Pond Water Quality and Deterioration: Ron Morgan’s Successes…and Not So Successes

Part III of our III part series By Bob Lusk

Pond Water QualityIn the first two installments of this three-part series, you were introduced to Ron and Robin Morgan and their retirement dream home, surrounded by water…well, it’s not a moat, but it’s not far from it. Both of the Morgan’s are deeply passionate about their waters, even if for totally different reasons. Robin loves the soothing sounds and visual appeal their ponds and weirs offer, with an occasional step to the shore to catch a fish. Ron, on the other hand, is all about the fish and what we need to do to keep them healthy and growing and huge…and quickly.

No small task.

Ron approaches this project like a successful businessman. Identify the problems, look at the best ideas for solutions, choose the best solution and then get it done. And, get it done yesterday. And, do it like Superman would do it, faster than a speeding bullet, with the power of a locomotive, leaping big bass with a single bound, now.

As their pond consultant, I’ve tried to help them figure out how to have all of both their worlds, helping marry lots of concepts to each other, so to speak. Of course, my primary focus has been on the fish and the environment in which they live.

The first two years were spent developing the project. The third year tested it. The fourth year passed muster and now we’re into year five.

Year three was months of learning about the water, feeding fish, adding more fish and beginning to push the system to its limits. Remember, he has five weirs built along a creek, each hole being its own autonomous pond, unless nature throws a curve, such as a flood.

Then, we learn new limits…if and when it happens.

In the meantime, my biggest concern was water quality deterioration. In Pond 1, we had lots and lots of catfish…growing catfish. That little pond, less than .1 acre, was now carrying in excess of 600 pounds of fish, and growing. It also has some feed-trained largemouth bass and nice bluegills, too. Morgan and his right hand man, Loncho, were feeding as much as 70 pounds of fish food per day throughout the system…in what totals to less than two acres of water. That’s a lot of feed. The best news about that is they were feeding high quality fish food and conversion rates were excellent. But, fish metabolize and give off wastes. I began watching to see if fish showed any signs of water quality degradation. Sluggishness, rising to the surface, piping for air, opaque lenses in their eyes, all symptoms of water quality falling apart.

Didn’t see any of that.

But, here’s what we did see. Remember, with his pumping system, water is pumped into Pond 1, then flows over a manmade rock creek, into Pond 2. Then, it overflows Pond 2 into Weir 1, at the top of his part of the creek. Water flows around the creek, over the other weirs and is lifted from the deepest part of Weir 5, where it’s pumped back into Pond 1. Add waterfalls to Ponds 1 and 2, and Weir 3, aeration everywhere, deep rock in the creek bed and you have all the best ingredients to keep water healthy and happy.

But, since the creek wasn’t overflowing there was no flushing. Make up water from wells compensated for evaporation, but I knew nutrient loading was occurring. Nature won’t allow nutrients in a dynamic system, in warm temperature in Texas, to go unused. It just doesn’t happen.

The first thing we noticed was blobs of periphyton and bacteria growing on sandstone rock in both the ponds. In the afternoon, as that stuff was photosynthesizing, gas was being produced. Bubbles of gas would lift little pods, smaller than the palm of your hand, of the greenish-black stuff and it would float to the surface every summer afternoon. Within an hour, the entire surface of each pond had that nastiness floating. You could touch it, barely and it would almost dissolve and sink to the bottom. Silica from the sandstone fueled the growth, using nutrients associated with the biology of the fish to feed the stuff. Without roots, the periphyton easily broke loose. Well, that wouldn’t work, so we rang our microbe expert, Kevin Ripp. Kevin asked for samples and then concocted his formulas to minimize growth of the stuff. It mitigated the problem, but didn’t totally take it out, like the Morgan’s want.

Enter tilapia. When young tilapia were hatched and released from their parents, they immediately went into the crevices to hide and feed. It didn’t take long before young tilapia were working with the microbes to efficiently eradicate that incidence. We were converting nutrients into fish. That was a fun way to solve a potential problem, especially since the bass could eat the young tilapia and benefit from their own output.

But, one day, I got a call from Ron.

“We’ve got dead fish!”

Fisheries biologists dread those words. I asked a few questions. “Where? What species? What sizes?”

Then, I had to try to figure out quickly what had happened…and then try to prove it to make sure we attack it and solve the problem so it doesn’t happen again.

Well, Pond 2 had some new additives to help metabolize rapidly building soluble fish waste…and too much of the wrong stuff was added. It changed the chemistry of the water and the biggest fish succumbed. Of course it was the biggest, oldest, nicest fish in the pond, including that giant orange koi we’d stocked for Mrs. Morgan.

Since we figured out the problem, we could figure out how to prevent it from happening again. Don’t put in any additive…or be more conservative with it.

In the meantime, three of the weirs were beginning to grow massive amounts of bushy pondweed. That stuff was exploding. As water moved through the weirs, the pondweed was collecting phosphorus, nitrogen and other dissolved nutrients, metals and minerals and sequestering them. Loncho got tired of pulling pondweed with a rake.

