Bob Lusk, Fisheries Biologist
A Pioneer of the Pond Management Business
Bob Lusk graduated from Texas A&M’s Wildlife and Fisheries department December, 1979 and leased a fish farm January 1, 1980, west of Wichita Falls, Texas. Those first two and a half years after college were painful, with no experience, a small, undefined market, no fish inventory…and operating off borrowed money at two points over prime, which was 20% in those days. He had no idea where his career was headed, other than he wanted to raise fish. He’d known he wanted to make a living raising fish, since he was 14 years old, romping up and down Mitchell Bend of the Brazos River. Ironically, 1980 was the year the state of Texas stopped giving away fish to private landowners to stock ponds. Soil Conservation Service (now called the NRCS) state biologist, Gary Valentine, came up with a program using private fish hatcheries to work with local SWCD’s (Soil & Water Conservation Districts) to provide fish to stock ponds to fill that supply void. In 1981, Bob began to see a place he might fit. He didn’t intend to be a private lakes manager at that point, mainly because most private ponds were for livestock water, not recreational fishing. No one really did any lake management except for two or three state biologists who moonlighted as consultants for fishing clubs and a few wealthy landowners.
By 1983, he was beginning to see a niche for pond stocking and a little bit of management. When people had to pay for their fish, the value proposition began to change. They were paying around $350-400 per acre to stock fish, and some land in west Texas was still selling for $300-400 per acre, so folks began to see fish as having value. He evaluated his first fishing lake in 1982, a 30-acre fishing club lake on the Caprock, near Matador. Then, in 1983, he met Kenny Dryden, from Austin. Kenny and his buddies had a hunting ranch northwest of Laredo. They wanted to improve their lakes and ponds for fishing. That’s where Lusk really saw the passion and a niche business that could be nurtured. He made a few dollars helping at that ranch and then started picking up a few more clients for stocking fish and minor pond management such as fertilizing and dealing with runaway aquatic plants. In 1984 he moved to Whitesboro, ran a fish hatchery and stocking ponds came more sharply into focus. Then, everything began to change in 1986 when he received a call that would help cement his confidence and direction. Ray Murski, owner of Bliss-Murski Sales in Dallas, was referred by Kenny Dryden. He’d just bought his ranch there near Meridian and it had two key lakes on it. He basically gave Lusk carte blanche to make those two lakes as good as they could be. Lusk thought he could do it and Murski gave him the chance to prove it. Murski believed in and guided Lusk, but most of all he and Lusk worked together to create some good fishing lakes. After a few years working with Murski, the referrals started coming and a niche business was forming. Lusk will always remember what Murski said over and over, “Buck, I don’t mind spending some money, just be sure we get good value for it. Treat these lakes like they’re yours, but remember they’re mine.” Those words resonated. Lusk also remembers the excited call one night, in May, 1990, at two in the morning, “Buck, this is Raymond Andrew Murski. Today, shortly after noon, at the House Lake here at Flint Creek Ranch, we caught a 13 pound, 7-ounce black bass. Just thought you’d want to know.” That’s the only call he’s ever received in the middle of the night that was appreciated. Lusk still chuckles about that call.
Back in those days, if someone wanted a pond, they showed up at the coffee shop in their small town. Be sure to be there before 5:30 in the morning, or you’d miss the bulldozer guy. Buy him a cup, tell him you wanted a pond, he’d pull a little notebook out of his shirt pocket, add you to the list and he’d show up in a few weeks, driving a big truck with a yellow dozer with a shiny blade on the front of it. He’d spend a few days, push some dirt around and, presto-chango, you’d have a cereal bowl-shaped hole in the ground in your field. Then, you’d do a rain dance, it would fill with water and, as an after-thought, you’d stock a few fish from the state. They’d grow for a few years, folks would enjoy them and then the fishery would over-reproduce and then stunt. Rotenone it, start over and the state would stock it again.
It ain’t like that, now.
People today build ponds with a purpose.
For example, Lusk lives on 12 acres of land near Lake Texoma and has 8 ponds (He says, “I don’t like to mow”). Each pond serves a different purpose. One is for catfish, for meat and for kids to catch their first big fish. Another one is for swimming. It has a dock, a ladder, a zip-line, and clean water. His wife loves to open a bottle of wine, strap on a life jacket and float the pond with a glass of red vino on hot summer evenings. But, since Lusk is a fish guy, you can bet they have a few wet critters living in it. They have another pond designated as an experimental pond. They have used it to test fish foods for Purina to see how well fish will grow and thrive and what the feed company needs to do to tweak the foods and improve them. They have two small hatchery ponds where they propagate fish, tilapia in the summer and trout and hybrid stripers in the winter. Another pond is to test different habitat and see the effects on different sizes of different species of fish. Two other ponds are there, one to catch water from a seep and another to attract wildlife.
