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Improving Fish Populations in Recreational Ponds

All ponds are unique, including the management strategies and overall goal of the pond owner. For some pond owners, management for increased fish production is at the top of their list. Common management strategies implemented to increase fish production include liming, fertilizing, and supplemental feeding. These strategies aim to increase nutrients available in ponds to promote phytoplankton growth, resulting in increased fish production. This management strategy may not be appropriate for all pond owners because there is a chance that these nutrients will negatively affect the pond and other downstream systems (figure 1). For instance, an estimated 197 streams are already adversely affected by excess nutrients, so adding more nutrients to the system could further impair waterways. For more information on whether fertilization strategies are appropriate for you and your pond, read HGIC 1710, Fertilizing Recreational Fish Ponds. Fortunately, there are additional options to improve your pond for fishing. Enhancing existing habitats found in your pond and incorporating new structures can help to increase the carrying capacity and encourage concentrated hangouts for your fish, making your favorite pastime more enjoyable. This factsheet will dive into fish species commonly stocked in ponds, the importance of water chemistry for fish and pond health, and effective structures used for fish habitats.

Fish Species in SC Ponds

Fish species commonly found in South Carolina’s recreational ponds include;

  • Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
  • Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
  • Redear (Lepomis microlophus)
  • Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Each one of these species requires specific habitat for different life stages, which means diverse habitat is essential for fish health. Desirable habitat includes submerged vegetation, gravel and mud bottoms, and large woody debris. You can help prepare your pond for a successful fishing season by knowing the different life stages and characteristics of South Carolina’s most common recreational pond fish. To find more information on stocking and harvesting rates for these species, read HGIC 1712, Stocking & Harvesting Recreational Fish Ponds.

Channel Catfish

Channel catfish are often found where the bottom is primarily sand and gravel rather than mud. Both young and adult catfish forage on small aquatic invertebrates, although adults will also take in algae, aquatic plants, and small fish. If given the opportunity, adults will feed on terrestrial invertebrates, such as earthworms and crickets, that have fallen in from the surrounding riparian area. When the water temperature is at least 70 degrees F spawning occurs, and the male constructs a nest in a quiet area of the pond under logs or rocks. This nest will then hold a gelatinous mass of eggs. The best spawning results will occur when the dissolved oxygen level is 5ppm (parts per million) or above.

Redear

Redear are a type of sunfish known as shellcracker that prefer to inhabit areas with vegetation or over muddy or sandy bottoms. They feed along the bottom of the pond, ingesting aquatic mollusks such as snails and mussels, hence the nickname “shellcracker.” They also feed on insect larvae that live along the pond bottom. Similar to channel catfish, spawning occurs when water temperatures reach 70 degrees F. Nests are made several feet below the surface of the pond in areas made up of sand, gravel, or mud.

Bluegill

Another sunfish similar to redear is bluegill. Often referred to as bream, bluegill is more likely to be stocked in South Carolina Ponds. They are known to take refuge in aquatic vegetation, large woody debris, and other natural structures. Bluegill begin life feeding on plankton until they are large enough to consume aquatic insects. Males build nests in sand or mud bottoms to attract females, which can produce as many as 80,000 eggs during the summer season. Males both guard the nests and aerate them with their fins.

Largemouth Bass

Largemouth bass are top predators in a recreational fishing pond, helping to keep redear and bluegill populations in check. Before they are large enough to feed on other fish, largemouth bass will consume zooplankton and aquatic insects. As they mature, largemouth bass consume most any organism, becoming opportunistic feeders. Spawning begins a little earlier than bluegill and redear, at about 65 degrees F. The male constructs a nest 2-10 feet below the surface, after which the female lays up to 150,000 eggs. Similar to bluegill, the male largemouth bass will guard and fan the eggs until they hatch.

Water Quality

Figure 1: Excess amounts of nutrients can lead to algal issues in ponds that can then result in levels of low dissolved oxygen. Photo credit: SC Pond Owner

Figure 1: Excess amounts of nutrients can lead to algal issues in ponds that can then result in levels of low dissolved oxygen.
Photo credit: SC Pond Owner

Maintaining adequate water quality in your pond will substantially influence the health of your fish population. One of the most critical water quality parameters for any water body is dissolved oxygen. Referred to as DO, it not only is essential to support a healthy fish community; it’s also needed by benthic invertebrates that often serve as a source of food for both young and adult fish. DO is introduced into the system three ways: photosynthesis from algae, phytoplankton, and submerged vegetation; turbulence from wind; and natural passive diffusion from the atmosphere. Measured in parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per liter (mg/L), DO levels in a pond that are below 3 mg/L will stress aquatic species and make them more susceptible to disease. Low levels of DO may also impact the diversity and quantity of invertebrates in the pond. Ideally, the DO in your pond should be 7 mg/L for optimal fish health. For more information on dissolved oxygen and water quality, read HGIC Factsheet 1880, Recreational Pond Chemistry.

