Feature 1: Building Hatchery Ponds
As we worked our way through the numbers, it made good sense for this ranch to build some hatchery ponds.
Building Hatchery Ponds
By Bob Lusk
You’ve thought about it often. With the high cost of purchasing fish, why not build a hatchery pond or two and raise your own fish for the supplemental stocking of your fishing lake or pond? Does it make sense? Can you justify the expense, and then do what needs to be done to raise a successful crop?
Maybe so, maybe no.
A longtime client, Wildcat Springs Ranch, in central Oklahoma, posed that question a few months ago. To help them through their due diligence, we took a look at their long term goals, and what it takes to keep their fishing program moving forward at their pace.
Wildcat Springs is several thousand acres of high fenced hunting ranch, used mostly for family and clients of their primary business, Dallas-Fort Worth Lite and Barricade.
With a stunningly beautiful 64-acre lake carved into a granite-rock creek bottom, and a 20-plus acre lake a few hundred yards away, the ranch has some extraordinary fishing opportunities. Over the long term, ranch owners expect to have a surplus of fish and wildlife they’d like to share with the public. It could be a fair revenue stream, at least enough to help offset operating costs. Feed and payroll command a hearty cash flow, after all.
During a meeting more than a year ago, goals were revised and a new fisheries management strategy was implemented.
The larger lake is now about 15 years old, and like many lakes with minimal management, it has evolved to the point it needs some attention. Yes, it was properly stocked a decade and a half ago, but without much in the way of increasing productivity via fertility or a feeding program, or a regimented, selective harvest program, it took about five or six years for the lake to become bass-heavy. With other priorities around the ranch, especially building the fence and raising and managing wild game, consideration on the water centered primarily on catching a few fish for dinner or a neighborhood fish fry.
With the wildlife program now beginning to reach its potential, it was time to focus on the lakes and ponds around the ranch.
The new fisheries goals? Manage the lake for improved fishing, focusing on largemouth bass. They’d eventually like to use the lakes for value-added amenities for hunters, and if the lakes are pushed to their potential, they expect to be able to market them as a stand-alone product. So, they have both motive and opportunity to see an increase in revenue by improving their lakes and fisheries.
Part of their strategy involves growing some huge fish. The lake was originally stocked with the best genetics available and boasts an overabundance of largemouth bass and black crappie, but growth rates aren’t good enough. The lake also has a small population of smallmouth bass and walleye. Those species have been stocked from time to time. Bluegills are the primary forage fish, but their numbers have been decimated and need to be increased, as do redear sunfish.
After analyzing both lakes, it didn’t take long to determine the shortage of bluegills was a limiting factor in growth. The diagnosis confirmed the need to stock bluegills and harvest overcrowded bass and crappie.
At a meeting, the owner asked, “What if we built some hatchery ponds? Would that help offset some costs over the long term? And, if we have extra fish from the hatchery ponds, could we sell them?”
It made sense to ask the question. In our proposal, we’d projected the owner needed to budget at least $30,000 per year for the next three years, just to help the forage fish, mostly bluegills, to rebound from being decimated over the last 8-10 years.
As we worked our way through the numbers, it made good sense for this ranch to build some hatchery ponds. As chance has it, they have a two-plus acre high-fenced pen formerly used for deer breeding that is now out of service, so we explored what it would take to build four hatchery ponds there.
Pond building expert, Mike Otto, was called in for consultation. He projected the earthmoving cost to be in the neighborhood of $30,000. Piping and plumbing would add another $20,000, give or take. In the end, they’ll have four ponds totaling slightly more than two acres of water.
Here’s what we went through to make the decision to build hatchery ponds for Wildcat Springs ranch, once we justified the expense.
These are some hints you need to know, if you look seriously at building a hatchery system for your property, once you’ve justified the need.
Is there a water source nearby? In this case, there’s a ¾-acre pond slightly northwest of the hatchery site. Immediately west is another pond that covers at least 3 acres. The water level of the ¾-acre pond sits higher than three of the four hatchery ponds, meaning we can gravity-flow water into those three ponds. We decided to use the western-most, larger pond as a source to keep the gravity flow pond full, or pump water through a pipeline, into the hatchery ponds. So, we had two good water sources from which to draw. Secondly, even though that ranch is as rocky as you’ll see, we found outstanding clay right where that deer pen sits.
The thought process went like this: Can we build ponds to raise and help offset the purchase of fish, or to raise and sell some of the precious, slimy little wigglers? Feasibility? Yes. Do we have a good water supply? Yes, we do. What about the soils? Excellent soils to build pond levees.
It took about two months to build the ponds, and they had their first broodfish bluegills stocked in early April. Rather than spend money on bluegills for the fishing lakes right now, management decided to step up the harvest of bass and crappie, initiate a thoughtful fertilization program, and get all their feeders up and running with a good, high protein fish food. The strategy is to decrease the mouths to feed via selective harvest with angling and electrofishing, while naturally increasing the food chain with a nudge to nature through fertile water and consistent feeding.