By the early 1990’s more and more baby boomers had disposable income and began to buy up family farms close to urban areas. Those 50 acre, up to several hundred acre, tracts which families carved livings for years were now being bought and restored as recreational properties. There was a shift in thinking. Instead of taking from the land to provide an income, this group of new people wanted to give to the land and become better stewards of that resource. That’s when Lusk began to see the significance of the opportunity in front of him and the handful of other guys who did what he was doing at the time. This group of pioneers were carving out a niche where they could follow passions and make a living at the same time.
That was also when Pond Boss magazine was born. Mark McDonald was one of those folks who bid farewell to the Times-Herald when the Morning News bought them and folded the operation. Mark was looking for a gig and saw the possibility of a need for a niche newsletter after attending a pond management workshop in Richardson. He and Lusk teamed up to give birth to the idea. In 1992, the first issue of Pond Boss went out to 125 fervent landowners. Mark parted company with Pond Boss in 2004, and Lusk took over as editor. Now, Pond Boss magazine has subscribers in 42 states, six different countries, and the magazine sells in most BassPro Shops and some Tractor Supply stores. Pond Boss also has the most active discussion forum in the nation at www.pondboss.com. That forum membership is more than 14,000 strong and growing.
During this time, through the 90’s, Lusk and his burgeoning network was able to be creative and work with landowners who were successful, and guys like him could do some really fun things. Private waters were changing, as his career was evolving. Instead of generic ponds being built for water storage, more and more people were seeing ponds and lakes as a two-fold proposition…a dam to impound and hold water and that area behind the dam, deserving of being a living, breathing entity complete with habitat, healthy water and teeming with fish. That transformation has been ongoing for at least 25 years. From a pond to a living body of water. It’s not that the ponds haven’t been that way…it’s that people’s understanding has developed and folks can make choices. If Lusk had to drill it down to one sentence it would be this. “40 years ago, people built ponds to water livestock. Today, ponds have many different purposes.” As public lakes became crowded, private fishing lakes became the norm. In some cases, people could buy a piece of land, build a pond and stock it for just a little more than the cost of a tricked-out bass boat. That was attractive to quite a few people.
People are building more lakes and ponds today. Lusk remember stats from the NRCS in the mid-1990’s that estimated somewhere beyond 900,000 ponds and lakes, just in Texas. Today, that number exceeds 1.2 million. That’s just in Texas. His biggest fear is that the city fathers of big cities and state regulatory agencies won’t recognize the value of all these small bodies of water and their local influence on water tables, waterfowl, and local ecosystems as the decision-makers pursue the need for drinking water and try to regulate rural waters to death.
Part of the reason people are building lakes and ponds are to protect the resource and make better use of that land. Eroded areas are particular targets of pond builders. Another reason is not only conservation, but the esthetic and soothing appeal of water. People want water, especially during a drought.
Permitting isn’t becoming easier. It’s becoming tougher. The biggest agency is the Corps of Engineers. If anyone intends to impound more than 200 acre feet of water, they need a permit from the Corps. This can take anywhere from 18 months to years, depending where you are planning to build the lake and which office you have to apply. The TCEQ can also play a role in the permitting process as can smaller, local agencies formed for local management. Those smaller agencies and water districts have begun popping up, especially where there are sensitive aquifers. Over the years, Lusk has cases seen where downstream neighbors have called FEMA, demanding the guy building a pond upstream file for permission to change the flood plain, even though there’d never been a flood plain delineated. Another landowner had to bring in the Chief of a Native American tribe to look over his ranch to make sure there were no significant artifacts or sensitive areas that might be flooded.
Are the lakes of today better built? Yes, they definitely are. Thirty years ago, most earthmovers could build a good dam, but they had no idea how to build a lake. A smooth lake bottom was the rule. Smoothness of a lake bottom is a desert to most fish. The science behind dam building is still pretty much the same, but the dam builders are more conscientious about building better dams today. Plus, more and more earthmovers are recognizing the value of good habitat, even though many of them don’t truly understand what the best habitat is for all the different species and size classes of fish.
