Stocking Rates

Stocking Rates

By Bob Lusk   

 You have a new pond, almost ready to stock. It’s been a dream of yours for years. As dirt was being moved, rearranged, sculpted, and formed into your perfect pond, you did some fish homework. Maybe you called a nearby hatchery and got their suggestions. The neighbor, a local bricklayer by trade, came by and offered his widespread knowledge about stocking fish. He even offered to give you a few stunted bass from his crowded pond across the way as soon as you have enough water to accept his gracious offerings. You spent time online, at the University of Google, watching videos and reading countless websites, chock-full of recommendations. Seems some of those hatcheries have their own agendas and recommendations, and now you’re not so sure they fit your expectations. You don’t know what you don’t know. Then, there’s people like those Pond Boss writers, telling you to think through and develop your own plan, and then go find the fish, a caveat emptor process. They tell you to be responsible for developing your plan.

Head spinning with way too much virtual information to process, you now have no idea what direction to take about stocking fish. Or, maybe you have too many ideas about how many and which fish to stock. Add the fact that dirt work is costing a bit more than expected due to unexpected underground circumstances and bad weather, and you’re a little concerned about how much money you can, or should, spend on fish.

Part of you wants to cut the budget on fish. Part of you wants a longer timeline. But, the biggest part of you just wants to do it the right way, whatever that means.   

                      Start with your goals and a timeline. That will jumpstart your choices and your budget. That old phrase, “Time is  money,” holds true here as well. If you don’t mind taking longer for the fishery to mature, you can spend less. If you are a drive-through person who orders and expects to get it fast, expect to spend more.

While that’s an over-simplified explanation, part of your budget truly revolves around those important goals. For example, if you want a balanced fishing lake where anglers of all ages can just come and have a good time with good catch rates, your plan will be fairly simple. But, if your mission is to grow as many trophies of as many species as possible, your stocking and management plan will be a bit more complicated.

For this article, we’ll start simple and end toward that complicated path.

The American Fisheries Society has a little booklet, created way back in the 1970s and updated a few times since, that lays out those tried and true stocking methods, dichotomously. Back then, in southern states, we really only had a handful of species that could be stocked, and those were fingerlings—small fish. We had fathead minnows, channel catfish, bluegills, redear sunfish, and Largemouth bass. Today, we have a much wider range of choices of species and sizes of those species. Northern states, back then, had smallmouth bass, pumpkinseed sunfish, and yellow perch, plus the same fish as southern states.

Starting simply, that little guidebook’s recommendations began based on pond size. If your pond was smaller than an acre, you go this direction. If it was bigger than an acre, go a different direction. While this premise still holds true today, it’s not gospel like it was last century. If you intend to build a pond, stock it, and not manage it—no feeding, no fertilizing, no weed management, you can stock it simply and go on about your business. Back in the day, in ponds smaller than an acre, bass stocking was discouraged. Recommendations for smaller new ponds with little or no management, were to stock 3-5 pounds of fathead minnows per acre, with 50-200 channel catfish and 250-500 hybrid sunfish as an option.

For ponds larger than an acre, the book recommended stocking 500 bluegills per acre, with 150 redear sunfish, 3-5 pounds of fathead minnows and catfish optional. Wait six months to a year and stock 50 bass fingerlings per acre. The caveat about bass is the fact there are no fingerling bass available during fall months. They’ve grown since being spawned last spring. Because of that, recommendations were to wait as long as a year for the food chain to develop, fathead minnows to reproduce, bluegills to grow and begin to spawn and populate, and fundamentally set the table for bass.

Here’s a key point. Set the table. Remember that for any stocking plan you choose. You must set the table by providing what your target game fish species will need long-term. Remember another key point. It takes ten pounds of forage fish for a game fish to gain a pound. You are in the forage fish production business with any pond or lake you stock and manage—or not manage. Understanding the dynamics of the food chain plays a key role in your decisions, not only in the beginning, but long-term as well.

That’s where the timeline decision concept plays through. If you are constrained by budget, allow your pond to build its own food chain before adding predators. Go ahead and initially stock lower numbers of fathead minnows, bluegills, and redear sunfish and allow them to grow and multiply naturally. Besides, your pond will have to be productive enough to grow its own food chain perpetually.

While this sounds like an easy concept, like our old friend, Cleon Almond, says, “Sounds easy, does hard.” Once you stock predators, your food chain will ebb and flow. It’s an eat or get eaten harsh world under water. That’s a big reason why it’s important to understand your timeline and abide by, or accommodate, it when choosing how many of what size forage fish to stock.

Managing your food chain will be partially defined by how you start. Long-term, a predator fish harvest plan will be key in perpetuating your food chain. But, that’s a story for another time.

