Most of us do not think about our ponds during the winter. There just seems to be too many distractions; college football, deer hunting, migratory birds… all of those activities and more come to mind during the late fall and winter, but not our ponds. We are not going to think about fishing until the first week of warm weather during February or March, so, is there a potential problem with that?

There are a number of activities concerning our ponds that we should consider during the fall and winter months that will enhance our spring fishing success as well as improve the esthetics of our ponds.

Clear the pond dam:

Late fall and winter, before the ground becomes saturated with winter rains, is an excellent time to bush-hog the backside of the dam. Ponds that are constructed properly, with a gentle slope on the back of the dam, can be safely mowed with a tractor. This will not only make the dam more esthetically pleasing, but will also eliminate those small bushes and trees that if left undisturbed will become established on the back of the dam. Dams that have been neglected will often develop trees whose roots may eventually grow into the core of the dam. This invites future problems as the trees or roots die, resulting in small leaks that can eventually become larger. Briars, bushes and thick mats of grass may create habitat for undesirable residents, such as snakes.

Many older ponds, and even new ponds that are not constructed properly, will have such a steep slope on the back of the dam that it would be unsafe to mow with a tractor. In these situations, clearing brush and small trees by hand may be the best option. Piling the brush and then burning the backside of the dam is a great alternative to mowing. Be careful to follow necessary precautions before burning, so as not to create a wildfire. Burn permits are often required prior to burning, so contact your state forestry department before proceeding.

Pond banks:

Mowing pond banks allows for easier and safer access for anglers. Clean pond banks also decrease habitat for snakes. Although most water snakes are harmless, the fewer snakes around the pond the less likelihood of a water moccasin. None of us wants the possibility of that encounter when our kids or grandkids are roaming the pond banks. Burning is also an option to clear pond banks-- be sure to have proper fire lanes and exercise common sense in any burning effort. Always alert proper authorities and never attempt to burn even a small area alone…you can never have too much help once a fire starts. Burning, along with mowing, is best done after all of the grasses and other plants have stopped their growth, during the late fall or winter. This will result in a cleaner pond area during the spring and make bank fishing much easier.

Piers:

This is a good time to inspect your piers and replace any rotten boards so you will be ready for the first spring fishing trip. Weathered boards will often crack and splinter, creating potential problems for anglers of all ages. It seems easier to concentrate on these types of maintenance and repairs during the winter rather than on a fishing trip when the fish are really biting. Be prepared, and carry the necessary tools and replacement boards to get your pier in safe repair for the first outing of the spring.

Feeders:

If you are not feeding during the winter, be sure to inspect your feeder and set the timer to feed for a few seconds each day. First, inspect the feed hopper and clean out any old feed. Look for areas of potential leaks. You may notice moldy pellets that are stuck to a seam or the viewing glass. This is an indication of moisture in the hopper, and these areas should be sealed with silicone.

Check the area of the feed distribution fan, sometimes feed will accumulate in the area below the fan and build up until it jams the fan. A coat hanger or long screwdriver are handy tools to dislodge the old feed and clear the fan area. Spin the fan with your finger to ensure that it rotates freely.

Clean the solar panel with a damp cloth; this will often remove a season’s worth of dust and grime that blocks sunlight and affect the efficiency of the panel to maintain a charge on the battery. With an electrical tester, such as a multimeter, you can easily check the voltage output of the solar panel. The panel should show 13 to 14 volts to properly charge a 12-volt battery. Inspect the wires and connectors from the solar panel, and the main electrical leads from the battery. Replace any corroded connectors or frayed wires. Most feeder batteries will operate for a year or longer with proper charging from the solar panel.

Operating the feeder for even a few seconds each day during the winter will help prevent rust from developing on the motor shaft and the motor from binding-- some feeders have two motors. Running the motors also discourages field mice from building nests inside the feed chute. This can result in a major problem and the feeder will have to be completely disassembled…not an easy task for most pond owners.

We recommend that you feed a sinking pellet once daily during the winter; it benefits the growth and health of your fish.

Otter trails:

Narrow trails crossing the dam, usually near the area of the drainpipe, are signs that otters are visiting your pond. If they are feeding on your fish, there will be piles of otter scat containing fish bones and scales. This is a sure sign of four-legged poachers. Otters are primarily nocturnal feeders, so do not expect to see them in your lake when you drive up in the middle of the day. Our best advice if otter sign is prevalent…call a professional trapper.

Winter visits:

It really does not take much time to winterize your pond and it is time well invested. If your property is large enough that you hunt on or around it, you are probably there many times during the fall and winter. Make your pond a priority during the winter and perform the tasks we have outlined in this article. When spring comes, you and your guests will be glad you did.

We are very blessed in this country, and especially in the South, to have a tremendous diversity of sport fish and also, access to these fishing opportunities. You can catch trophy bass, bluegill, striped bass, rainbow trout, speckled trout, redfish, snapper, grouper and numerous other species within a day’s drive.

