Maintaining a Healthy Forage Population

Maintaining a Healthy Forage Population

By Bob Lusk


I received an inquiry from an excited new Pond Boss subscriber recently. He’s having a blast with his pond and its inhabitants, and wants to learn more and more about what makes a pond do what ponds do. He had three specific article requests. One, he’d like to hear more about some of the critters around a pond, good and bad. We’ve covered that topic over the years quite well, so I’ll need to think about that one. Another was how to clear up a muddy pond where the cause is suspended clay particles. We’ve tackled that one several times as well. But, the third one, “How to maintain a healthy forage population,” seemed to strike me as worthy for this time of year.


Look at the subject this way.

How do you maintain anything?

First, you start with something really good. If you buy a used car, expect to spend a lot of dollars and effort to maintain it. If you buy a new vehicle, follow the manufacturer’s directions, and do the routine maintenance, it doesn’t take nearly as much effort and money as the used up, beat up, worn out machine that’s gone the miles. What was it Mr. Goodwrench used to say, “Pay me now or pay me later”?

If you think about your fishery in that sense, you can make sense of how to maintain a healthy forage fish population. You just have to raise the hood from time to time and figure it out.

I’ll give you a real-world example. In eastern Arkansas, there’s a seven-acre lake at Hatchie Coon Hunting Club, the oldest club of its kind in that state. Several years ago, the club decided to drain and renovate their fishing lake and figure out what to do to make it a great fishery, with huge Largemouth bass as a target. They hired a consultant who redesigned the lake basin, making it perfect for Largemouth bass growth.

Before I continue discussing the lake renovation, I want to pause to share an interesting aside pertinent to this story.

That area is fascinating because of its history and geology. It sits in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. On December 16, 1811 at 2:15 a.m. a magnitude 7.5-7.9 earthquake hit that area. Northeast Arkansas was heavily hit, as was southeast Missouri, western Tennessee, and southwest Illinois. Scientists stated the Mississippi River suffered a seismic seiche. Locals said the river ran backwards, in waves. Later that morning, an aftershock of 7.4 hit, causing another massive, noisy shift in the ground. On January 23, 1812, and February 7, more earthquakes hit that area, one measuring 7.5-8.0. Reelfoot Lake was formed and the area where Hatchie Coon sits dropped about ten feet. Uplifting created temporary waterfalls along the river and there were huge landslides. Over that span of time, there were dozens of aftershocks and quakes, and a bunch of scared people and animals.

In the area where the club is, east of Trumann, Arkansas, a river valley formed that developed over the next two centuries into a riparian area, which is perfect for waterfowl in that flyway. With a brand-new river, literally formed in only a few months, a completely new ecosystem was set to develop.




Hatchie Coon is as famous for flooding as it is for its duck hunting. Even though the clubhouse sits well above the flood plain, both by design and smart dirt work, there are times when members have to catch a boat to access the club. I’ve seen images and it’s fascinating.

The lake had flooded in the past, filling it with trash fish and sending its best residents downstream, so to stop that from happening ever again, membership voted to raise the levee. Actually, this lake, like many ponds in Arkansas, is built well above natural ground level just to keep water out, which seems contrary to most of our thinking, but that’s what they do. They can do that because well water is shallow and abundant there.

So, the lake bottom was reconfigured, the levee was raised several feet above the flood plain, and quite a bit of fish structure was designed and installed that included islands, brush piles, logs, and some spawning beds. All was well and good when the lake was refilled and properly restocked. With a fulltime caretaker, the management strategy was fulfilled.

I was invited to help with the project in its third year. The lake was electrofished, and young bass were way too abundant—way too soon. The forage fish numbers and size classes seemed in order, but I could tell it couldn’t stay that way for long.



Adding to that, the following winter brought some choice frigid spells, where water temperatures dropped too fast. During one particular cold snap, water temperatures in the area dropped fifteen degrees in one day, from 55 to 40, then to the low 30’s with ice caps two days later. They originally stocked coppernose bluegills as their primary forage fish, and with the erratic winter, most of their mature coppernose bluegill perished.

So, the following spring, we were left with a dilemma. There were too many mouths to feed and not enough food. Not only did we assess what happened to all their beautiful big bluegills, we quickly deduced why we didn’t see many of those less-susceptible young of the year babies—bass ate them. We figured out this lake was highly productive, skewed toward producing small fish, primarily because staff kept the water highly fertile to push the production, knowing if they got in trouble, all they had to do is kick on the well and thin the bloom with a big volume of water. Highly fertile water grows lots and lots of small fish. Think about that. There’s one key to maintaining a forage base: fertile water. But, remember timing is a key component. Water should be fertile when you have the tiniest of baby fish, primarily spring and early summer. Rich, fertile water in the hottest part of the summer is begging for an oxygen crash.

But, when you think about the numbers of small bass, this lake had at least two hundred, that’s two-zero-zero bass per acre, and that means there were somewhere between 1,400-1,700 of last year’s bass trying to make a living in that lake. With perfect habitat for bass and very little structure for small fish to hide, we knew there’d be a reckoning. We’ve harvested lots of small bass with the electrofishing boat since then, and they’ve worked to catch a bunch. Today, there are enough larger bass to assist with that project. But, with bigger bass there is a greater need to maintain a bigger volume and density of the forage fish population.

Here’s the second big tip. Be sure your forage base is diverse. We added threadfin shad and made sure they had plenty of grass for depositing their eggs. They’re filter feeders, so that fertile water rendered quick success for threadfins. Redear sunfish were added, and tilapia were stocked for added assurance.




Here’s where tip three comes into play: Because this lake produces so many small bass we needed to enhance bluegill opportunity as well. We had the club add five more spawning areas around the lake—in the corners and along a shallow shelf. Within months, bluegill numbers began to rise, even in the face of a bazillion small bass. It was fun to watch.

The next big tip is probably the most important: Make sure there’s enough habitat to give baby forage fish places to evade immediate capture. When a baby bluegill is first hatched, about 12,000 of them weigh one pound. If you can keep them alive for 45 days in fertile water, they grow to 30 per pound, which is much more significant. Provide dense habitat for baby bluegills, redear sunfish, and whatever other forage species you have. To drive this point further home, reconcile the fact that it takes ten pounds of baitfish for a bass to gain a pound. How important is it that those babies live 45 days?

That lake is progressing well and they’re catching some really nice bass now.

I can confidently say that had the club not focused on improving habitat for small fish, building more spawning beds, keeping the lake fertile (and an aggressive feeding program) this lake would be just like all the other over-crowded bass lakes that aren’t much fun to manage.

With some thought and a strong action plan, the club is maintaining their forage base.

Let’s just hope an earthquake doesn’t rearrange their management strategy.


Related Posts