Nature's Balance

Different species of plants coexist in this environment, with none dominating the ecosystem.

When you sit down with a biologist to talk about your project, be it a pond, lake, waterfowl impoundment (or white-tailed deer, the woods, range or grassland), inevitably the conversation turns to the little-understood concept of balance. Balance is an evasive ordeal in nature. The reality is that nature ebbs and flows. If you have lots of bunny rabbits roaming your property, then you don’t have many coyotes or bobcats. If you have quite a few of those furry, toothy predators, then you don’t have many rabbits. That’s nature.

Nature’s balance is fleeting.

As pondmeisters, we strive to find our balance by building the best habitat, providing the perfect food chain, stocking the proper numbers of predators, and then doing the husbandry things such as feeding and fertilizing. Then, at the appointed time, we harvest—selectively. We preserve those creatures we want to keep and cull those which don’t fit into our long-term game plan. As we do what we are supposed to do, it doesn’t take long to figure out just how important our timing is. If we miscalculate the time to fertilize by a few days during prime spring months, our lake makes us pay—aquatic plants get a jump start, those newly hatched fry don’t get the planktonic meal they need, and we wring our hands wondering if we messed up, knowing we probably did.

I’m not bold enough to suggest we forget about balance…well, maybe I am. Shall we consider Ecological Harmony, instead?

With thousands of gallons flowing naturally through Richmond Mill Pond, its ecological harmony is fascinating.

With thousands of gallons flowing naturally through Richmond Mill Pond, its ecological harmony is fascinating.

Please don’t interrupt your regularly scheduled game plan in lieu of this ecological harmony idea I’m about to pitch. If you need to fertilize, please do so. If your feeding program is working, by all means continue. If you’ve got your brain and Johnny Morris’ BassPro Shops baitcasting combo working to harvest the right fish, so the other underwater beasts can do what you want them to do in your honey hole, please throw that favorite crankbait. However, I do encourage you to consider how the concept of ecological harmony could help create a more symbiotic relationship between you and your pond.

During the first two and a half decades of my career as a fisheries biologist, I saw plenty of new ponds and lakes carved, sculpted, and etched into the subsoils of North America. Each one stands on its own merit. Each one was young, immature, and built to standards. Some of those standards were scribed from earthmoving engineers, civil sorts who studied about it in college, and then grabbed a shovel to see for themselves if the books were right. Other people, like the salty bulldozer guys, plowed furrows into their brows as they pushed dirt back and forth, doing what they do to build cereal bowl-shaped stock ponds while other-purpose ideas were drawn on the back of a napkin, a dream pond conceived by a reminiscing baby boomer who remembers that fishing hole his grandpa had in the middle of the farm back in the day.

Who can forget their first fish?

160 year old pond cypress trees influence the harmony of the aquatic environment at Richmond Mill Pond.

160 year old pond cypress trees influence the harmony of the aquatic environment at Richmond Mill Pond.

It wasn’t until I met Richmond Mill Lake, a 125-acre beauty nestled in the sand hills of North Carolina, that I got a tiny glimpse into ecological harmony. Here’s a lake, built of necessity back in 1835 to turn a grist mill for the locals…well, it was finished in 1835, which taught this fisheries biologist a significant lesson, one that positioned both sides of my brain to understand the concept of ecological harmony. The left side of my brain tried to congregate the concepts, the science, and the principles into some logical sequence of how and why this lake is what it is. The right side of my brain, the artistic one, the side that thinks in color, tried to wrap itself around how that lake, with all it’s quirks, holds hands within itself.

Here’s what I know. Every new lake develops its own set of successes—and problems. A brand new dam settles in, holds water, allows excess water to escape in a calculated formula through a well thought out process, through a pipe, or maybe over the top of an emergency spillway. But, that spot of water behind that dam, that living, breathing entity we call a lake, develops a mind of its own. Depending on the water quality and its chemistry, plus the habitat designed, built, and developed, that ecological masterpiece will become what it is destined to be. And, we’ve had a say-so in it. We decided what fish to stock, how to manage those creatures, and then we do whatever we can do to get it to be what we want it to be. We may have even planted some things—some trees, some grasses, whatever we’ve thought is the best idea at the moment.

What we don’t really understand is the ecological harmony that pond will try to develop. Nature really does want to try to get along with itself, if given the chance.

“ Okay,” you’re probably thinking, “ enough of this dance. Just what is ecological harmony?”

Early morning fog awakens the lake.

Early morning fog awakens the lake.

Richmond Mill Lake has taught me about that interesting concept. Every time I’ve studied that lake, each time my backside has been planted in a boat, propelling across the tannic, acidic waters of that lake, I see things other lakes don’t have. I see populations of fish taking advantage of less-than-advantageous opportunities to thrive in water that’s less-than-perfect. The bluegill continually show five or six size classes. Bass reproduce and battle for supremacy in less-than-supreme conditions, sans the feeders. I see more than 20 species of fish surviving amongst a variety of species of plants, none of which dares to dominate that shallow landscape.

Just when I think bladderwort, a non-rooted plant that partially makes its living by eating insects, will overtake every plant in the lake, it subsides, yielding to an ancient species of cow lily, with leaves cascading to the surface, looking like that wavy lettuce they sell at Whole Foods Market in the city. Small lily pads nudge their way into the fragrant, white water lilies, each holding the other at bay—and all this greenery feeds throngs of grass shrimp.

Guess what eats grass shrimp?

As these plants work together with common milfoil and the remaining stumps of gum and pond cypress trees to fill a niche for periphyton to grow, those colonies of bacteria that feed countless insects that become fish food or dragonflies, whichever comes first.

In the meantime, all these other younger ponds and lakes dotting the landscape over this fair country fight for position in the ecological chain. Some of them evolve into prosperity; some devolve into nightmares that empty the wallets of pondmeisters as we try to figure out the fate of that body of water.

What’s this got to do with you?

I have no idea—but I have an idea.

If you can look at your pond in terms of its ecological harmony, where plants, insects, fish, and your water all get along, you very well may be on the path to being a steward of an incredible pond—just keep in mind the dirt dictates what the water will become, water dictates what can grow in it, and you, based on your knowledge and the depth of your checkbook, can then dictate within these parameters, raise your expectations, and reach a level of ecological harmony and a more symbiotic relationship with your pond.

After all, if Richmond Mill Lake did it in 180 years, certainly we can think ourselves into it in a much shorter time…can’t we?

Source: Bob Lusk