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Tennessee Lake and Pond Management: How Important is Experience?

We have been managing private ponds and lakes in Tennessee since 1987. We’re not the biggest company that works on private waters in this state, at least not at the moment; but we are by far the most experienced. If you’ve ever wondered whether experience really matters that much in pond and lake management, here are a few examples of just what a difference it can make.

We worked on a 56-acre lake a few years ago that, prior to us, had been managed for several years by one of the largest companies in the southeast. According to the owner, the largest bass that had been caught from the lake prior to us was six pounds. Prior to that large company managing the lake, the bluegill in the lake had been, “huge,” according to the owner; when we initially surveyed the lake, the largest bluegill we captured was seven inches long, and the bluegill averaged four inches. The previous company had stocked gizzard shad, which under the right circumstances can help in growing trophy bass; but that lake did not have those circumstances, and the bass averaged about a pound apiece, and the gizzard shad had killed the bluegill size. We made several changes to the management direction of the lake. Three years later, the bluegill averaged eight inches and the owner had caught one over a pound; and two friends of the owner caught thirteen largemouth in one afternoon and the next morning of fishing that went between four and nine pounds, with six fish that were over seven pounds each.

A couple years ago we were called to do an electrofishing survey for a 50-acre lake that had previously been managed by the same large company alluded to above. The first thing the property manager told us, before we ever set foot on the property, was that the clear water of the lake was very important to the owner and his family because they regularly used the lake for swimming, and they didn’t want anything done that would jeopardize that. We were also told that the large company that had preceded us had told the owner that the lake was overpopulated with small bass and needed many hundreds of pounds harvested from the lake.

Within five minutes of launching our electrofishing boat on the lake, I knew why the other company had failed. The lake had a pH of 4.7, a level low enough to severely limit fish survival in the egg and larval stages. We captured a grand total of twenty-six fish in nearly three hours of shocking, about one-tenth what we would normally get in that length of time on a lake that large. So I recommended that they have us lime the lake, and that we go with a lower than normal quantity of lime to hedge against getting a phytoplankton bloom that would reduce clarity. A couple weeks later we applied forty-five tons of lime to the lake, and within a day the pH had risen to 7, an ideal reading; the fish were more active than the property manager had ever seen them; the clarity was not diminished, and the owners were happy.

Now I’ll share what the first thing that big company that was there before us did to the lake: after being told the same thing we were told about the importance of water clarity in the lake, they fertilized it. Fertilization is performed on a lake or pond to produce a phytoplankton bloom, which boosts the natural food chain, while also helping to control aquatic vegetation by reducing sunlight penetration…meaning, it reduces clarity. That’s one of the reasons it’s done in the first place. Predictably, when they fertilized the lake, a plankton bloom resulted, leading to reduced clarity, leading to said large company being invited not to return to the property.

In May of last year, we were called to give a repair estimate on the spillway of a 40-acre lake that, at the time, was being managed by the same large company that had worked on that 50-acre lake. In talking with the man who had called me to look at the spillway, I asked him some basic questions about how the fishery of the lake was doing. I came to learn that they had just had the lake electrofished the previous December. I commented that December was not a good time to do an electrofishing survey because the fish would be too deep to be accessed by electrofishing equipment; sure enough, no bluegill – not one – had been captured in the survey, and only a handful of bass. The fundamental reason for having an electrofishing survey done is to get an idea of the relative ratios of different species of fish in the lake, specifically how many bass there are in relation to the bluegill; so the survey had been a waste of time and money. I suggested that they have us electrofish the lake so they could actually get an idea about the bluegill population of the lake, and a couple weeks later they had us do a survey. We captured 79 bluegill and 74 bass in about ninety minutes of shocking.

