Growing Trophy Bluegill: It’s in the Details

When we first started this blog four years ago, I made a post entitled, “Getting Serious about Monster Bluegill.”  That post has evidently been helpful to a good number of pond owners.  I realized recently that a follow-up was needed.

You can stock the best genetics in your bluegill, crowd your bass so they look like supermodels and keep those bluegill fry hammered, keep the cover out of your pond, and still have your bluegill top out at around a pound, or even less, rather than the two-plus-pounds that is attainable for any pond owner in the South.  It only takes one or two missteps and your pond can go from unbelievable bluegill fishing to so-so.  The details I’ll be discussing today fall into the category of things that seem like they wouldn’t matter much…But they matter, a lot.

Detail Mistake #1 – Stocking Channel Catfish

Channel cats are easily one of the most popular freshwater fish in this country.  And in the South, they’re even more popular; if pond fishing is a culture, channel cats are very much a part of that culture.  And they will absolutely wreck any chance your pond has of growing that two-pound bluegill.

Bluegill, whether raised in a hatchery or born in the wild, will readily consume pelleted food, and will grow rapidly when fed a high-protein, fishmeal-based food.  Feeding the bluegill supplementally is as important as any single thing you can do to grow giants in your pond; it’s just as important as having a high density of largemouth, and even more important than genetics.  Few freshwater fish take to pellets as readily as do bluegill; but one species that relishes those pellets even more than Lepomis is the channel catfish.  And channel catfish eat lots of pellets.  If you’ve ever seen channel cats fed a floating pellet food in a pond, you’ve probably seen some of them swimming along the surface with their mouths open, shoveling in literally dozens of pellets at a time.  Just in their feeding method alone, channels take a great amount of food away from the bluegill.  But their harmful impact doesn’t stop there.  When they get to four or five pounds in size – which channels can do in two years on a premium food – they will actually bully your bluegill away from the food, rolling their bodies and slapping their tails on the surface to scare away the much-smaller sunfish.  A ten-ounce bluegill is not going to have anything to say to a five-pound catfish; the bluegill concede the area where the pellets are concentrated, staying on the far perimeter of where the catfish are wallowing in your expensive pellets like hogs, getting what few pellets escape those whiskered vacuums and manage to drift out the forty or sixty feet to the bluegill.  So the catfish get the vast majority of the food, which means they also get the vast majority of the growth.

None of the best trophy-bluegill ponds I have ever worked on have had channel cats – not one.  Word to the wise: keep them out of your trophy-bluegill pond.

Detail mistake #2 – Stocking grass carp

Every year I have at least one new customer whose goal is trophy bluegill, and he wants to stock grass carp in his pond just because that’s what he has heard or read is necessary in order to prevent the pond becoming overrun with weeds.  It’s true that many if not most of our competitors do indiscriminately stock grass carp, putting them into every new pond without a second thought; I would submit that as exhibit A among the many things that set us apart from those companies.  It’s also true that many pond stocking guides that are available from state agencies recommend stocking grass carp in new ponds across the board; but government publications, while often containing some useful advice, also tend to be outdated on many fronts, and overly general.  You’ll never find a top pond management company following all of the recommended practices outlined in a government publication because the latter is only updated once every several years, if that, while the better pond managers are constantly modifying and improving their recommendations to their customers based on the latest scientific research on ponds and pond fish species.  One of the more up-to-date state publications in the South avails pond owners of the possibility of outbreeding depression, without actually using the term, in F-1 largemouth, which is good advice and up-to date with the latest science; however, that same page recommends stocking bluegill at a 10:1 ratio to the bass.  This ratio was indeed the prevalent one thirty years ago, but recent research has found that ratios of 20:1, 30:1, and even higher are much more effective in growing trophy largemouth; and on the other end of the spectrum, we most definitely do not stock ten bluegill for every bass in trophy-bluegill ponds.

So assuming you’re on board with the notion that the purpose of a pond management company is to give you better advice than what you could get for free from a government biologist who doesn’t do ponds full-time, let’s get down to why grass carp are bad.  Perhaps the only freshwater fish we have ever seen more fully devastate a feeding program for bluegill than channel cats, is the grass carp.  When large grass carp are present, even the channel cats often get relegated to the outside of the feeding area, meaning the bluegill are sometimes a hundred feet or more from where most of the pellets are floating, hoping a few stray morsels drift their way.  But channel cats don’t have to be present for the carp to wreck the feeding program, and it doesn’t take many carp.  A few years ago we worked on a fifty-acre lake near our hometown; the goal there was trophy bluegill.  The lake was an old phosphate pit and super-fertile such that dense plankton blooms in the warm months would reduce visibility to a few inches; because of the reduced visibility and therefore the increased difficulty for the sight-feeding bluegill in finding the pellets, it took several months before the bluegill began feeding well on the pellets (the bluegill had already been in the lake many years and thus were not feed-trained when the feeders were installed).  However, because of the high fertility and a good population of largemouth, once the bluegill figured it out, there were dozens of eight- to nine-inchers that could be seen coming to the pellets; a banner bluegill fishery was only a year or two away.