Lakes are better today for several reasons. First, dam builders are more efficient. They have a better understanding of soil sciences, compaction, plasticity and how those factors come together to build a dam that doesn’t leak too badly. Secondly, earthmovers have become more specialized. Four decades ago, the same guy who built oil field pads, cleared fence rows, gravel roads and built house pads also built ponds. Nowadays, there are earthmovers who specialize in building fishing lakes who also do the other work. A big reason lakes are better today is because they have better defined purposes, are built efficiently and fit the available sites. (Most of the best sites were taken up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.) Plus, these newest lakes have the benefit of hindsight of the “wrong” things about older lakes. For example, some lakes of yesteryear were too deep and that deeper water could be blamed for fish kills from unexpected lake turnovers. Plus, biologists and lake builders didn’t really realize the value and scope of permanent habitat simply because not many people understood enough about habitat and how it works under water. Just look at so many public lakes that have evolved into what they are today because of degraded habitat. Today, Lusk and his team can build habitat with long-lasting materials and thoughtful placement of underwater earthen structures and cover and put it proximity where we can expect healthy stands of aquatic plants to bolster those man-made underwater habitat additions. Add some well-placed logs, rock piles and other structure and you have a pretty good fishing lake.
What has Lusk learned in private lakes management that could be applied to public waters? He’s learned several things in the private sector that apply directly to public waters. “First, habitat is where it’s at. Lake Texoma is known for its striper fishery. That’s because it has the perfect habitat for threadfin shad, gizzard shad and for stripers to move long distances. Add in the fact that lake has all the elements for those species to reproduce and feed and you have a successful fishery. Lake Fork is another. As goes its habitat, so goes that fishery. As the habitat degrades, the fishery must change. That’s a fact of nature. People think you can money-whip a fishery into whatever you want it to be and that’s just not so. Spend money, give it a go, stop spending the money and that fishery develops into what that particular lake allows. Look at Lake Buchanan right now. That lake has been down so far for so long that much of the shoreline has grown up with terrestrial plants. The lake is known for its hybrid striper fishery. Watch what happens when that lake fills back up. It will do what Falcon Lake did. It will become a premier destination lake for largemouth bass about five years after it refills, if the decision-makers down there allow the water to stay put for a while. Another thing I’ve learned in the private sector is about feeding. I truly think smaller urban waters could benefit from a feeding program. Even though a number of species of fish won’t eat fish food, others will. When that happens, we see many more catchable fish, especially sunfish and catfish. It’s not quite that simple, but a thoughtful feeding program could be the salvation of smaller urban lake’s fisheries. That would intrigue more anglers and help get more kids outside, in my humble opinion. Even if a kid never casts a line, it’s cool to watch the splashing of fish feeding near pond’s edge. That event could fuel a passion in some kids, because of the mystery of what’s under water.”
What about new things in the industry? Lusk explains, “There are several hot, new things in private lake management. One large hatchery has developed a feed-trained version of F1 largemouth bass. While those fish have the genetics, now we can supplement their natural food chain with the expectation of growing big fish faster. Lake design is maturing, too. Lake builders are learning how they can build great, permanent habitat and mimic what works best in nature, including travel paths, congregating areas, feeding zones and condos where fish can be safe and rest. The concept of feed-trained bass is developing further, as well. Better, complete feeds have given us better tools to encourage people to feed fish. Now, we can feed bass, bluegills, and catfish. Another idea that’s gaining momentum is supplemental stocking of forage fish, especially tilapia and crawfish. I’ve been of the school over the years that a lake should be able to produce its own food chain, but experience has proven most people aren’t willing to harvest bass on a regular basis, so periodic stocking of additional forage fish has more merit in my mind. Aeration is another hot topic. Moving water assists nature do what it does to keep it clean.”
As Lusk completes his 38th year as a private sector fisheries biologist, he’s becoming more reflective. “This is a great ride. Meeting spectacular people and helping them make their dreams come true is the most rewarding. Now, my life is becoming centered more on helping young biologists and mentoring their careers in the private side of things. Sure, I still love to spend time in our electrofishing boat, and my spine tingles when a double-digit bass comes aboard. But, maybe the most rewarding part of the last few decades is helping create a healthy industry, teaching people to be better stewards of their lakes and ponds.”
While Bob Lusk is humble about his meager beginnings and his influence in helping build a career, you can still see the twinkle in his eyes and hear the passion in his voice as he talks about helping people learn more about their lakes and ponds and makes them the best they can be.