Harvest the Bounty - By Bob Lusk

How to know what to take, what to leave

Catch and release is the llth commandment for your fishing pond. Either B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott or Moses etched it in a stone fishing tablet somewhere, years ago.

Maybe big public lakes live or die by catch and release, but private fishing ponds will die by strict policies of turning back all comers.

Today, corner Ray Scott and ask him about properly applying pond management techniques on a private fishing pond. He switches hats. "Slot limits, selective harvest is essential to the success of a private fishery." He's adamant. "I tell fishermen on my 55 acre 'President's Lake' to take out all the yearling bass they catch. If it's between 10 and 14 inches, we harvest them." He doesn't finish his statement there. "Once we have taken as many as we think we should, we take out that many more."

Hear, here.

When a new fishing pond is properly stocked from the beginning, ratios of fish are dominated by a growing, expanding food chain. When game fish are added to the fishing pond, it's only a matter of time until predators dominate the fishery.

Prudent pond management monitors game fish growth to determine when predators begin to gain the upper hand over their food sources in the fishing pond.

How can you tell?

Game fish growth levels off, and individuals within a fish population begin to lose weight.

Anglers catch underweight fish from the pond.

This principle applies to all game fish. Walleye, smallmouth, crappie... as well as largemouth bass.

Everywhere I go, it's the same. People don't want to take fish out of their fishing lake or pond. One young employee of mine, 15 years ago, put it simply, "Eating a bass is like eating the family dog." As long as anglers see it that way, bass stay put. Fish populations reach status quo. No in, no out, no grow.

As I travel and talk to fishing pond owners around the country, there's a slight change on the horizon of their thinking.

One man has two annual fishing derbies on his 40 acre fishing lake in the Midwest. His fishing lake is dominated by largemouth bass; especially those "slot" fish. So, he invites his family and friends, they have a few snacks, then at 4 pm, boats take off. With live wells, and plenty of artificial bait, anglers pummel the fishing lake, chasing slot sized bass. Bass between 10-14" are kept, bigger fish are photographed, weighed and measured, recorded and released. He generally removes 85-90 bass during each derby. Then, harvested fish are filleted, dipped in cornmeal, immediately cooked and enjoyed by all. After 3 years of selective harvest, the latest fisheries survey showed better distribution of bass and higher numbers of young of the year bluegill. One big issue where he lives? He only has a 4-5 month growing season for largemouth bass. So, his slot bass may be as old as 4 or 5 years. Big bass, 5 or 6 pounders, take as long as 7 or 8 years to reach that size where he lives. Don't waste time by not harvesting fish.

Another man, in upstate New York, has a scenic, meandering 140 acre fishing lake, overcrowded with largemouth bass. But, he also has hybrid stripers, walleye, black crappie, yellow perch and a few smallmouth bass. With that many kinds of predators keying on perch, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish young, you would think the food chain would be gone.

It is.

Interestingly, walleye and smallmouth numbers are low. You guessed it. Largemouth bass are dominant. But, this landowner took a different approach. He is using a fish called "tiger" musky.

Tiger musky are a cross between northern pike and muskellunge. A 1 hybrid, what you stock is what you get. These fish grow rapidly in northern waters; have a big mouth, and most importantly, teeth. Guess what they eat?

Over the last 6 or 8 years, tiger musky have been eating slot bass. They tend to frequent the same habitat, have similar feeding habits. Never heard of a bass predator? Think about tiger muskies.

Careful though. Tiger musky grow 40-50 inches long, and can eat bass as large as three pounds. Know what you are doing if you choose these fish to help harvest overcrowded species of fish in your fishing pond. A few tiger musky go a long way.

Traditionally, pond managers who are consistent, have a sound pond management strategy from the beginning, and who know when to change their pond management strategy have the best results, long term. Study the dynamics of fisheries management before stocking. Keep your goals firmly in sight. Then you are most likely to succeed.

Here's the best plan of all.

Plan your stocking, before the hatchery brings any fish to your pond. Know your pond management goals. Make a plan, and then follow it. Prepare the food chain in your pond, set the table for a smorgasbord for game fish. Are you planning to stock several species of game fish? Know their habits, and time your stocking, when the pond and its fishery are prime.

Monitor fish growth rates.

Fish grow fast early and then level off as groceries diminish. Weigh and measure your game fish and keep a running track of their progress. We use an Excel database to create graphs of fish growth, and to see when specific size ranges are beginning to clog and overcrowd. Study fish size distributions, along with lengths and weights. If you track lengths and weights of your fish, those numbers, along with a dose of common sense, will tell you when it's time to change your pond management strategies.

You will see fish growth rates change. Be on point. Here's an important tip. The original game fish you stock into your fishing pond won't be the ones to harvest. Take their young, as those babies mature. If you monitor fish growth rates, the time to harvest will leap off the paper into the boat with you.

Here's a classic example. There's a pondmeister outside Tulsa, Oklahoma with an 8-10 acre lake, in its fourth growing season. Last year, electro-fishing surveys from his fishing lake indicated outstanding growth of originally stocked bass. Fishing has been slow, which makes sense, because his bass feed like a fat boy at Golden Corral. All they can eat. Last year, his two year old bass, in their third season, weighed heavier than three and a half pounds. Those fish are great, catch and release has worked. But, the fishing lake is primed for a shift in pond management strategies. Original bass have spawned twice now. Their young are competing heavily in the lower end of the food chain, pillaging baby bluegill, baby red ear, minnows and their little siblings. This fall will likely be the time to begin selective harvest of slot sized bass.

What are the consequences of selective harvest?

Simple... maybe.

More food stays available for fewer fish in your pond. Fish grow larger, size distribution is balanced. If you can manage your bass population where 25-30% of fish grow larger than 16 inches, two important things happen. You can grow huge fish...and huge fish cull smaller fish for you. Businessmen call it "win-win."

Selective harvest is an important tool, as important as catch and release, proper stocking and husbandry.

Here's your bottom line. Study your fishing pond. Learn to listen to its language. It will tell you when to change.

Then, overcome the emotions associated with harvesting a fish from your pond. Do yourself, and your fishing pond, a favor.

Bring on the friends, break out the cornmeal, and take care of your fisheries management business.

Well balanced fish are happy, healthy fish.


POND BOSS Magazine is the world’s leading resource for fish, pond and fisheries management information including discussions on muddy water, raising trophy fish, fish feeding, building a pond, algae control and more. Check us out at www.pondboss.com or contact Bob Lusk, the Pond Boss himself, at 903-564-5372. His books, Basic Pond Management, Raising Trophy Bass and Perfect Pond, Want One, may be purchased by calling 800-687-6075 or ordering online at www.pondboss.com


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