One of the most frequently asked questions to private-fisheries consultants is, "How can I make my largemouth bass grow faster and larger?" To produce heavier fish you not only have to increase the length, but also the girth
Bass management in ponds is complex. Considerations include stocking rates for new ponds, feed and fertilization rates, liming, harvest rates, and the prey fish species to use in the pond.All of these factors will influence the bass population, but the prey fish species in the pond is a critical factor that deserves very careful consideration.Almost all good bass fishing ponds have bluegill as a primary forage base, but other species can be added to increase the food available for bass.
One of the basic principles of pond management is that fish grow rapidly if they have plenty of food, but very slowly or not at all if food is scarce. For most ponds in the South, within 18 months after the initial stocking the pond is usually supporting the maximum weight of fish for which food is available.
The most common problem faced by lake owners today is one in which the bass population is stunted due to lack of adequate forage. The larger the lake the more difficult this problem is to correct.
The first step to correct this problem is to aggressively remove bass by hook and line. It is usually recommended to remove the smaller bass, those that are 15 inches and under. This will allow the bluegill population to expand and eventually furnish more food for the bass.
Threadfin shad have proved to be excellent supplemental forage when stocked in private fertile waters. Threadfin rarely exceed 5 inches in length, making them an ideal-size food item for almost all predators.
Threadfin are pelagic (open water) schooling fish. A flurry of shad breaking the surface means that there are larger fish feeding on them from below. This tight schooling activity means that shad can provide a great deal of food for the bass even though each individual shad may only be 3 to 4 inches long. In a study in California, one 15- pound striped bass was examined that had almost 700 threadfin shad in its gut. In a reservoir or a pond, largemouth bass do not feed on individual shad but rather engulf dozens at a time when they come up beneath a school. If the bass are feeding on bluegill, they usually have to chase them down one at a time.
The threadfin shad is closely related to the gizzard shad, but does not grow as large and is more temperature sensitive. They are a temperate species, and some mortalities occur when the water temperature drops below 43 degrees F. Deeper lakes tend to provide areas that act as thermal sanctuaries. The threadfin can usually be distinguished from the gizzard shad by its smaller body size and its yellow fins, especially the yellow in the caudal or tailfin. Smallmouth and striper fishermen sometimes refer to them as “yellowtails.”
Threadfin shad are sexually mature at approximately 2 to 2 ½ inches. Spawning begins in the spring when the water temperature reaches 65 to 70 degrees F. Threadfin are heavy spawners with a single female capable of laying 10-12,000 eggs. Spawning has been documented form March to mid-September. Females, trailed by several males, lay eggs along the shoreline, usually around daylight and the adhesive eggs stick to aquatic vegetation. Hatching occurs in about three to five days. The fry have clear bodies and are almost invisible to the naked eye until they are about an inch long.
Shad are filter feeders and feed on both phytoplankton (microscopic one-cell plants) and zooplankton (microscopic animals). They are so efficient at filtering that some catfish farmers have begun stocking shad in their production ponds to improve water quality.
However, sometimes this filtering ability can have a negative impact on the bream population since young bluegill also feed on zooplankton. If the pond owner wants to produce large bluegill where shad have been introduced, then the use of automatic fish feeders is advised. Large, well-fed bluegill will produce more offspring, which will also enhance the growth of the largemouth bass.
Threadfin are extremely delicate and must be handled with care. They are usually harvested from the hatchery pond, loaded onto an oxygenated tank truck and transported directly to the customer’s pond. Once the truck is at the pond the fish are discharged through a pipe to avoid handling. Although the existing bass population will eat some of the shad, many will escape to spawn and become established in the owner’s lake
Another benefit of having threadfin in your lake is the exciting fishing it creates. Once shad are established, they will often school near the surface late in the afternoon. When the waters are calm, schools of shad ranging in size from 5 to 10 feet in length can be seen creating a very gentle rippling effect on the surface of the water.This almost always triggers a feeding response from the largemouth bass.As the bass attacks underneath the school, it appears as if a small depth charge has gone off and someone has thrown a handful of silver dollars into the air.This activity has caused the author many a backlash as I tried to capitalize on this feeding frenzy.
In summary, if your objective in managing your lake is to produce bigger and heavier largemouth bass, then there are several management strategies you will need to implement. One thing that you should consider is putting them on a diet of threadfin shad.