Back around the turn of the century, it became common practice to stock 10 pounds of fathead minnows with 1,000 bluegills and 250 redear sunfish per acre, followed weeks or months later with 100 bass per acre. That concept was to give the forage fish a head start. And, fertilizing and feeding was/is recommended. The caveat with this plan is the necessity to begin harvesting bass either during the third or fourth year after that initial stocking. Gotta thin out those young bass beginning to fill some empty slots to keep them growing.

Around 2008, fisheries biologist Jeff Slipke came up with the idea to double those forage fish stocking rates and see if it would buy another year before having to cull bass. His experiments were encouraging. Harvesting slot bass was pushed back by at least a year, sometimes more. People still had to harvest bass, no matter what. That’s one of those absolute truths about having a bass fishing pond. But, Slipke saw an increase in the relative weights of bass, with more bass growing larger, faster.

Yours truly took that a step farther. With Slipke’s reasoning and enough proof to see it to be true, I thought about his successes pushing back the need to harvest bass for another year, maybe two. As I thought about it, bass lakes just don’t seem to produce enough bass big enough to help with that culling process. A three-pound bass can eat a ten-inch bass, and will. Bigger is better. I kept asking myself, “How can we grow enough bass big enough to become effective enough to give an assist with culling?”

That’s where, about 2012, I tried an experiment that seems to work in most cases. (Out of the first ten lakes where we tried this, only one of them didn’t work. It produced like almost all lakes do). My thought process was to follow Slipke’s lead by stocking 20 pounds of fathead minnows, 2,000 fingerling bluegills and 500 fingerling redear sunfish per acre, along with another 250 medium-sized bluegills for rapid spawning, and give them some time to establish. We expedited the process by managing a healthy, conservative (30” visibility) plankton bloom and feeding the forage fish high protein feed, Purina’s AquaMax MVP, to speed growth rates and enhance reproduction. Then, we stocked 200 genetically superior bass fingerlings per surface acre.

Here’s my theory, with its drawbacks. Of those 200 bass fingerlings, half are males and the other half are girls. With bass, females grow large, males don’t. That eliminates at least 100 early on. Of those remaining 100 females, about 25-30% will excel and grow big, fast. Another 20-25% will be average or slightly above average. Those two groups have the best potential to grow large enough to become trophy-sized bass. When we compare the original recommendations from back in the day, those 50 bass per acre or even 100 bass per acre, it makes sense that a pond or lake literally can’t produce enough large bass to assist in its own culling over time. But, if we can grow somewhere between 25-50 females with the best growth rates and best potential in those first three to five years, we’ve set the stage for them to help cull the remaining fish.

Here are the drawbacks to this idea—and we’ve seen it to some extent with the lakes we stocked this way. Culling actually starts before the third year to remove as many males and underperformers as possible so the food chain isn’t rapidly decimated. Diversifying the food chain is important. Depending on where the lake resides, we’ll stock threadfin shad, supplement with tilapia (where legal), and add crawfish each spring for several of those lakes. The feeding program becomes essential as well.

By Year 4 and 5, we are seriously into a selective harvest program, even culling some of those original fish. But we are definitely seeing fewer young of the year fish being manually harvested, as the big bass are doing a good job of eating their own.

The trickiest part of this strategy is watching to make sure your standing crop doesn’t try to exceed the lake’s ability to produce. We do that by watching relative weights of all sizes of fish and studying the food chain. After all, a pond can only hold so many fish per unit of water.

What does all this mean to you? There are many ways to properly stock a lake. You’ve spent a chunk of change building it. What you do next will either provide years of fun, or you’ll get a few years down the road and call someone like me, wanting information to fix what was done wrong back then. If you have a small budget, expect your pond to take its time to mature. If you have a reasonable budget, expect it to take less time.

With today’s choices, you can stock anything from channel cat, blue cat, walleye, smallmouth bass, Largemouth bass, hybrid stripers, a variety of bluegill strains, redear sunfish, pumpkinseeds, hybrid sunfish, crappie (in bigger lakes), yellow perch, tiger muskies, and heaven knows what other species. There are feed-trained bass as well as different sizes of some of those fish mentioned in the last sentences.

Where the caveat emptor concept comes in—you get the choice of what numbers and sizes of the different species that are out there and available at the time you want to stock.

My advice is to work with someone who can understand your goals and custom design a stocking and management plan to meet your goals. Give them a budget and timeline, and then create the best management strategy to get you where you want to go.

Do that, and you can expect better results. Or, you can let the neighbor stock your pond for free, and you’ll soon see the fruits of that decision. But that’s a story for another time.   

Related Posts