Intro to Structures

Now that we know a little more about the needs of fish throughout their life, we can focus on structures to enhance production. Visualize your pond – are there currently any structures providing cover? These structures can be natural, like aquatic vegetation and felled trees, or artificial, including docks and other humanmade constructions. Both can be used to help provide ideal habitats for fish of all ages. They attract fish by providing them with shade, spawning areas, or places to escape from predators. They also help to provide food for fish by creating a home for larval aquatic insects. Structures can be established during pond construction or can be added at a later date.

Artificial Structures

Figure 2: Examples of constructed habitat structures. Photo Credit: Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Figure 2: Examples of constructed habitat structures.
Photo Credit: Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Artificial structures are those that are manmade and are not naturally found in or around a pond. These come in an assortment of shapes, sizes, and materials and can be purchased, or you can make your own (figure 2). Here is a list of some common artificial structures and material types:

  • Manmade structures using cement blocks, pipe, stakes, rocks, wooden pallets, polypropylene netting
  • Gravel bedding areas used to attract adult fish during their spawning season
  • Docks

Natural Structures

These can sometimes be viewed as more of a nuisance, but with a change in perspective, you can see the many benefits that these structures add. Examples of such structures include aquatic vegetation, fallen and submerged trees, and brush piles. All provide an additional cover for fish and usually at a more budget-friendly rate.

Aquatic Vegetation

Native aquatic vegetation can prove to be an excellent benefit to your pond environment, but if left unmanaged or not adequately managed, it has the potential to overtake one’s pond. It is ideal for aquatic vegetation to cover no more than 20% of the surface of your pond. You will also want to avoid any nuisance or invasive aquatic vegetation, as it has the potential to grow at a rate that makes it hard to control. Aquatic vegetation not only provides additional cover for fish, it also provides food and nesting sites for fish and aquatic insects, generates oxygen in the water, and prevents shoreline erosion. Species include pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), arrowheads (Sagittaria latifolia), and powdery alligator flag (Tahlia dealbata). For a list of more oxygen-producing plants, read HGIC Factsheet 1709, Aquatic & Shoreline Plant Selection.

Figure 3: Structures placed in a vertical position and at depths of 15ft or less will yield the best results. Charly McConnell, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Figure 3: Structures placed in a vertical position and at depths of 15ft or less will yield the best results.
Charly McConnell, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Submerged Trees and Brush Piles

Other options for natural structures include brush piles, submerged trees, or other natural debris. Turning these commonly found materials into structures are a great way to utilize otherwise useless scraps. You will want to place trees and brush piles in vertical positions rather than horizontal and at a depth of less than 15 feet (figure 3). This will allow fish to be able to use the structure year-round. When structures are placed too deep, the fish are unable to access them due to the lack of dissolved oxygen. It is often helpful to anchor trees, either with rocks or concrete blocks. It is also more effective to group trees to make a larger brush pile than having individual trees spread out. Submerged trees can provide excellent habitat, although not for an extended period. For example, Christmas trees are often used in ponds and lakes as a habitat option but decompose relatively quickly. For more information on Christmas trees used as fish habitat, read HGIC Factsheet 1754, Repurposing Your Old “Live” Christmas Tree to Benefit Wildlife.

When and Where

Fish habitat structures can be incorporated into your pond during or after construction. Common structures that could be incorporated during construction include rock ledges, brush piles, and ridges. If you already have a pond, it is not too late to add these habitats, including both artificial and natural structures. The single most important factor when placing structures is water depth. As mentioned earlier, you don’t want to put structures deeper than 15 feet. You want to make sure that wherever you place the structure, it is easily accessible to you. Other good spot considerations include coves, areas near creek channels, or drop-offs.

Conclusion

Recreational ponds are complex systems that need a holistic approach for a healthy fish population. This type of management requires the owner to consider potential food sources, pond water chemistry, and habitat availability for each lifecycle stage of a fish species. South Carolina’s Guide to Freshwater Fishes can provide insight on the various lifecycle requirements of specific species found in South Carolina. For more information, reach out to your local Water Resources Extension Agent.

Sources:

  1. UGA – https://secure.caes.uga.edu/extension/publications/files/pdf/B%20732_2.PDF
  2. Mdm.mo.gov – https://mdc.mo.gov/property/pond-stream-care/ponds-plant-management/establishing-fish-cover
  3. Fishing in a Barrel – https://mdc.mo.gov/sites/default/files/downloads/4894.pdf
  4. Penn St – https://extension.psu.edu/pond-fisheries-management
  5. Ms State – http://extension.msstate.edu/news/extension-outdoors/2016/make-habitat-complex-for-easy-fishing-success
  6. NC state – https://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Fishing/documents/2019FishingDocuments/Pond-Management-Guide.pdf
  7. Alabama Cooperative Extension System – https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/fisheries/weed-control-and-wildlife-enhancement-in-recreational-fish-ponds/
  8. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
  9. Managing Ponds for Recreational Fishing, Clemson Extension
  10. HGIC 1855, Shorescaping Freshwater Shorelines

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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