Feeding bluegill is something that most of us pond owners enjoy. We like to see our coppernose bluegill come to the surface and take those floating pellets. It is a way for us to observe our bluegill and see how much they have grown. It is also exciting to see a big largemouth bass rip through the bluegill, making them scatter like a bait pod in the Gulf of Mexico.
Adding a pelleted fish food to a recreational pond provides a food supplement for the bluegill. This adds to the existing food supply created through natural fertility or fertilization. The effect this feeding has on the bluegill population depends on the amount of food that is distributed from a specific site. If you feed multiple times a day from an automatic fish feeder and feed enough pellets that it takes the fish three to five minutes to eat it, you will fatten bluegill within the proximity of the feeder. I have seen this happen on lakes as large as 100 acres, with just a single feeder.
Feeding not only fattens bluegill, but it can increase the total fish production in a lake. Natural productivity, or the total pounds per acre that a lake will support, is directly related to the fertility of the soil within the lake and its watershed. This is true with the production of a garden or any agricultural crop. This productivity, however, can be dramatically increased through a proper fertilization program. Fertilizing on a regular basis with a fishpond fertilizer, such as Perfect Pond Plus, can increase your fish production as much as 300%. Utilizing an automatic fish feeder for every five acres in a fertilized pond can push the total fish production even higher.
What type of feed?
Remember that feeding is just a supplement to the natural foods in your pond, and bluegill do not depend on the feed as a primary source of food. The higher the quality of fish food, the greater the growth you will see and sometimes the more fish you will see feed. There is a tradeoff; the higher-quality feeds with more fishmeal and significantly higher protein content are very expensive. If you are on a reasonable budget, then feed a good quality catfish ration that contains 28% to 30% protein. During the spring, summer and fall, feed small floating catfish fingerling pellets.
Automatic fish feeders:
Many pond owners like to feed their fish by hand. There is nothing wrong with this technique, but you will experience more consistent growth and feed utilization if you use an automatic fish feeder. Bluegill have a small stomach and will respond much better to multiple feedings each day. A reliable automatic fish feeder will feed your fish when it is raining, when you have to take the kids to the doctor or soccer practice… it never forgets. When purchasing an automatic fish feeder, don’t get the cheapest feeder at the local bargain barn. It pays to purchase a reliable directional fish feeder that can be programmed to feed multiple times a day. These quality feeders with battery and solar panel range from $500 to $800. It is one of the best long-term investments you can make for your lake.
Even if you do not want to “max out” your lake’s production, a feeder offers a number of advantages in addition to increasing the growth and size of your bluegill. It is a great place to show your friends how well your fish are growing and a place you can enjoy observing fish and their activities. Do you have kids or grandkids? It is a place where they can learn to fish, and become excited about big bluegill attacking as many crickets as you can keep on their hooks. It is a wonderful focal point for family fishing.
When do I quit feeding?
Many pond owners turn off their fish feeders in the early fall when they turn on their deer feeders. The general consensus is that when the weather turns cool, the fish stop feeding. Actually, fall and early spring are excellent growth months for bluegill. Much of the supplemental food is channeled toward growth rather than egg production, as occurs during much of the spawning season. Another little known fact is that in the southeast, growth will continue throughout the winter, although it is not as rapid as in the spring or fall.
There have been a number of interesting studies of food consumption by catfish during the winter months. Dr. Jesse Chappel, an Auburn University fisheries extension specialist, says that feeding catfish during the winter is very beneficial to commercial catfish growers. “Commercial catfish ponds that are fed regularly from November through early March experience about a 20% increase in growth. Ponds that are not fed can experience a 15% weight loss. This can be critical in other ways, as fish that experience significant weight loss may be more susceptible to disease in the early Spring,” explains Dr. Chappel. When asked if this same principal would apply to recreational ponds with bass and bluegill, Dr. Chappel responded, “Bluegill will definitely experience a weight gain if fed during the winter months. However, since they are not totally dependent on pellets as a single food source, their weight loss may be minimal if they are not fed.”
We recommend changing to a sinking catfish pellet during the winter. Although this does not allow you to observe the fish feeding, it has several advantages. Because of the colder water temperatures, feeding response is much slower during the winter, and much of the floating food is washed upon the bank before the fish can eat it. A sinking pellet remains on the bottom for bluegill to slowly feed on over a long period of time. If conditions are too harsh for the bluegill to feed, the sinking pellet will act as organic fertilizer and increase the production of small zooplankton and insects.
