40 Years of Pond History

By Bob Lusk


Rural coffee shops open early. Locals want to get in, get a cup, catch up with their neighbors and get on 40 Years of Pond History about their business before the sun rises. That’s just the way it works out in the country. Five decades ago, the local café or donut shop is where you’d find a variety of early risers and folks who made a living with their hands and backs.

That’s where you went if you wanted to build a pond.

But, don’t get there much later than 5:15 a.m. or you’d miss the bulldozer guy. Every small town had a good bulldozer guy. He was the grizzled-looking fellow with bib overalls, khaki shirt and tobacco stains on both sides of his mouth. He usually had a well-worn hat to keep the sun off his already weathered face.

You’d buy him another cup of Joe and ask, “Hey Jimmy, I need a pond built. Can you get to it?” He’d smile a little bit, pull out a small notebook from his shirt pocket, make a few notes with his pencil and you’d be on his list.

Two or three weeks later, a big truck would show up, a silver-bladed bulldozer would ride off and you’d soon see dirt flying and rolling over the blade. Within a few days you’d have a cereal-bowl shaped hole in the ground, smooth as the backside of a newborn baby.

Before long, it would rain and you’d have a pond. As an afterthought, you might stock a few fish, a free service from your state back then, and you’d have some fun fishing in three or four years. Then, as another afterthought, you might feed those little fish, mostly catfish. After all, your feed dealer carried a small variety of chows just for fish.

When fishing declined, you’d go to the local feed store, buy some rotenone, invite the neighbors over to help40 Years of Pond History harvest the bounty and you’d wipe out the rest of the fish and start over.

Most ponds were designed back then to provide water for livestock.

In the late seventies, baby boomers who’d left the country for college or a better job at the bank began to realize the benefits of working in the city in the form of a little-known concept at the time, disposable income.

Small family farms, especially within 75 miles of major cities, soon came up for sale. Aging parents were tired of working the land for a pittance of income. With rising prices of almost everything, folks couldn’t scratch out the same living off the land they did twenty years before.

Guess who bought those small family farms and ranches?

Yep, baby boomers.

But, were these good folks interested in farming? No, not at all. They wanted that land to return it to its most natural state and use it to shelter money in an investment and use it for recreational. Run a few cows? Sure. Working cattle ranch? Not likely.

Soon gone were the days of ponds built like a cereal bowl, just for livestock water. Sure, people still build ponds to water livestock, but starting in the 80’s ponds began to be built for different purposes.

It always amazed me as a fisheries biologist to work on private waters as I came across some ponds and lakes that seemed not to need any help at all to grow abundant crops of nice, catchable sized fish. Then, other water bodies that looked good at the surface couldn’t grow a decent fish if its life depended on what it produced.

What was up with that?

This enquiring mind had to know. So did my newly forming list of clients.

Etching into my mind were several concepts. First, bare-bottom ponds didn’t grow many fish. Lots of small fish, but not much volume, nor any of much size, except catfish, if they were fed. Second, building a dam didn’t guarantee you could have a pond. Not all dirt holds water. Third, not many bulldozer guys had any idea what it took to build a lake. Lots of them could build a dam, but not many could build a real, honest-to-gosh lake where fish could thrive and people could have fun.

By the early 1990’s guys like me were actually beginning to entertain questions from more people who were buying rural property for recreation. They wanted wildlife, sure, but more importantly, they wanted to have water on it.

40 Years of Pond HistoryMore and more landowners wanted to build a nice pond or lake on the farm or ranch. Most of them were thinking about fishing lakes. Since I’m a fisheries guy, that’s where my focus turned.

By the mid 1990’s, we saw landowners beginning to build different ponds for different purposes, beyond livestock and fishing holes. Some were building small ponds for hatchery ponds to supplement their fishing lakes. Other people wanted water near the cabin to attract wildlife and for the simple ambience of being near water. Times were changing.

In the 2000’s, those purposes diversified beyond these basics.

Heck, at my place, we live on 12 acres…and have 8 ponds. Each pond serves a different purpose. One pond is a swimming pond. 20 feet deep, dock with a ladder, aeration, zip line. My wife loves to sip a glass of wine with a flotation device strapped around her waist on late, hot summer days, partially submerged in that pond next to the house.

One pond is designed to grow catfish for food. Another is designed to grow tilapia for our aquaponics program and to sell for algae control to other pond owners. Another pond has been used to work with Purina Mills to test different fish foods as they develop products for our industry. A different pond is used to test different habitat and see its influences on different sizes of different species of fish. Another is used to grow hybrid striped bass fingerling to larger sizes for people to stock into existing bass lakes.

In today’s world, people build ponds for specific purposes. Freshwater swimming ponds seem to be the latest rage. But, there are many folks out there who want to, “Grow the biggest bass on the planet.”

I’ve even designed a couple of ponds just for geo-thermal energy for someone building a home.

Another couple wanted to build their retirement home on the inside bend of a dry creek. Their architect told them the house pad needed to rise at least six feet. Dirt was excavated from both sides of the drive way and they ended up with two ponds. Not wanting to stop there, they built five rock weirs in the creek so they could have five small fishing areas there, too.

Earthmovers have risen to the challenge, too. They don’t simply just move dirt in bulk anymore. They cut, shape and mold it, adding underwater features where needed. They are thinking about meeting the goals and aspirations of landowners more so than just digging a hole deep enough to hold water so the cows can drink…although that still happens.

Can you still go to the rural coffee shop two hours before daylight and find the bulldozer guy? Sure, in some places. But, nowadays he’ll be finishing coffee, on his cell phone talking to line out his crew or dealing with a client wondering when he’ll be there to get to work. He’ll take your cell number and ring you when he can.

In the meantime, you’re busy making plans, deciding what you want from a variety of options. Maybe you need to be at the coffee shop before daylight, working on your list of goals and expectations so the bulldozer guy can have a clear vision of what you want to do.

After all, there are lots of choices in today’s pond building world.