New Stocking Strategies for Big Bass

By

Barry W. Smith

There are many factors that influence the success of newly stocked ponds, not the least of which is the stocking process. For decades there have existed standard stocking procedures for bass and bluegill ponds in the southeast. These stocking recommendations vary slightly from state to state in regard to the numbers of fish per acre, but the ratios of bluegill fingerlings to bass fingerlings typically remain 10:1. Experimental stocking by university and private industry has indicated that both numbers per acre and bluegill-to-bass ratios significantly influence the fish population

History:

Most pond stocking procedures for the southeast were developed during the 1940s and ’50s at what is now Auburn University, Auburn, Ala.Through years of research, Dr. Homer Swingle and his colleagues determined that largemouth bass and bluegill were the ideal combination of pond fish to sustain years of successful fish harvest. Also, they found that it typically required 10 bluegill fingerlings to support each bass fingerling that was stocked into new ponds. That 10:1 bluegill-to-bass stocking ratio is what most state game and fish agencies still recommend, more than 50 years after its development. It still works to consistently produce bass that are 3/4 to 1 pound and bluegill that are 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound at the end of one year.

This 10:1 stocking ratio consistently produces a population of average-size bass and bluegill that tends toward bass overcrowding by the second year. According to Don Keller, Co-Owner of American Sport Fish, and Certified Fisheries Scientist, “We typically experience great bass reproduction at the end of the first year and very good baby bass survival in ponds that are stocked at a 10:1 bluegill-to-bass ratio. This creates a problem of too many small bass during the second year and usually results in bass overcrowding. It is difficult to prevent this problem and more difficult to correct the problem once the original bass have had such a successful spawn.”

Breaking Tradition

Altering the bluegill-to-bass stocking ratio can significantly influence the fish population.For instance, stocking 20 bluegill for each bass fingerling results in much faster growth of the bass and a much fatter bass at the end of the first year. This is desirable for those interested in growing bigger bass. Also, the number of 3- to 5-inch bluegill appear to increase with a 20:1 stocking ratio, providing more ideal-size food for the bass going into their second year of growth and beyond. This often results in weight gains of up to 2 pounds during the second year, especially for Tiger Bass.

Dr. Michael Maceina, professor at Auburn University’s Department of Fisheries, conducted research on stocking 2,000 bluegill fingerlings and 100 bass fingerlings per acre. “We stocked Tiger Bass from American Sport Fish and the growth of the original stocked bass was exceptional. We had individuals that gained more than 2 pounds of weight per year for the first three years,” says Maceina. “Based upon our research, it appears that the 20:1 stocking ratio not only provided more food for the bass, but actually suppressed the first-year bass reproduction. This certainly delays the tendency of today’s ponds to develop crowded bass populations,” claims Maceina. “I am not sure that a 20:1 ratio is high enough in some cases. Perhaps we should evaluate a 30 or even a 40:1 stocking ratio.”

Alternatives:

“If you are serious about growing big bass, it is only common sense to influence that population through initial stocking rather than use a stocking rate designed for the average balanced bass-bluegill pond and try to make something magic happen,” says Don Keller. “I would recommend stocking a minimum of 1,000 bluegill per acre and fertilizing the pond on a regular basis with Perfect Pond Plus. The bass stocking rate should be no more than 50 per acre, giving you a stocking ratio of 20:1. If your pond were in fertile soil, I would stock 2,000 bluegill per acre and stock 75 to 100 bass per acre, providing a stocking ratio of 20:1 or greater. Forget about stocking 500 bluegill per acre if you are serious about having a big-bass pond,” Keller says.

Stocking rates developed more than five decades ago were designed to provide pond owners with a fish population that could sustain high harvests of both bluegill and bass and remain “in balance.” These ponds provided an extra source of protein for rural families as well as a source of family recreation. Bluegill that were 6 inches and only four or five to the pound were regarded as harvestable. Bass were considered harvestable at only 10 inches. This is hardly the case today. Most pond owners will complain if their bluegill are not a half-pound or larger; and bass − well you better have a good population of 2- to 4-pounders and larger!