Some fishermen are very passionate about one particular species and gear all of their efforts and equipment in the pursuit of trophies and limits (i.e., largemouth bass). However, I think that as they get older most fishermen, like me, prefer a variety of challenges in regard to species, habitat, equipment, and fish for tablefare. One fish that does not get as much publicity or glamour as some others, but has a very dedicated following is the lowly crappie. Yes, largemouth bass and striped bass will put up a terrific fight, but there is something very addictive about watching a bobber floating next to a stump or treetop twitch a couple of times and then disappear beneath the water.

As co-owner of American Sport Fish, I received a lot of calls from landowners wanting to add crappie to their ponds that contain largemouth bass and bluegill. In years past we always discouraged this stocking practice. Crappie spawn at cooler temperatures earlier in the year than bluegill and have the potential to produce very large numbers of offspring. A 1-pound female may carry 100,000 eggs or more, and with a moderately successful spawn a very large yearclass is produced. These high numbers of small crappie will feed on the natural food that would normally be available to the bluegill, and the end result is a pond full of stunted bluegill and crappie. Largemouth bass fishing also ends up being very poor due to the small size of the forage base. In years past, the only solution was to drain the pond and start over.

However, after working with thousands of landowners we began to recognize that occasionally some lakes would have good fishing for bass, bluegill and a few slab crappie. The one common denominator in all of these successful lakes was the fact that there was an additional forage species present. Very often this additional species would be a population of golden shiners that were accidentally introduced or came in from a stream above when the pond was filling. Shiners can coexist with bluegill, especially if an automatic feeder is used to supply a supplemental feed. Shiners are predators of recently hatched fish fry, and this feeding habit may help to keep the crappie numbers down so that they do not become stunted.

One other forage species that seems to produce manageable crappie fishing is the threadfin shad. Shad can be added to existing populations in recreational lakes. Although the shad are only 2 to 4 inches when stocked, they will get become established through multiple spawns and provide food for both the crappie and largemouth bass. Fatheads are great in new ponds to give the fish a growth surge the first year but they will eventually be eliminated and do very little if any good when added to an established population. They simply do not produce enough offspring and are easy prey for the existing fish.

In the last few years, we have had a few landowners with several ponds that were producing good bass fishing and who wanted to build a new pond and attempt to produce some quality crappie fishing. In these situations we stocked fathead minnows, golden shiners and threadfin shad. A few months later we added approximately 200 black crappie fingerlings per acre. No bluegill, largemouth bass or catfish were stocked so that there would be no competition for the minnows. So far we have gotten positive reports and the crappie have grown well. The owners are aware of the fact that they may have to add more crappie fingerlings or supplement the bait fish at some point in the future.

Another option we have had success with in new ponds is to stock bluegill, fatheads, golden shiners and threadfin shad in the fall, fingerling bass in May, and add crappie the following fall. This scenario allows the shiner and shad population to become established before the crappie are added.

There are two species of crappie; the black and the white. They are frequently found in the same geographical areas, and often in the same body of water. The white crappie have the black pigment arranged in faint vertical bars, but the black crappie have no distinguishable color patterns. The black crappie also have seven or more dorsal spines and the white have six or fewer dorsal spines. In the spring during spawning season, the male white crappie will be very dark and is often mistaken for a black crappie. There is also a unique strain of black crappie that is native to northern Mississippi and southern Arkansas that is called the black nose. This is a black crappie with a black stripe that runs down its back to the tip of the snout. For private lakes we recommend the black crappie. They seem to handle better, transport better and have good growth rates.

As for tablefare, to me nothing tops crappie for flavor. I have eaten fresh Alaskan salmon, snapper, catfish, speckled trout, you name it, but the sweetest, tastiest white meat is that of a fresh slab crappie dragged through a little cornmeal and delicately fried to a light golden brown.

Finally, if you are considering stocking crappie, contact a fisheries professional to make sure that you have the right habitat and food supply.

The smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) is a favorite of American sportsmen and has been called “Inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims.” The world record weighed 11 pounds and 15 ounces, and was caught in 1955 at Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee. Smallmouth bass originally ranged from northern Minnesota to Quebec, west to eastern Oklahoma and south to the Tennessee River system in Alabama.

Much of the common literature states that smallmouth are thought to do best in deep, cool, rocky northern or Midwestern lakes or cool water streams. Other references state that these bass prefer clear, rocky lakes that are a minimum of 25-30 feet deep and where water temperatures do not exceed 80 degrees F. A classic early study of some northern lakes with native smallmouth concluded that these bass “preferred” to stay in cooler water along deeper rocky ledges.

In reality, smallmouth were forced to compete with more dominant predators, particularly largemouth bass. The more dominant largemouth staked their claim in the prime shallower habitats and forced the smallmouth to the deeper rocky habitat. Thus, the “preferred habitat areas” of deep cool waters were probably, out of necessity, the second habitat of choice due to the competition from the largemouth. Thus, the smallmouth in order to survive took up residence in the deeper, cooler waters which are areas that were less preferred by the largemouth.