We’re all convinced that by fall the hatchery ponds will yield between 20-40,000 young bluegills; numbers will depend on how many are hatched and survival rates. By Year 4, we expect the capital expense to build the ponds will be recovered and the ranch will be in the green with this project.
What about you? If you spend several thousand dollars per year buying fish for your precious waters, would it pay to build a pond and raise your own?
If you are looking at it strictly as a financial decision, not only should you look at the capital expense of building a hatchery pond (or two or three), understand what it takes to manage them, too.
Here’s a key rule to understand. Nature won’t allow a vacuum, nor will she allow a surplus. Once your hatchery pond is rolling and growing good numbers of fish, expect predators to show up.
It isn’t enough to build the perfect ponds, and then leave them to their own devices. Water quality and fertility need to be monitored. Fish need to be periodically sampled to judge growth rates and numbers of youngsters. As strange as it sounds, two mostly-identical ponds, side by side, may raise fish as differently as night and day. Be sure to feed your fish. That makes a huge difference in production.
Here’s another story for you. When the Queen and I bought our place back in 2002, we decided to build a pond next to the house. I had sugar plum-like visions dancing in my head of big bluegills and hearty bass frolicking all over this ¾-acre site. The Queen had a different idea. I’ll always remember that conversation. The site was an eroded creek with rapid fall. Rocky, clay soils dominated the post oak-laden sides of that wash. I said, “Honey, we can take some of those oak trees and build some brush piles for fish, and then some of those rocks we can pile near the shore and build some prime habitat.” She looked at me with that look. She said, “No, Honey, this will be our swimming pond.” I felt my face drop a little bit. “But, Honey…” I stumbled, “I’m a fish guy…we need fish.” She pivoted, looked me in the eye, and said, “Maybe you didn’t understand what I said.”
When Otto came out to look things over at our place, it took him every bit of ten minutes to see we didn’t have nearly enough dirt to build a dam to impound just under an acre of water. So, we looked at two other sites on the property. With a little bit of digging, we figured out we had some mediocre clay under an acre of our property just northeast of the pond site, plus some great clay about 400 yards away at the farthest southwest part of the property. We devised a pretty cool plan to excavate both sites, bring the clay to the dam site of the Swimming Pond, mix it together and roll it into six inch lifts, and then compact with a mega-heavy pan scraper, pulled by a giant tractor. After three weeks, we had a beautiful pond where we wanted it, and two holes in the ground were clay was excavated. The site northeast of the pond was finished with 3 to 1 slopes and a flat bottom, maximum depth is eight feet. We call that one the “Catfish Pond.” The other site was shallower, so we had Mike build a levee straight through the middle, and fixed them into nice hatchery ponds, complete with three inch drain pipes and the ability to fill each from our well.
As I processed the information through my fish-guy mind, I knew the swimming pond dam would cost in the neighborhood of $25,000. So, being in the fish business, I projected that if we did a good job with the three other ponds, we could recover the costs of construction by the end of Year 3. So, we made the decision to spend the dollars, and designed it where we could get four ponds for the price of one.
If you decide to build a hatchery pond, or several, keep these important factors in mind. You need to be able to drain each one. If you can design a way to re-use the water, that could be a wise decision. Each one should be drained and filled on its own merit. It doesn’t make sense to have to drain one to drain another, if you don’t want to. Be sure the pond bottom where the drain pipe sits is at least six inches deeper than the rest of the pond, so you can get the remaining fish out without sinking up to your knees in silty six inch water, chasing fingerling fish. Another important factor to know is healthy hatchery ponds will be pushed to the limit. If you push water, it will push back. Be ready to exchange water as the quality degrades. Have a plan to harvest your crop.
Wildcat Springs will raise bluegills their first two or three years. They’ll need a seine. The recommended seine length is 30% wider than the width of your hatchery pond.
Our two main hatchery ponds on LL2 are 75 feet wide and 150 feet long. The deepest one is six feet at the deep end and four feet at the shallow. The other is five feet deep by four feet. The seine is ten feet deep, but could just as well be eight.
Over the years, our two hatchery ponds, about 1/10th-acre each, have raised many, many fish. We’ve harvested as many as 8,000 small bluegill from each. Our best production has come from tilapia. The last three years, we’ve raised more than 350 pounds of tilapia in each of those small ponds, harvested in October. We bring most of them into a heated building for an aquaponics program, and sell the rest to others who need fish for aquaponics.
The other pond, the Catfish Pond, we have used to raise catfish for meat, or to sell. Most recently, it’s been an experimental project to see how many feed-trained F1 bass we can raise.
The Queen’s Swimming Pond? Of course it’s hers. One of her favorite activities in the heat of the summer is to strap on a float vest, grab a wine glass filled with her favorite chilled Pinot Grigio, and spend a couple of sweltering, late-afternoon hours floating in the pond while sipping that favorite beverage.
The bluegills and bass which share those waters?
I have no idea how they got there.