A planned approach takes time – up to three years – before sportfish like largemouth bass are harvested, Sink said. But like many things in life, good things come to those who wait.
“Everyone wants their pond to be set up from the start, but doing it right takes focusing on the long game,” he said. “Rushing the process by stocking the wrong fish or stocking fish in the wrong order can result in unbalanced populations and poor fishing that can take many years of intense management to fix.”
Sink said setting up the pond’s environment to support the food chain from phytoplankton, the foundation for the entire food-chain, to large-mouthed bass is the first and most critical step.
Take a water sample for analyses to determine the chemistry of the pond, Sink said. This is
especially important in East Texas because soils are typically acidic, which leads to low-alkalinity, acidic waters.
“Water tests can catch problems and allow you to fix them before you stock fish and are useful to determine lime and fertilizer rates to optimize fish production,” he said.
Landowners should work toward creating alkalinity levels between 50-150 parts per million and a pH of 6-9, Sink said. This provides the best environment for the fish and the pond’s food chain.
Crushed agricultural limestone, hydrated lime, quicklime or slaked lime can be added to low-alkalinity or low pH ponds to create a more productive environment for fish and their food prior to stocking, he said. Hydrated lime, quicklime or slaked lime cannot be added to a pond with fish because the rapid pH change can cause a fish kill.
Landowners with fish in their ponds can add crushed agricultural limestone, or ag lime, to correct alkalinity or pH issues without creating adverse conditions for fish populations. Those products create a very gradual shift in pH.
One of the biggest mistakes pond owners make is stocking all their baitfish and sportfish at once, Sink said. He recommends first adding 5-15 pounds of fathead minnows per acre following the phytoplankton bloom. Minnows are easy prey that will spawn several times during early summer. They create a good food source for larger baitfish and sportfish populations added later.
In the fall, Sink recommends adding 500 bluegill or 400 bluegill and 100 redear sunfish per acre if not fertilizing. If fertilizing, add 1,000 bluegill or 800 bluegill and 200 redear sunfish per acre.
Redear can grow substantially larger than bluegill and they don’t compete for food, he said. But the pond must have a majority of bluegill to support healthy bass populations later. Redear sunfish do not have a sufficient reproductive rate to sustain bass populations on their own.
“By stocking the two species together, landowners end up with more baitfish in the pond because they don’t compete for the same resources,” he said. “This means bass have more available baitfish and there are more species available to catch when fishing.”
Landowners should ignore the impulse to add bass and/or catfish to the pond with bluegills or sunfish, Sink said.
“At this point, the impatience starts creeping in and they might think just a few bass won’t hurt,” Sink said. “But adding catfish or bass means baitfish will be eaten before they ever have a chance to spawn. This will throw the balance off because you will have too many predatory fish and too few forage fish. The result will be stunted bass and catfish populations.”
Pond management is different from large reservoir or river management because it centers around catch-and-eat plans to keep fish populations thinned out and thriving, Sink said. Catch-and-release plans normally used in large reservoirs and rivers lead to overcrowding and stunted fish in small bodies of water.
The key to stocking healthy fish populations and growing big bass is harvesting bass beginning in the third year, he said. Most ponds require harvest of at least 10 pounds of 6-10-inch large mouth bass per acre to maintain a healthy food chain.
If the goal is trophy largemouth bass, Sink said the pond owner should harvest 25 pounds or more of 6-to-14-inch bass per-acre per-year to provide more resources to growing largemouths.
Owners can also add structures to ponds to provide cover for fish, Sink said. But they are typically more beneficial to anglers because fish congregate around them.
“They’re not necessary, but they do give you a good idea where the fish will be hanging out,” he said.
Sink said structures should be made of natural materials like wood or rocks because tires and plastic pipes are petrochemical based and degrade over time. This introduces chemicals to the water and the fish. Another reason is algae and other food that attract bait fish don't grow very well on plastic.