Ron Morgan’s Fisheries Strategies

Part II of our III part series By Bob Lusk

fisheries strategy

Ron Morgan wanted to start with some larger fish. Here are a couple of larger bluegills to start.

As Ron and Robin Morgan’s dream retirement home rose from the bedrock of their parcel of paradise in Parker County, Texas, the foundation of their very lives together for several decades defined the boundaries of their dreams for this property. Actually there weren’t many boundaries. And there were lots of dreams. Their outstanding team of people visualized those dreams and the whole project came to life in front of their eyes.

In the first part of this three part series last issue, I described the ponds and five weirs, which make up a big part of Ron’s dream. He loves fish, he loves to fish, and he loves to share his fishing with friends, family on special occasions, especially if a person is able to catch the first fish of their lives…or maybe the last one.

The working relationship he and I have is dynamic and sometimes energy-charged. His expectations are high, sometimes over-the-top high. As a fisheries biologist, I consider expectations to be real. However, Morgan has made me become a better biologist. We’ve tried some things that defy logic, fisheries-wise.

As the weirs and ponds and his trout pool with its trickling creek were nearing completion, talk shifted more to the fishery. His mind always revolved around fish. Ideas were spawned.

We met quite often on site, early on. I remember one of those first meetings when we were going back and forth, in a gently energetic way, learning about each other as much as how to create the fishery. He started by basically asking what the most common limiting factors in typical fisheries management are. Stocking rates? Fish sizes? Crowding? Fishing pressure? Thinking about his total acreage of water, with each segment autonomous, all water inevitably intermingling due to pumping, my first thought was nothing about this project was typical. Five weirs, two ponds and his trout pool total something well less than two acres of water. LESS THAN TWO ACRES. That’s eight different small, stand-alone holes of water, sharing water every day.

“ Food.” That was my response. In every typical pond environment all over the nation, the number one limiting factor in the growth and production of fish in recreational fishing ponds is food. Remember, we’re typically dealing with top end predators within a confined environment that has some finite ability to grow the food that feeds the food, which feeds the biggest predator fish in that system. That’s limit number one.

“ Okay, we’ll make sure there’s enough food,” Morgan said. It was almost like he’d already figured out how to beat that one. “ What’s the next obstacle?”

My reply, “ Water quality.”

We were defining his goals. Essentially, Ron Morgan wanted to grow as many huge fish of all species we could get as soon as possible. And, he wanted to start with big ones, as well.

In his mind, he was visualizing being able to walk out his door, turn any direction with a fishing pole, walk a short distance and catch the biggest of pretty much any species of fish that could reside in those waters.

Of course he did.

And he was in a hurry. Guys in their late 60’s are just that way, for the most part.

One of the most exciting things to me as a fisheries guy was to be able to do some things with his water and its inhabitants that haven’t been done. That could be significant to the entire fisheries world, even though his system is tiny, comparatively speaking. There’s so much diversity and the fact that it’s small makes it a realistic science experiment, too.

Morgan wanted big largemouth bass, big channel catfish, big bluegills and redear and maybe even some of those hybrid stripers everyone seemed to be talking about.

In my mind I knew we’d be using his waterways as some ever-morphing, hybrid cross between a series of giant aquaria, fish farm type feed lots, and fishing areas with concise, well defined habitat—and designing it to all look as natural as we could make it.

To me, the fish were secondary. Understanding the way the water flows, how fast it moves, how often water would be changing locations, and how in the world we would keep it clean and healthy became my number one mission. I truly believed that would be the biggest limiting factor to overcome. If we could do that, then we’d go where few have gone—to that third or fourth limiting factor, whatever those might prove to be.

As we decided what fish to stock and when, we were also working diligently with Pond Boss magazine advertisers and their experts to help us give the Morgan’s water every affordable opportunity to cleanse itself.

In the fall of 2011, since we were going toward winter and in the throes of a drought, we started with some conservative stockings. That first stocking was basically to put in enough fish to start, but also to see how the system would work. It didn’t make sense, yet, to put too many fish into a system that had yet to run for a full season. So we started with some adult feed-trained bass that were over two pounds each, some smaller feed-trained bass, and three sizes of bluegills, all from my personal ponds at LL,2. By then, we decided Pond 1 would mainly be for big catfish, so we stocked 80 pounds into that one-tenth acre, plastic-liner, rock-lined pond. The other fish went into Pond 2, of similar construction, but with a cool island in the middle. The island has a gazebo. Of course it does.

By late January, more water was flowing into the system, which meant Morgan could pump more water and accelerate its cleansing. So, we ramped up our fish stocking a little bit. The trout pool was working as designed, with fresh water coming in from Weir 3, flowing into the pool and then overflowing as a fast-trickling waterfall into a rock stream, back into Weir 3. At that point, in early February, we stocked 100 pounds of rainbow trout, with 25 of the largest going into the trout pond and the rest into Weir 3 for fun winter fishing. The trout were a huge hit. We also added another 350 pounds of large catfish into Pond 1. Then, we distributed 350 adult bluegills, up to 9 inches long, 12,000 small bluegills and more than 500 pounds of 2-3 pound feed-trained largemouth bass into all segments of the system.