And the time of year that the other company did their survey isn’t even their biggest blunder on that job. I always make a point of asking the owner or owners whether large bass, large bluegill, or equal emphasis on both best describes their goal for the lake or pond; our competitors often just assume that everyone wants big bass (even though they pay lip service on their websites to being able to manage for big bluegill). We’re very good at growing big bass, better than our competitors, and have proven such many times; but managing for bass when bluegill are the main species of interest makes about as much sense as drinking weight-gain protein powder twice daily when you’re trying to lose weight. As it turns out, there were far more residents of this particular lake that fished mainly for bluegill than there were that fished for bass. And yet that other company had given them recommendations geared toward shifting the lake toward management for big bass. It had ideal conditions for growing big bluegill, in terms of its bass-bluegill ratio, when we surveyed it; and yet the other company had recommended harvesting hundreds of pounds of bass per year, which would have killed the first-rate bluegill fishing.

A few years ago we surveyed a seven-acre pond in central Alabama. The owner made clear from the start that big bluegill were his goal. He then proceeded to share with me his experience with the same unnamed company that I reference in the three previous anecdotes in this post. One of their biologists had electrofished his pond, after which he had recommended that the owner stock 3,000 intermediate bluegill, per acre, into the pond, even though the pond already had an established bluegill population. Intermediate bluegill are commonly stocked into ponds and lakes in which large bass are desired, but where the bass have overeaten their forage base; the bluegill are stocked to replenish the forage base as well as to give the bass a growth boost. 3,000 is very much at the extreme upper end of any number I have ever seen recommended by any biologist for a pond that already had bluegill; and that number, or even a number half that much, would normally only be recommended for ponds in which largemouth are the sole focus and there is no interest at all in the bluegill fishing, because stocking that many bluegill per acre will inescapably crowd the bluegill which in turn will increase competition for food and thereby slow bluegill growth.

Keep in mind: this pond owner’s primary goal for his pond was big bluegill, not big bass. He had even asked the biologist from this other company the most pertinent question he could possibly have asked: “Won’t that stocking number crowd my bluegill?”

The response from that biologist for one of the most successful pond management companies in the southeast? “You couldn’t stock enough bluegill to crowd them.”

Bluegill are known for their prolific breeding; it’s one of the reasons why they’re the fish of choice to stock in combination with largemouth bass in warmwater ponds and lakes. One female bluegill can lay up to 50,000 eggs at a time; and bluegill spawn several times yearly in southern waters, beginning in April and continuing through September. The biggest impediment to growing large bluegill is keeping them from overpopulating, at which point their growth stops altogether.

It had been three years since the wildly-incompetent advice from the biologist from that other company, and the pond owner had harvested thousands of bluegill from the pond and was still harvesting, still trying to get them under control to the point where they would grow well. “He saw me coming,” the owner lamented to me. “He knew a sucker when he saw one.”

More than one of our competitors encourages all of their trophy-bass clients to stock tilapia every year. Two years ago, we were called by the owner of two twelve-acre ponds that had previously been managed by the same large company alluded to in the other stories above (starting to see a pattern here?). The owner had caught one large bass in all the time that company had managed his ponds – a nine-pounder – but otherwise, nothing but small bass. We changed his forage stocking plan…and six months later he suddenly began catching five- and six-pound bass regularly. Seven months after that, in one afternoon of fishing, he caught an 8.25-, a 7.5-, two 6-, and a 5-pound largemouth.

Just so it doesn’t seem that we’re only picking on one competitor, I’ll share about another company. This particular company has some of the best accounts in this state at present. If you’ve ever heard the saying, “all that glitters isn’t gold,” that might be a good way to summarize this company. Six years ago, a lake owner told me that he had been told by this particular company’s head biologist that he shouldn’t stock golden shiners because they wouldn’t survive a Tennessee winter. At the time, I thought that perhaps the landowner had merely gotten confused; maybe the biologist had mentioned threadfin shad, which indeed is a species that, with the winters we’re having these days, will rarely survive said winters. Then a couple years later, another pond owner shared with me that that same head biologist for that very successful company had said the same thing to him about golden shiners.

Golden shiners are found all the way to Canada. Their native range includes Alberta.

There are indeed lake and pond management companies presently working in this state that have bigger staffs and bigger warehouses than we do. Those same companies are also prone to sending out biologists who were still living in a dorm room two years ago to assess your pride-and-joy pond or lake. They’ll make mistakes – count on it.

The best way to avoid mistakes that subsume your dreams for your pond? Call us instead.