As summer moved on, we noticed another interesting phenomenon. The weirs are surrounded by trees and the south shore is a tall slope, maybe forty feet tall and vegetated. The temperature of the Morgan’s water was a full 8-10 degrees cooler than any water in any nearby pond. Between the movement, mixing and shade, their fish had a giant advantage. Water could cleanse itself at a moderate rate and fish had more time in summer with optimum growth temperatures. When some ponds were 88 degrees and fish were panting, Morgan’s water was 78-80.

Fish love that.

I was astonished at growth rates, survival of newly hatched fish, and how the entire system was developing. Relative weights of all species were high and the fish were crowded. It does make sense that crowded fish are more competitive…if they want to eat. That has been proven to be the case at this place.

Catch rates began to drop. Fish were becoming hook shy and complacent. But, when the feed was tossed into the water, watch out. You’ll be splashed. Ron was trying to figure it out. He closed certain ponds and weirs, changed baits and worked at it. But, like the literature reads, Pavlov’s dogs theory had an impact, even in such a small system with way too many catchable-sized fish.

By the end of the third year, we’d grown catfish larger than ten pounds, starting with some five pounders, and bass pushing well beyond 4-5 pounds. We even saw a few bluegills nudging their way beyond a pound and a half. The trout were tasty, too.

2014 started with a bang. Catch rates were up and now we had two years’ worth of catch record data. That’s one of the best things Morgan has done…keep great records. He says, “I don’t trust my memory…and I don’t trust yours, either.” He logs everything he does. Everything. We were able to look at catch records, get them into spreadsheets and compare season to season. Relative weights of all fish were still high and we were poised for something to change…since food wasn’t a limiting factor and so far, water hasn’t been (except for that one fish kill incident). We’re looking for the next limit. My gut suggested it could be disease, as these fish were becoming pretty crowded. They’re not so crowded like you might see koi at a Japanese water garden, but way more crowded than any reasonable sport fish pond or lake you’ll ever see.

We have been seeing some incidence of bacterial infection, with little red bumps on the fish, especially the biggest bluegills. But, we see it most heavily in Pond 2…the one most crowded with bluegills. Maybe that disease thing will be the next limit in line.

We also found anchor worms in some bluegill in year 3. That’s a direct result of buying some golden shiners from a bait dealer. Those creatures are notorious for anchor parasites, even though most fish farms do their best to treat and remove that particular bug.

When we sampled each hole in May, 2014, it was amazing how autonomous each one was. Each has its own quirks and differences, but the most visible thing to me was how many fish each one supports, how healthy they are and how fast they are growing to huge sizes. We collected trophy bass, bluegill, hybrid stripers and catfish. They were beasts.

Feeding an excellent fish food and keeping the water moving around and around was working beyond my expectations. Maybe not Mr. Morgan’s but well beyond mine.

Then, last June, we had a round of spotty thunderstorms. I always watch the radar that time of year, especially when rain is involved. I watched this red-colored area expand and sit right over the top of the Morgan’s place. I called Ron and he confirmed. “It’s raining like crazy.”Then, more storms formed and seemed to train right over the top of them.

Within 24 hours they’d had in excess of nine inches of rain. Nine inches.

Guess what happens to a creek with that much rain? Robbin videoed it on her phone and sent it to me. The roar of water sailing down that creek was deafening. The creek was rolling and swollen way up into their back yard. It fell almost as fast as it rose.

But, the aftermath was stunning. The creek rose so quickly that Ron couldn’t get out and move his brand new ATV. It was found under a bridge, more than a mile downstream, a twisted hunk of metal, missing two tires. His feeders floated off, and were soaked to the gills. But, he and Loncho were able to bring them back, clean them out and they still worked. Later, timers had to be replaced, but the feeders were surprisingly resilient. Testament to Texas Hunter workmanship and engineering. Pump stations were flooded, but before that happened, Ron was able to turn off the electricity. They cleaned out the sumps, cleaned up the connections, had their electrician take a look and got the green light.

But, the fish…what happened with the fish? The creek bottom was dramatically rearranged in different segments of the weirs. Shallow water was now deep and the sand and rock swept from there was deposited inside the bend of the creek, creating new shallow areas. The actual weirs withstood the test but fish disappeared. The best we could tell, up to half the fish left the areas where they’d been stationed. That seems like a low percentage, and it might be. But, quite a few fish stayed where they belonged, even though they had six-plus feet of fast moving water over their heads.

Loncho retrieved several hundred nice bluegills and some bass from a downstream hole in the creek over the next two weeks after the event.

You know Mr. Morgan, though…he wanted more fish to replace those washed downstream.

Did we stock more fish? Of course we did.

Here’s the nuts and bolts of this project. We’re in Year 4 of fish management. By moving the water several times each day and keeping the fish well-fed, this system is holding hundreds of pounds of fish that it really shouldn’t be able to maintain. They are thriving and Mr. Morgan is happy…well, he’s usually pretty happy.

His parting comment to me last month was, “Well, it looks like you’ve taught me about all you can…so you better think of something new we can do, or I won’t need you anymore.”

Of course that’s what he said, even with the wry smile.

I’m still trying to figure out what the next limiting factors might be.