Hunting for Fishy Waters
Those who hunt on public lands often find the best success far from roads and parking lots. Walking that extra mile, targeting remote areas, and getting away from others are proven strategies for success.
These same tactics can also produce big dividends when it comes to fishing public waters. This is certainly the case on many of the hundreds of unnamed, often overlooked ponds tucked away on Department of Conservation areas. Although fishing these ponds may pose a few challenges, a good game plan and some persistence can open the door to exceptional fishing.
Giving up Amenities
Public lakes are popular not only for quality fishing, but also for amenities like boat ramps, privies, mown shorelines and fishing jetties and docks. However, such amenities are typically not possible, practical, or even desirable on most conservation area ponds. In fact, the secluded, primitive nature of these ponds makes fishing them a unique experience.
Most of the time you will need conservation area maps to locate ponds because many of them will not be visible from the road or have signs directing people to them.
Many ponds will require a cross-country hike to access—anywhere from a short walk to a several-mile hike—so bring bug repellent and watch out for poison ivy. The trouble is worth it, though. If you are willing to “rough it” a little, you will often find great fishing.
Small Waters—Big Fish
Many anglers believe that you need a big lake to produce big fish, but this is simply not true. Some of the Midwest’s largest bluegill, crappie, redear and largemouth bass, including several Missouri state record fish, have been caught in ponds.
As long as a pond has good fish habitat and a balanced fish community it can produce catches that rival any lake. Those who fish private ponds know this to be true, but many anglers don’t realize that ponds on public lands can also provide great fishing.
A Mix of Fishes
The fish community in conservation area ponds usually consists of largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish and, occasionally, redear sunfish. It’s the same combination that is recommended to private pond owners.
This mix of species works well together and reliably produces quality fishing under a variety of conditions. Other species either do not fare well in ponds or they create management problems.
Good Fishing Ponds
Although fishing is the best way to determine whether a pond is a good fishing spot, you can often quicken your search by looking for ponds with the following characteristics:
Good water quality—If the pond is regularly turbid (i.e. you can only see a lure a few inches under the surface) the fishing will probably not be very good.
Sufficient depth—Ponds need to have areas that are at least 8 feet deep or they may be subject to periodic fish kills and may contain only small fish or no fish at all.
Aquatic vegetation—In summer, many ponds seem overrun with aquatic vegetation. Don’t let this discourage you. These ponds often produce big fish. Try to fish the ponds in spring or fall when the vegetation is less abundant, or use tactics that allow you to fish through the weeds.
A healthy largemouth bass population is the key to good fishing in ponds. This predatory fish is at the top of the pond food chain. In a balanced system, bass consume many of the small bluegill, which allows the remaining bluegill to grow large. If you remove too many bass from a pond, you’ll end up with an overcrowded, stunted bluegill population. That’s why releasing some of the bass you catch helps to maintain a pond’s overall fishing quality.
Finding Good Ponds
Not all conservation area ponds provide exceptional fishing. The trick is finding the good ones.
Start by looking at conservation area maps and locating out-of-the-way ponds. Because these ponds are lightly visited, fisheries biologists and other anglers aren’t the best sources for fishing information. You may need to evaluate ponds on your own by fishing them.
It’s fun to fish new places, especially when you might discover a fishing gold mine. Will this be the pond that produces the bass of a lifetime or a stringer of 9-inch bluegill? You never know, and that’s a good part of the attraction.
You sometimes can get a good idea of what a pond holds by slowly and quietly walking along its banks and looking for fish. This works best in spring before vegetation becomes thick. You can often tell if a pond contains large bluegill, for example, by looking for tell-tale elephant tracks (spawning beds).
Water temperatures warm quickly in small ponds, so the best spring fishing will begin earlier than in larger lakes. Starting off the spring by fishing ponds is a great way to lengthen the spring fishing season.
Pond Fishing Tactics
You can fish most ponds from shore. Even deeper water is often reachable from the bank. If you’re not sure where in a pond to fish, no problem. Fish it all! After a trip or two, you will learn which areas of the pond produce the most fish.
The tackle and methods you use on larger waters work well on ponds. Many times, they work better, because fish in remote ponds are less lure-shy than fish in easily accessible lakes that receive heavy fishing pressure.
For more information about pond fishing tactics, see the links listed below.
Catching a bunch of fish is not the only benefit to venturing out and searching for secluded fishing hotspots. As you hike around conservation areas, you may discover great turkey hunting locations, morel mushrooms, blackberry patches and neat walking trails.
While fishing, you may see a family of wood ducks weaving their way along the shoreline or a deer coming down to the water for a drink.
Fishing conservation area ponds is a great way to experience the outdoors, get some exercise and improve your state of mind. Keep at it, and you’re sure to find some great new fishing spots, too.
Finding a Pond
For a complete list of conservation areas in Missouri, use the online Conservation Atlas or get a copy of Missouri’s Conservation Atlas. To order, call, toll-free, 877-521-8632, or write The Nature Shop, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102. You can also order online.
Maps of individual conservation areas can be found online using the online Conservation Atlas, or you can contact your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation regional office and request an area brochure.