Logically, we so overloaded those little bodies of water to the point we should have been a little bit scared. But, the water was fresh and happy—and cool—and moving. I’d figured out that my job was to coach Mr. Morgan and get him to the point he could make good decisions based on solid science, backed with my experience, his stomach for risk, and the fact that this system was unlike any built (to either of our knowledge) with its ability to move water. Not only was the water flowing all through the system, each pond has its own waterfall with a timer. Of course they do. So, water was traversing over stream beds, around rocks, through root systems and over waterfalls.

We still weren’t convinced we’d hit the boiling hot Texas summer with enough ability to cleanse and aerate the water to not only sustain the fish, but to keep them in situations where they could grow fast and thrive.

Mr. Morgan wanted more fish. I suggested we feed the ones we have, study their growth and behavior and then decide about more fish after we made it through this first summer. He agreed the next logical step was to make sure our water was healthy and stayed that way.

Spring of 2012 we enlisted the help of several loyal and faithful Pond Boss advertisers and friends, who are experts at what they do. After consulting with several different people, Mr. Morgan decided we’d lean heavily on Vertex Water Features and Kasco Marine to assist with aeration. We’d concluded that moving water throughout the system was critical for the big picture of water management, but we also would need individual aeration of each individual water body inside the system. Bottom diffusers with high volume, low pressure air became key parts of the game for Ponds 1 and 2 as well as Weir 1. Then, each segment of the system, except the trout pool, had water circulators installed as well. Now, with the flip of a switch, Morgan can cause water to move upstream, sideways or downstream in each of the weirs. Those devices add to his water’s opportunity to cleanse itself and have as much oxygen from the atmosphere as possible.

As winter yielded to spring and then to summer, all these devices did their jobs. Water was moving, air was added and fish were fed Purina’s AquaMax products via Texas Hunter feeders and by hand as chosen by Mr. Morgan.

By now, Morgan had lured one of the best workers he’d ever seen away from one of his contractors. Enter Florencio “ Loncho” Urquiza, a hard-working masonry expert who happens to have a passion for fish, landscaping and Ron and Robin Morgan.

If it weren’t for Loncho, the fish wouldn’t receive the tender love and care they’ve gotten. His methodical drive to make sure everything gets done is infectious. Every time the fish truck shows up, no matter the time or weather, he’s there to make sure each fish is handled well and introduced into its new home. He’s the same with trees, flowers, and rocks—whatever.

Loncho is dedicated.

Tagging a nice largemouth bass to track its growth.

Tagging a nice largemouth bass to track its growth.

As the water temperature made its climb during those first summer months, we paid close attention to plankton blooms and algae. Samples of water were sent to one of our staple consultants, Bill Cody, of Malinta, Ohio. Bill’s expertise with microscopic critters helped guide us to a level of water management we expected to see. Our hope was that the input of feed would grow lots of fish much larger as the water processed the waste output from said fish.

The fish grew exceptionally fast—way faster than expected. We attributed extra competition from crowded conditions and plenty of food. Our ideas were working. But, we stayed a little on edge. How would the water respond?

I’ve seen a pond turn on itself too many times, and the fish pay the price.

Water turned green. In the summer, little mats of periphyton began to break loose from the silica-based sandstone rocks lining the ponds and float to the surface. Those little mats, blob-like and black, would start appearing during the hottest time each afternoon, starting in July. By dark, they’d sink. It was unsightly and seemed a symptom of something larger to me. I expected water quality issues, especially in Pond 2, heavily stocked with bass and bluegills.

We got in touch with Kevin Ripp, of AquaFix, in Wisconsin. Kevin is a microbiologist with another crackerjack microbiologist on staff. We told him what we were seeing and sent him Bill Cody’s analysis. Did we need to add some microbes or some micro-nutrients to the water to assist the breakdown of nutrients coming as waste byproducts of the fish?

One of the rainbow trout in Weir 3.

One of the rainbow trout in Weir 3.

Ripp took note of Cody’s findings, analyzed some samples himself, studied the water chemistry and came up with a custom blend of microbes designed to mitigate the method the water was using to naturally cleanse itself. Essentially, the water was using microscopic plants and bacteria in the ponds as well as exponentially growing beds of bushy pondweed in the shallows of the creek to relieve itself of the added nutrient load of byproducts of feeding almost half a ton of fish feed monthly.

But, Mr. Morgan was thrilled. His largest bass had grown beyond four pounds. Catch rates were huge. There were times he’d have guests and he’d try to figure out how not to catch a fish so fast, so everyone could balance their fun and his fish wouldn’t have as many hook marks. Every body of water was beginning to define its ability to grow fish and yield to the anglers.

In Part III we’ll take you through the pitfalls and successes we’ve had. Have some things gone wrong? Of course they have. Have we learned much? Yes we have.

We just shake our collective heads when we think about having as many as a thousand pounds of bass per acre of water growing actively and how that unique ecosystem is able to compensate where many others can’t.