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Why You Need an Electrofishing Survey

Electrofishing has been used by government agencies to survey fish popuiations in public lakes and rivers since the 1950’s; private management companies started using this technique sometime around the late 1980’s. Today it’s far and away the most prevalent method of sampling a fish population, simply because it’s the quickest method to get an accurate picture of what species are in a body of water, along with their relative abundances, average size, health, etc. We do dozens of electrofishing surveys every year, and no two are ever the same. I’ve yet to perform a survey where I wasn’t able to show the landowner some things about his pond of which he had not been aware previously. However, I talk to landowners almost on a weekly basis who feel that electrofishing is an unnecessary expense. They just want to get straight to stocking fish.

Are there times when electrofishing is superfluous? Absolutely. If you presently have a professional lake management company managing your pond and they tell you that you need a survey every year, here’s a little tip: those yearly surveys are more for their balance sheet than they are for the health of your pond. If the pond is being properly managed, it doesn’t need to be surveyed more than once every two to three years unless a major catastrophic event such as a fish kill, poacher, or otter has been confirmed to have taken place. We have never done yearly surveys for any of our clients, and the fish we’re growing speak for themselves.

The flip side of that is this: if you have a pond that you just recently acquired, or a pond that you have owned for years but haven’t managed in any way, and you have decided you want to improve the fishing in that pond, you’re shooting yourself in both feet if you don’t have a survey done before spending any money on stocking or any other management of the pond. If you’re a very skilled angler and you have methodically sampled your pond via hook and line for months, and after said sampling you feel you have a pretty accurate picture of the fish population in your pond, and furthermore if you have taken the time to invest in water testing equipment and know your readings on such crucial parameters as DO (dissolved oxygen), pH, alkalinity, and visibility, you may be in a position where you can feel reasonably comfortable about proceeding with stocking and other management based on your own data. I can safely say that less than one percent of all the pond owners that contact us fall into this category.

It’s much more common for the landowner to think he has a rough idea of what is in the pond, and to assume that’s enough. “We’ve seen some small bluegill, and we don’t catch many bass,” he might say, or, “We catch a lot of small bass.” This tenuous starting point is often then further complicated by bad information the landowner may have gotten from a neighbor, or an unscrupulous fish seller: it’s very common, for example, for the landowner to ask if he should stock fathead minnows to help the existing fish grow better. I then have to explain that no knowledgeable pond consultant will ever recommend fatheads for a pond with an existing fish population because they’re nothing more than a quick snack that will be gone within a matter of months, more often weeks, offering no lasting benefit. (This is not my original discovery by any means, and this information is widely available online and in print, and yet there are companies working in this state who recommend this to every pond owner, and they’re cheating those landowners out of their best fishing.)

But the bigger problem with thinking one has a general idea of what constitutes the fish population of one’s pond, is that 99% of the time the idea that the landowner has formed just from walking around the pond a couple times, or from a few minutes of fishing here and there, is often a very far cry from the actual state of said fish population.

I had a landowner once tell me that the bluegill in his pond were hybrid bluegill; when we electrofished the pond, we found pure coppernose bluegill, and no other sunfish. I had another landowner tell me that a state wildlife officer had told him he needed to stock redear; when we electrofished the pond, redear were almost as numerous as the bluegill (he had never caught one). More than a few times I have had landowners tell me that some other lake management company had told them that their main problem was too many small bass, only to discover once we electrofished the lake that both bass and bluegill were scarce because of a water quality problem that those other companies had somehow missed. Just in the last two months, we have electrofished three different ponds in three different states that had substantial genetic problems with either the bluegill or the bass; in all three cases the problem was so far advanced that nothing short of total renovation via rotenone or total draining followed by re-stocking would solve it. None of those landowners had any idea before we electrofished the pond that they had such an issue. And no amount of supplemental stocking would have cured any of those ponds – they could have stocked more fish every year for ten years and gotten nothing but frustration for their efforts.

A few years ago a landowner contacted me for help with his 1.25-acre pond. They wanted to develop it for big bluegill, a specialty of mine. I recommended an electrofishing survey, but the owner didn’t want to spend that much money; he asked if there were something else I could do that would cost less. I told him I could survey the pond via hook and line for half what I would charge for electrofishing; he liked that idea, so that’s what I did. I fished the pond for about ninety minutes, observed a few minnows that appeared to be gambusia, and caught no fish, so we proceeded on the assumption that the pond had no fish other than those minnows. I’m a very skilled fisherman, and in years past have surveyed several private ponds and lakes via hook and line, and have been able to catch most or all of the species present in most ponds and lakes I surveyed in this manner, and develop successful management plans based on such surveys.

I no longer offer the option of a hook-and-line survey unless a boat cannot be launched in the pond, simply because of the outcome of that survey. We stocked that pond as though it were a new pond with no bass or bluegill. Three years later when the bluegill still weren’t reaching any size, I suggested to the landowner that he have us electrofish. What we found once we shocked the pond was that the pond had already had northern bluegill when we stocked it with coppernose fingerlings, and the northern bluegill had eaten most of the coppernose, as well as the fingerling bass we stocked a few months later. The pond had already been overpopulated when we stocked it, and we had simply made it worse. Three years later the pond was no better for fishing, in terms of catchable-size, desirable fish, than it had been the day the landowner had me survey it with fishing tackle.

Here’s an easy way to think about the importance of an electrofishing survey to managing your pond. Imagine calling up your doctor’s office and telling the receptionist that you think you’re sick, and when the receptionist tries to make an appointment for you to come in and see the doctor, you just say that that’s not necessary because you already have a rough idea what drugs you want him to give you, or perhaps you say that you’re open to his suggestions but a visit is too expensive. Now imagine that your health issue is not a cough or minor pain, but something that potentially could put you in the hospital, or worse, a year or two down the road if not properly addressed.

A pond, of course, is not as important as your health. But if the future of your pond, and whether or not you ever have good fishing in it, is important to you, an accurate diagnosis of the pond’s health or lack thereof is every bit as crucial to success as a doctor’s exam is essential for the doctor to know what treatment to prescribe.