Although smallmouth are often found in cool, clear, deeper water they function quite well in warm, shallow, weedy water when other predators are sparse or absent. In the scientific literature, studies have shown that smallmouth will survive in summer water at temperatures as high as 90-95 degrees F. I personally know that smallmouth have been on the Fisheries Research Station at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. and at the State Fish Hatchery at Marion, Ala., for more than 50 years. We have maintained smallmouth at our hatchery, AMERICAN SPORT FISH, in Montgomery, Ala., and our pond surface temperatures in July and August will reach 95 degrees F. or higher. Typically, the best growth for smallmouth is around 80-85 degrees F. This is contrary to what many of us have been taught over the years. Thus, we can conclude that in most areas of the country, warm temperatures are not the limiting factor for smallmouth growth and survival.

Creating habitat:

If you are interested in creating your own smallmouth fishery in a private pond there are several key things to consider. Although it has been demonstrated that smallmouth will do quite well in clean clay bottomed ponds, I would strongly suggest that if you have the opportunity you should provide a diverse habitat. Adding rock, from marble size to grapefruit size and larger, in piles or as riprap will provide excellent habitat for crayfish, a preferred food of smallmouth bass. Woody structure such as logs, brush, old pallets, etc., will provide hiding places for crayfish and also a place for them to feed and grow. A limited amount of marginal emergent vegetation will also provide a sanctuary for baitfish and a habitat for growing small food items for your forage fish and smallmouth.

Stocking:

This is 10-month growth of a smallmouth fingerling.Once you have your bottom structure in place and your pond is filled, the next step is providing the forage or food source for the smallmouth. Unfortunately, there have not been any good replicated studies by Universities or Game and Fish agencies comparing forage species combinations for optimum production of smallmouth. However there have been many observations made by trained professionals who have drawn similar conclusions. One conclusion is that smallmouth generally do better with soft-rayed forage fish, such as fathead minnows, golden shiners and threadfin shad and crayfish, compared to spiny–rayed fish such as sunfish. Lake chubsuckers are also good forage for larger smallmouth bass. These forage fish should be stocked in the fall or winter and will spawn in the spring when the water reaches 60-66 degrees F. Crayfish could be stocked at the same time. A few bales of hay should be added as a food source for the crawfish.

Spiny-rayed fish such as bluegill, green sunfish, crappie, and redbreast sunfish have been reported to be detrimental to smallmouth in ponds. They reproduce heavily, overpopulate and then compete for food and space. One exception may be the redear or shellcracker. Although similar in size to the bluegill, it gets off far fewer spawns and thus does not overpopulate. Redear have been successfully used in combination with other forage fish in smallmouth ponds in Nebraska and Kansas. When smallmouth are small they will feed on insects, small crayfish and small minnows. As they get larger they will shift their diet to larger fish and thus use less energy to gain food. One study found that the large smallmouth in Dale Hollow fed mainly on threadfin shad and alewives.

After the forage has been in the pond for several months, has reproduced and built up a significant biomass of food, then the smallmouth fingerlings can be added. Stocking rates can range from 30 to 60 per acre, similar to largemouth stockings. These can be added in the early summer as 2-inch fingerlings or in the fall as 4- to 8-inch fish. One advantage of stocking the larger fingerlings in the fall is that these fish will be pellet trained, and a feeder with trout chow or a special bass ration can be used to feed the smallmouth as a supplement to their natural diet.

Do not stock largemouth bass:

Author with a smallmouth bass brood fish at American Sport Fish Hatchery.One thing is for sure; if you want a quality smallmouth pond, do not stock largemouth bass. Largemouth evolved primarily as a still or static water species and have instinctive advantages and the upper hand over smallmouth in pond or still water habitats. Largemouth will also feed heavily on smallmouth offspring. Smallmouth bass fry do not school like largemouth bass fry, but randomly disperse around the edges of the pond, becoming easy prey for small largemouth bass. Eventually, in combination with largemouth, the smallies will disappear. Smallmouth stocked alone do not cannibalize their young as aggressively as largemouth bass.

To produce the optimum amount of forage, it is best to maintain some fertility program by using a good inorganic fertilizer such as PERFECT POND PLUS. Try to maintain a plankton bloom so that the visibility is in the range of 18 to 24 inches. Several studies have found that smallmouth can maintain relatively high standing crops of bass per acre. Common carrying capacities are reported to be similar to those of largemouth bass.

One reason smallmouth bass have not been stocked in private ponds in the southeast is the lack of availability of fingerlings. There are only a very few private hatcheries in the country that produce smallmouth. I personally know of only one in Kansas and one in Illinois. American Sport Fish has initiated a smallmouth bass fingerling production program to provide both 2-inch and advanced smallmouth fingerlings for pond owners.

So, if you have several ponds on your property and want to try something a little different, consider setting up a smallmouth bass pond. For sure you will have something that will give you a lot of joy and entertainment and that your neighbor will undoubtedly envy.

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