be fed to grow rapidly and provide the pond owner with a consistent supply of fish for the table or freezer.

Feed a quality, floating, 1/8 in. pelleted fish ration containing at least 32 percent protein. Larger pellet sizes are acceptable, however, it can be difficult for smaller fish to eat them. Better growth and feed conversion efficiency can be obtained with a 36 percent protein ration although it costs a little more and is not always as readily available. Most feed stores can special order this ration. Be wary of cheap fish rations. It can cost more per pound of gain with a poor quality, inexpensive feed than using a costlier, high quality rations.

Feed about every other day, or at least 3 times per week, all the fish will consume in about 10 minutes. Reduce feeding frequency to 1 day per week as water temperature cools and fish activity slows in mid- to late October. Do not feed more than 15 lb per surface acre per day. This feeding limit reduces chances of low oxygen induced fish kills.

Spread feed over the pond in a wide area to reduce competition. Large fish will consume most of the food if it is concentrated in a small area. Also, fish are habitual creatures and will respond to feeding best if they are fed at about the same time and in the same way each feeding day. Feed upwind to allow food to drift across the pond.

Pond management

Pond management includes pond maintenance and repair, aquatic vegetation control and water quality management. Pond maintenance and aquatic vegetation control are discussed in separate fact sheets. Water quality management is largely concerned with maintaining sufficient levels of dissolved oxygen in the pond.

Stocking and feeding strategies suggested in this fact sheet are designed to minimize possible fish stress or die-offs due to low dissolved oxygen conditions. However, the pond owner should be aware of pond or weather conditions that indicate potential low oxygen problems.

Fed ponds often develop a phytoplankton bloom. The pond may become very green as phytoplankton populations expand. Heavy phytoplankton blooms can die off and cause fish kills due to low oxygen levels in the pond. In a clear water pond the bloom can be measured by lowering a white coffee cup attached to string into the water. The cup should be seen down to a depth of at least 12-15 inches. If not, reduce or stop feeding the pond until phytoplankton growth slows and water clarity increases.

Do not feed during extended periods (more than 3 days) of cloudy summer weather. Oxygen production requires sunlight. Long periods of cloudy weather during summer are prime times for fish kills caused by low dissolved oxygen levels. Check the pond daily at dawn during these weather conditions. Fish observed gulping or "piping" at the surface are a sure sign of low oxygen conditions. Stop feeding and take measures to increase oxygen in the pond.

A gasoline powered water pump can be used to push a stream of water up over the surface of the pond. It will not raise oxygen levels throughout the pond but will create a safe refuge for the fish until sunlight driven photosynthesis brings dissolved oxygen in the pond to safe levels.

Harvesting

Hook and line is the best harvest method for most food fisherman. Angling provides recreation and food for the table. It is the easiest method for harvesting hybrid blue gill. Use small spinners or plastic grubs to catch hybrid bluegill from early spring to late Autumn. Fish are caught nearly as fast as the lure enters the water. In winter fishing slows somewhat but hybrids can still be caught on live baits such as meal worms or earth worms.

Angling for catfish requires more patience. Dough baits are convenient to store and use although many anglers prefer their own odorous concoctions. Catfishing is generally best from dusk to dawn. Troutlines are an efficient means of catching channel catfish and can consistently supply a plentiful harvest.

Record keeping

Some record keeping is necessary to maintain a consistent, quality fish harvest. At minimum the pond owner should record the number of fish of each species taken from the pond each year. This number plus about 5 percent should be restocked the following spring. Fish weights, feed and fingerling costs can be used to calculate cost per pound of production and to estimate pounds of fish remaining in the pond.

Fish Predators

Young fish are prey to many bird and animal species. The most common avian predators are blue herons, cormorants and kingfishers. Kingfishers are relatively small birds and cause little damage to the fish population. Cormorants and herons however, can eat large numbers of fish. Herons are usually solitary predators found stalking shallow areas of a pond. Heron decoys provide at least partially effective control of this species. Deepening shallow areas of the pond also prevents fish loss to herons.

Cormorants gather in flocks, sometimes numbering thousands of birds. Each bird can consume up to 1.5 lb of fish per bird per day. Scare devices are not effective. Cormorants must be driven from the pond.

Humans may be the most common cause of fish loss in many ponds. Stealing fish is a crime in Oklahoma, however, many people are not aware of this law. The best defense against theft is to use ponds located in sight of the pond owner and monitor them regularly. Also, prudent pond owners do not widely advertise the quality of fishing to be found in their ponds.

 

 


 

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