South Carolina’s recreational fish ponds with quality forage bases are capable of producing quality sustainable fisheries. Pond management practices that enhance the forage quantity and quality ultimately enhance game fish populations. Proper liming and fertilizing is the first step in managing the forage quality of the pond. For mrPond fertilizing increases the quantity of food available to juvenile fish. For more information on fertilizing ponds, see HGIC 1710, Fertilizing Recreational Fish Ponds. Additionally, fertilizing assists in the prevention of aquatic weed problems. Healthy juveniles serve as forage for larger game fish. Surviving juveniles are soon recruited into the adult population. Ponds with a healthy forage base allow more juveniles to reach the adult class than ponds with low productivity.
Supplemental feeding can be an excellent addition to your pond management program. Pelletized fish feeds are readily consumed by bluegill and catfish in recreational ponds. Largemouth bass rarely consume pelletized fish feeds, but benefit from well fed bluegill populations. Supplemental feeding is a “supplement” to the fish population’s natural diet. It is not intended to meet all dietary needs of the fish, but rather to offer a boost to daily protein, fat, and nutrient uptake. Supplemental feeding should be viewed as one part of a pond forage management program. The most successful pond forage management programs incorporate pond fertilization, forage fish stocking, and supplemental feeding. Supplemental feeding is an important part of the overall forage management program.
Commercial pelletized fish feeds are readily available at local feed and seed or garden shops throughout the state. The price of fish feed is generally driven by protein content. Supplemental feeding programs do not require the high protein levels necessary for total dietary needs. Feeds with 25-30% protein are sufficient. Most commercial blends for pond fish contain 5-8% fat, which is sufficient. Pellet size determines which fish can consume the feed. Bluegill can consume pellets approximately ¼ – ½ the size of their mouth. Commercial blends with multiple pellet sizes allow fish of all sizes to partake in the feeding program. Floating feeds are desirable as they allow you to observe feeding behavior.
Supplemental feeding programs are not necessary year round in South Carolina. Pond fish typically experience the greatest growth rates during spring, early summer, and fall. During these times fish benefit from additional food resources. During the winter and late summer water temperatures are unfavorable for fish growth. Feeding behavior is greatly reduced during these times, and supplemental feeding is unnecessary and potentially detrimental. Feeding programs should begin in March or April each year as water temperatures rise above 65° F. High water temperatures in August and September typically reduce the feeding behavior. Using floating feed will allow you to observe when this happens. When feeding slows dramatically, it is advised to stop feeding programs. Feeding should resume when water temperatures fall back into the mid-80s. Generally, this occurs in mid to late September. A few test feedings will assist with determining when to resume the feeding program. Feeding programs will be effective through October and into November. Feeding should stop as water temperatures fall into the low 60s. Monitoring feeding behavior in your pond will allow you to adjust your feeding program to suit your fish.
Feed Timing and Rate
Fish can be trained to feed at any desired time. Feeding will be best utilized when timing is consistent. Whether using automatic feeders or manually feeding, it is important that the time of day remain consistent. Natural feeding activity is generally highest around dawn and dusk. Feeding programs scheduled during the morning and late afternoon take advantage of natural high feeding activity. Bluegills tend to move into deeper water as temperatures rise during the middle of the day. During this time they are less likely to come in to feeders. Mid-day feedings are discouraged as feed will likely be wasted.
Fish accustomed to feeders can be fed up to 10 pounds per acre per day during the peak of growth season. This is most efficient when divided between two separate feedings. Early in the season feeding should be observed to determine appropriate rates. Fish should consume all feed within 5-10 minutes. If there is uneaten feed, the rate should be decreased. Feed amounts can be gradually increased as dictated by feeding behavior. It is important to stay within the 10 pounds per acre rate.
Supplemental feeding programs can be problematic in certain situations. Dissolved oxygen levels may be negatively impacted by feeding programs. Uneaten feed and fish waste are broken down by bacteria in the pond. The bacterial digestion of these wastes utilizes substantial amounts of oxygen. Pond managers are encouraged not to over feed their fish. Ponds with heavy nutrient loads and dense phytoplankton blooms face dangerously low dissolved oxygen levels. The addition of feed and increased fish waste in these ponds may lead to fish kills due to low dissolved oxygen levels. Monitoring the density of phytoplankton blooms using a secchi disk will allow you to determine if feeding should be reduced or stopped. Aeration can reduce the potential negative impacts of feeding programs.
Supplemental feeding is a great addition to your pond forage management program. When combined with pond fertility management and supplemental forage stockings it is possible to produce trophy sized fish in your South Carolina pond. Pond managers utilizing these pond management practices properly will quickly observe the benefits these practices have to offer. For more information on recreational pond management in South Carolina visit the Extension Forestry and Natural Resources website or contact your local extension office.