It only takes a few minutes to stock a pond, but that few minutes will have a lasting impact on the quality of fishing in the pond for years to come – for good, or bad. So how do you make the right choice of all those companies trying to sell you fish? Fish are fish, right? How difficult can it be? Here are a few guidelines that will help you make an informed decision, so two or three years down the road you’re catching big fish and having fun rather than looking at starting over with rotenone.
1) Ask About Their Specialty.
Every top hatchery has one or two species that they specialize in. This doesn’t mean that they don’t sell anything else; most hatcheries sell multiple species, and some sell a wide variety of fish as well as other aquatic critters. But the best hatcheries always have a signature fish. For example, the top hatchery in Alabama is known across the country for their largemouth; one of the top hatcheries in Wisconsin is known for their muskellunge, both pure-strain and tiger. We specialize in pure-strain Florida bluegill, and we’re the only hatchery in the world that sells hand-painted bluegill; we also sell 100% pure-strain coppernose bluegill from brood stock that we caught ourselves from the St. Johns River in Florida. Perhaps you’re thinking of buying your fish from a pond management company that doesn’t raise their own fish but buys them from other hatcheries; there’s nothing wrong with this; most pond management companies and most hatcheries, us included, do this to some degree. If you’re talking to a pond management company that doesn’t raise any of their own fish, ask them what their specialty is not in terms of what they sell, but what they’re good at. One of our competitors in Georgia is known for growing big bass, and we’ll be the first to tell you he knows a lot about it. There’s a well-known pond consultant in Illinois who specializes in building elaborate docks. Our specialty on the management side is growing monster, flying-saucer bluegill.
Why ask about their specialty? Because if they can’t tell you what it is, they probably won’t make anything special of your pond.
2) Ask Them About Their Fish.
This may seem obvious, but many pond owners don’t do it; they trust the company doing the stocking, and that trust is often misplaced. The extreme example of this is stocking species that you didn’t order, a common problem with fish trucks. If you paid for redear and you got green sunfish, your pond is going to look drastically different than what you were aiming for, and not in a good way; if you ordered bluegill for a trophy-bluegill pond and the hatchery employees carelessly allowed a couple threadfin shad to get mixed in with your order, you just had your dream pond ruined. Other common problems are less-than-pure genetics, and simply the wrong fish for the region.
By far the most common discrepancy between what a customer ordered, and what gets released into his pond by the people he gave money to, has to do with genetics. Farmers have known for over a hundred years how much of a difference genetics make whether it be crops or livestock, and they make every bit as much of a difference for the future of your pond. If you’ve dreamed all your life of catching a twelve-pound largemouth and you stock your pond with northern-strain, you’re going to be a very frustrated pond owner, whereas if you had stocked pure Floridas, or F-1s from a top hatchery, your goal would have been a reasonable expectation. But what if you ordered what you thought were 100% Florida bass and the bass you got were only 27% Florida? Largemouth that have 50% or more Florida alleles have comparable growth rates to pure Floridas; ones with lower percentages of Florida alleles do not.
It’s widely acknowledged by pond professionals who have studied coppernose bluegill that many of the hatcheries in Arkansas that sell coppernose are in truth selling fish that are not pure-strain coppernose, but a mix of coppernose and northern-strain bluegill. Will this ruin your pond? Not at all. Will you get the same growth rates from the mutt bluegill that you would from pure-strain coppernose? It depends on your luck on the day they seine your fish. If the fish they seine for you have a preponderance of Florida genes, you’re in great shape. If on the other hand you get a batch of fish that are mostly northern-strain alleles, you might as well have stocked northern-strain bluegill.
How can you determine whether your fish seller has pure genetics? If you’re after pure Florida largemouth, ask them to see genetic testing on their fish; the best hatcheries always have this available. When it comes to coppernose bluegill, with a little self-educating on your part, you can weed out a lot of sellers just with your eyes: coppernose have multiple distinct traits, such as 12 soft rays on their anal fin as opposed to 11 soft rays found on northern-strains, fewer but wider vertical bars on their sides, white fringing on their fins, and a broad copper band above the eye or forehead in the males.
If you’re buying coppernose bluegill and you actually expect to get pure coppernose rather than mutts, ask to see some photos of some of their adult specimens. If they don’t look like this:
Call another company, because the one you’re talking to is not selling you what they say they are.
Perhaps even worse than compromised genetics, is companies who do their customers wrong by simple omission. If all you’re looking for is fish, and you don’t care whether they get big or are nice to look at, these companies are perfect for you because they go all over and are aggressive in getting their fish to people via fish trucks etc. If however you do want the best fish that have the most growth potential for where you live, don’t assume that every company that offers to bring you fish is being truthful with you. Just in the past year, a sizable hatchery hundreds of miles north of middle Tennessee has evidently decided they have to take over middle Tennessee, and they’re aggressively marketing all of their services, including their fish, to every pond owner in the area. Their stocking plans include both hybrid and regular bluegill, a stocking combination that every fisheries biologist recommends against, and they’re selling northern-strain bluegill and northern-strain largemouth to all of their customers without so much as a word indicating that these subspecies will not produce the same growth as Florida bass and coppernose bluegill in our waters. I suppose what they’re doing is only wrong if that old adage about the customer always coming first, still has any bearing on business.
3) Ask Them Why Those Fish, in Those Numbers.
Any company that deserves to stock your dream fishing hole should be able to explain precisely why they have recommended the species and numbers they’re selling you. Believe it or not, there are unscrupulous people in the fish business who have been known to recommend far more fish than what is needed for a given pond, just to make a quick buck from that pond owner, knowing that they will never see him again. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
A couple years ago a pond owner in central Alabama hired me to consult on his seven-acre pond. In our initial phone conversation, he told me that his primary goal was big bluegill; he also mentioned that three years prior to learning about me, he had paid the largest pond management company in our region to electrofish his pond. He then shared what said company had recommended, based on the electrofishing survey, that he stock: 3,000 intermediate bluegill, per acre. I explained to him that that number is the upper end of how many fingerling bluegill are stocked into trophy-bass ponds that have no existing fish population, and that no one ever stocks that many intermediates, much less into a pond that already has bluegill; I then explained that for a pond being managed for big bluegill, the maximum number of intermediate bluegill I would ever recommend would be a couple hundred per acre, and this only if I felt the genetics needed improvement, i.e. the existing population was northern-strain, or mutt coppernose. The pond owner seemed to realize that he had been taken – “They saw a sucker coming and they got me,” he lamented.
The worst part of this story? The pond owner actually asked the right question when the biologist for this big company recommended that astronomical number of bluegill – he asked if that number would not crowd his bluegill.
The biologist’s response was that he couldn’t stock enough bluegill to crowd them.
Bluegill are known as one of the most fecund of all freshwater species – they’re known for their propensity to overpopulate. But the biologist worked for the biggest company in the region and had a degree in the field, so the pond owner believed him. Three years later he had harvested thousands of bluegill and was still harvesting, still trying to get them thinned enough to where they would grow.