Chappel says that placing structure, such as treetops or pallets, in front of the feeder will afford many of the smaller bluegill an opportunity to eat the sinking pellets while inside a refuge area.
How often to feed?
During the winter, we recommend feeding once daily during the middle of the afternoon. This is the time when the water is typically the warmest and will elicit the best feeding response from the bluegill. Typically 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. is the best time to feed. Feeding duration of 6 to 10 seconds is usually adequate.
Feeding only once daily will allow you to check and fill feeders every other week. Just because hunting season is in full swing, don’t forget about your fish. Winter feeding does not take much effort and the reward of fat bluegill in the spring is well worth it. Keep those feeders full!
The scientific name for this species of sunfish is Lepomis microlophus. However, it has many common names, depending on which region of the country you are in. It is known as shellcracker in most of the southeast. In Louisiana it is referred to as chinkapin.
The accepted common name by the American Fisheries Society is redear. Whatever you choose to call them, you can recognize them by the prominent red mark on the back edge of the gill cover.
Redear sunfish, which are kissing cousins to the bluegill, are commonly stocked with bluegill in most new ponds. They are typically added at a rate of 5 to 15 percent of the total bream stocked. Redear look different from bluegill, and they also have their own unique behavioral characteristics which we will discuss.
The name shellcracker was derived from the ability of this fish to capture and eat snails, clams, small mussels and other mollusks. Redear are equipped with a set of “crushers” in the back of their throat. These crushers consist of an upper and lower pad attached to a set of very strong muscles. These pads are covered with many small and very hard tubercles that allow the fish to crush and grind the shell of their victims.
Redear eat aquatic insects and also eat some of the same food items as bluegill. The consensus among biologists is that redear stocked in low numbers do not compete greatly with bluegill because they generally feed on different food items.
Redear seldom respond to floating fish food, as do bluegill. They will also refuse a popping bug, but they do love sinking flies such as a bead-head nymph or a black knat. Most redear are caught during spawning season by fishing with red worms on the bottom.
Redear will typically spawn a month earlier than bluegill. In most of the southeast this will occur during March and April. Unlike bluegill, that spawn every month from May through September, redear typically have only one major spawn which occurs during the early spring.
Redear typically spawn on underwater points and shorelines with submerged treetops. Several fish usually spawn in the same area creating beds which are very close to each other. Depending on the population density, there may be from three to twenty beds in the same area. If the adult redear are a pound or larger, their beds may be as large as two feet in diameter. The beds of large redear are easy to recognize and are typically much larger than those made by bluegill.
Although bluegill and redear seldom spawn together, it is not uncommon to see natural hybrids of these two bream.
Redear will sometimes utilize water depths of five to six feet to spawn. Bluegill will typically spawn in shallow water that is 1 to 3 feet deep.
Ponds are seldom stocked with bass and redear only because the limited spawning of redear will not produce enough offspring to support the growth of many bass.
It is not uncommon to see a population of redear disappear from a lake or pond over a period of years. Limited reproduction and heavy predation by early spawned bass often take their toll. It is possible to re-establish populations of redear by restocking redear fingerlings into existing bass/bluegill ponds. It typically takes three years for stocked fingerlings to enter the catch as fish that are one-half pound or larger.
Fingerling redear as small as two inches can be used to successfully re-establish fishable populations, even in lakes with large numbers of small bass. Stocking rates of approximately 200 fingerlings per acre are preferred to establish reproducing populations of redear. We have documented this success in several lakes in the southeast.
“The best populations of redear I have seen have been in clear ponds with vegetation,” said Dr. Rich Noble. “Perhaps the vegetation promotes food items such as snails and larger insects. Redear seem to thrive better than bluegill under these circumstances,” says Noble.
Some ponds, for whatever the reasons, seem to grow redear better than others. Soil types, water hardness, and the tendency to grow snails have an effect on the success of redear. In some lakes and ponds where bluegill may be slow growing, redear will often be large and healthy.
Many pond owners have no idea whether they have a good population of redear because they do not fish specifically for them. Redear are seldom caught except in the early spring when they congregate to spawn. The average pond owner usually misses this spawn and may miss some of the best bream fishing the pond has to offer. Redear often occupy deeper water before and after the spawn.
Keep an eye on the full moon of March and April, dig some worms in the backyard and catch a mess of shellcracker. It is great fun.
Barry W. Smith is a “Certified Fisheries Scientist."