And then the grass carp showed up.  No one even remembers when they had been stocked, so many years had it been since they were introduced; there were only ten or so of them; but they ranged from twenty to fifty pounds each, and they descended on the pellets as though those little nuggets had saved them from certain death.  I tried snag-hooking them; I even tried shooting at them with a .30-06.  The carp would simply wait further out from the bank while I was there, and then move in to the pellets as soon as I walked away.  The bluegill got perhaps ten percent of the pellets coming from the feeder each day, if that.

And this is not an isolated incident: one pond ever, out of all the ponds and lakes we have ever worked on, has had grass carp that didn’t completely wreck the feeding program, and that was a half-acre pond that had only one carp in it.

There are myriad other ways to fight vegetation problems in your pond.  If your goal is trophy bluegill, avoid grass carp at all costs.

Detail Mistake #3 – Allowing waterfowl on the pond

Both ducks and Canada geese relish fish food every bit as much as channel cats and grass carp.  They also bring the added consequence of littering your pond bank with their feces, which detracts from the aesthetics of your pond; and the feces they deposit into the water rather than on the bank can negatively impact your water quality.  And one way the waterfowl, especially geese, exceed the negative impact even of channel cats and grass carp is the fact that they don’t stay at a constant number.  Grass carp, to be stocked in Tennessee as well as most other states, have to be triploid, which makes them sterile; however many you stocked is the number you have; they’ll do major damage to your feeding program, but at least they won’t multiply.  Channel cats have the biological ability to multiply in your pond, but it’s rare for them to successfully recruit in a pond that has bass and bluegill in it.

Geese, on the other hand, not only can reproduce, they will, and in numbers that, if you’ve never witnessed it, will astound you.  That cute little pair of geese that’s just too adorable to run off can morph into a flock of a hundred and fifty in a blink: a couple seasons is often all it takes.  Geese are also smarter than channel cats or grass carp; the fish at least will back off from the food for a while if you manage to hook one of them, or better yet wound or kill one with a bow or what have you; but you can shoot one of the geese deader than dirt and the rest of the flock will be back at the feeder the next time it goes off like nothing ever happened.  And don’t even bother trying to scare them with fireworks or anything else; they’ll get great amusement from it.  They’ll fly to the other side of the pond and start swimming back toward the feeder before you’ve made three steps away from the pond.  Once you have them, you’re not getting rid of them short of drastic measures.  And if you think a ten-pound channel cat eats a lot of pellets, wait till you see fifty geese that are all half-again that size from eating your expensive food.  They’ll even learn exactly what time your feeder goes off each day, and will be waiting right in front of it when it goes off to make sure your prized bluegill don’t get more than ten percent of that food.

Detail Mistake #4 – Feeding Inferior Food

So many pond owners spare no expense when it comes to putting in a quality aeration system, a quality automatic directional fish feeder, fish with the very best genetics, etc., only to skimp on the food they feed their bluegill.  I am not the first nor even the second to write on this particular subject: knowledgeable pond managers have been penning articles for years now on the difference a top-quality, fishmeal-based food makes in growing big bluegill.  But a recent study removed all doubt.  A well-respected pond company in Georgia did a growth-rate comparison of four different foods commonly fed to bluegill in ponds; three of the foods were grain-based, while the fourth was fishmeal-based.  The lowest-performing food in the study was the grain-based Purina Gamefish Chow at 32% protein, while the highest-performing food was Purina’s fishmeal-based Aquamax which has 41% protein.  The two foods in the middle of the pack in terms of results were Cargill products, the better-performing of which had 45% protein but was grain-based.  It took 1.89 pounds of the Aquamax to put a pound of weight on a bluegill; it took 3.2 pounds of Gamefish Chow, or 69% more food, to put the same pound of weight on a bluegill.

Cheap food seems practical while you’re buying it; but it ends up costing more because of how much more food it takes to get the same amount of growth.  And that’s not the whole story when it comes to the negative effect a low-quality food will have on your bluegill: bluegill have an average lifespan in the South of only six years, so feeding an inferior food over six years’ time adds up to a whole lot of ounces lost off your prized bluegill.

The most concise way I have seen it put is this: if you want your bluegill to top out at a pound or less, feed the cheap food.  If you want two-pound bluegill, feed the best fishmeal-based, high-protein food you can source, at a minimum rate of forty pounds per acre per month, and preferably twice that.

One last note about the food: Purina has begun outsourcing the manufacture of Aquamax since the above-referenced study; fishmeal is no longer the primary ingredient, and very few knowledgeable pond pros still use it.  The fishmeal-based food we sell by Skretting is 48% protein, and gets dramatically better results than Aquamax ever did at its best formulation.