The stars shone lightly in the moonless sky. The calls of the bullfrogs guided my friend Art Katz and me from the house, past the barn and through the hay field to my dad's farm pond. According to the fishing report in the newspaper, the fish would start biting at 11 p.m., and we were more than willing to lose sleep to see if it was right.
I tossed my favorite bass lure into the water - an old black surface popper about an inch long. The night sky swallowed my cast. Plunk! Swish! Before I had a chance to give the lure a quick little pop in the water, I was battling a bass. I hollered for Art to watch me bring in my fish, but he had hooked a fighter, too. It was 11:04, and the bass kept hitting one after another for nearly 45 minutes. This was pond fishing at its best.
You don't have to take my word about the virtues of pond fishing. Twelve out of 87 of the state's record fish have been taken from privately owned ponds, including a 29-pound, 14-ounce channel catfish caught by Monte B. Hoover of Pattonsburg and a 3-pound bluegill hooked by Robert Giovanini of Columbia. With more than 300,000 privately owned ponds and lakes in Missouri, there are still plenty of opportunities for the rest of us to catch a lunker.
Equipment can be anything from a $200 graphite fly rod with custom-tied flies to a cane pole with a bobber and worms dug from the garden. Many pond anglers set their lawn chairs on the bank and cast to the edge of the vegetation or brush where fish like to hide. Some prefer belly boats that take them to the right spots easily and silently. Others like to launch a boat.
Bruce and Kathleen Maier of Columbia, two avid pond anglers who lead busy lives, keep an old canoe with a slow leak on their pond. When the water starts to get their shoes wet, they know it's time to get back to their chores on shore.
The Conservation Department has done its part to ensure that plenty of fish are anxiously waiting for you to dangle a juicy worm in front of them. In the past 50 years, the Conservation Department has helped private pond owners stock close to 100,000 ponds. Last year alone, nearly 100,000 largemouth bass, over half a million bluegill and 100,000 channel catfish found new ponds to call home through our stocking program.
These fish, however, are subject to state fishing regulations and cannot be sold by the landowner. For people who want to retain all rights to their fish, commercial fish dealerships are the place to go.
According to years of research, the best combination of fish to stock in a Missouri pond is bass, bluegill and channel catfish, which are all fun to catch and great to eat. With careful management, these fish will provide many years of good fishing.
Here's how it works. Bass are at the top of the pond's food chain. They eat small bluegill, frogs, crayfish and aquatic insects. Young bluegill survive on microscopic plants and animals, then turn to aquatic insects, snails, small crayfish and small fish when they get larger. For each pound of bass produced in a pond, 3,676 pounds of plant and other animal life must be available in the pond's food chain.
The only problem with pond fishing is you shouldn't keep everything you catch no matter how tasty the fish look. If you take out too many bass, the bluegill population will explode in number, but they won't grow quickly. On the other hand, if you harvest too many bluegill, the bass won't have enough to eat and may become stunted.
Both bass and bluegill will reproduce in a pond if their numbers are kept in balance. Catfish can be harvested as soon as they are big enough to fill your favorite skillet. You should restock the number you eat plus 10 percent to maintain a good population. Although catfish will reproduce in a pond, the bass will eat almost all of the fry before they become large enough for you to fry.
Bass can be harvested after they have spawned at least once. The Conservation Department recommends that you remove only bass that are larger than 15 inches for the first five years after stocking. In most ponds you should harvest no more than 20 bass per acre a year, depending on the growth rate of the fish and the fertility of the pond. Adult bluegill can be harvested at a higher rate, 75 to 100 per acre a year.
If you want a good excuse to take home a fish or two, take a kid fishing. My godson, Zeke Waterman, caught his first fish in my dad's pond. Even though that bass wasn't anywhere close to a record catch, it made a mighty fine breakfast the next morning, along with some fried potatoes and eggs.
Managing fish populations is as much fun as a day's fishing because that's how it's done. To do it right, you need to keep accurate records of the dates the pond is fished, hours each angler spends fishing, number of anglers, the types of fish caught and the lengths of fish kept and released.
To get the best results, the Conservation Department's "Missouri Pond Handbook" recommends that you fish until at least 10 bass and 10 bluegill are caught, or that you take at least five fishing trips with at least 10 hours of total fishing effort. The more time spent fishing, the better your records will be. It's not often that anyone gets to put down on their "to do" list, "Fish until catch 10 bass and 10 bluegill."
You will be more inclined to go fishing and to keep close tabs on a fish population if your pond is close to home. My future dream house consists of a second-story bedroom that juts out over a 5-acre pond, a pole holder attached to the window sill and a brush pile in the water within casting range of my bed.
If you are like me and don't have a place for a pond of your own right now, don't despair. Pond owners who have stocked fish from the Conservation Department have agreed to allow "a reasonable amount of fishing" in their ponds. Since access to ponds remains in the landowners' control, they have the right to chose who can fish. Usually this means family and friends.
So if you are pondless, befriend a pond owner. Offer to help with pond maintenance. In the spring, help pull out excess cattails. In the winter, collect old Christmas trees that can be used for fish habitat; and in the summer, trim trees and shrubs to keep them from growing on the dam. During the winter trapping season offer to trap nuisance muskrats that are tunneling into the pond dam. And best of all, promise to keep accurate year-round records of the fish population - in other words, fish as often as possible.
Even when the fish aren't biting, a pond is a great place to be. Stake out a spot near a wildlife trail and watch deer and raccoons make their evening rounds. Watch for ducks and geese that may choose the pond as a resting spot. Spy on a turtle as it suns on a log. Whether you're fishing or just soaking up nature, a visit to a pond can renew your outlook on life and help you avoid the other items on your "to do" list.
More detailed information about pond management, construction and stocking can be found in the Conservation Department's newly revised pond booklet. To request a copy, send a postcard to "Missouri Pond Handbook," Fisheries Division, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180. Allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery.
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