Supplemental Forage:

One of the basic principals of fish culture is that to maximize the total fish production in a pond, you should stock a variety of species that have different food habits to better utilize all the available niches of the pond. This principal applies to maximizing the food fish available for the largemouth bass. In addition to bluegill, which is the primary food for bass in ponds, other species − such as fathead minnows, golden shiners and threadfin shad − should be considered in the initial stocking.

Fathead minnows have been used for years and are usually stocked with the bluegill at rates of 1,000 to 3,000 per acre. They spawn in the early spring and throughout most of the summer to provide lots of little minnows for the newly stocked bass to eat. They typically boost the growth of the bass during the summer and usually disappear from the population by late fall.

Golden shiners have traditionally been taboo for ponds. They were considered by many biologists to be egg-eaters and to negatively affect the spawning of bass. Many ponds with low bass populations were often overpopulated with shiners. Today, shiners are regarded as a tool to retard bass reproduction and hopefully slow the tendency for most ponds to accumulate too many small bass. They are stocked with the bluegill at rates of 1,000 to 2,000 per acre.

Threadfin shad are filter feeders and are often stocked in new ponds at rates of 300 to 1,000 per acre. They are prolific spawners and can greatly increase the total pounds of food available for bass. They rarely exceed 6 inches and are always in the size range that even 1-pound bass can eat. These fish flourish best in fertilized ponds of three acres or more. They can be added to established fish populations, but they are extremely valuable when added to a new pond during spring or early summer.

Harvest

That is a word that has to be hammered into the management plan and vocabulary of most pond owners, and for those with ponds larger than five acres, it is synonymous with work! Harvesting 30 to 40 bass per acre every year becomes quite a chore, even for the most dedicated angler

One of the advantages of lowering successful bass reproduction is that harvest can also be reduced, making management a little easier. The combination of changing the bluegill-bass stocking ratio and stocking supplemental forage such as golden shiners and threadfin shad, all contribute to fatter bass and less work in the form of harvesting all those little 10- to 13-inch bass.

Summary:

This stocking strategy lowers bass spawning and survival, stockpiles forage of the perfect size to accelerate bass growth well beyond the first year and reduces the need for heavy bass harvest. The entire concept is a departure from tradition and challenges a lot of old paradigms. It is a management strategy that will not be readily embraced by many traditional management biologists, but if you want to grow big bass, this is where it is happening! Climb on board!

Barry W. Smith is a Certified Fisheries Scientist and has authored many publications on bass management. He is Co-Owner of American Sport Fish, with his partner Don Keller. They are considered leaders and innovators in the field of pond management.

 

Seasonal Tips

Threadfin Shad Winter Kills

Threadfin shad are great supplemental forage for both bass and crappie in fertilized ponds. They spawn multiple times during the spring and summer and the adult shad are always in the size range that bass can eat. Adult shad seldom exceed 5 to 6 inches. Threadfins are sexually mature at a size of 2.5 inches and the offspring of a spring spawn will be mature by the end of the summer and often spawn in late summer or early fall. Almost all lakes that are successfully managed for largemouth bass contain threadfin shad as an additional forage species.

The single drawback to threadfin shad is they are susceptible to winter kills. These kills do not typically occur every year in the southeast. The farther from the Gulf Coast, the more likely you will experience a kill in the threadfin population. Ponds and lakes that have a third of the lake with depths greater than 15 feet are more likely to have survival of some shad even in cold winters. Ponds and lakes that ice-over for several consecutive days are likely to experience a shad kill.

Although water temperatures below 38 F will cause mortality, the number of consecutive cold days plays an important part in mortality. Threadfin can be stressed by low temperatures and the fish will swim slowly, becoming easy prey to bass, crappie and larger catfish. Many of these stressed will be eaten by fish and birds, never showing up on the shoreline. Just because you never see dead fish on the shoreline does not mean you did not have threadfin mortality.

This has been a much colder winter than we have experienced for the past four years. It is always a good idea to re-stock threadfin in the spring or early summer to insure you do not miss a year without shad.

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