To recap, it takes two main elements to produce a trophy bass pond. First, bass must not be overharvested before they reach trophy size, and second, a lot of small forage fish are required to grow a few trophy bass. A trophy bass pond has a sparse population of fast-growing bass. If harvesting and eating a lot of fish from your pond is the primary objective, you don’t want to manage for a trophy bass pond.
A new factor which may make growing bass easier is the development of largemouth bass trained to eat dry, pelleted fish food. These fish can now be purchased from a few private Oklahoma commercial hatcheries however, their use is not appropriate for every situation. Young bass may consume this feed and grow fast for awhile but then slow down later.
The easiest way to set up a trophy bass pond is to start with a renovated or new pond devoid of fish. Stock the pond in the fall or early spring with brood forage fish. Bluegill probably are the best choice because they produce a large number of offspring and are only rarely eliminated from a pond. Stock 15 to 30 adult bluegill (four inches or longer) per surface acre. An afternoon of fishing with worms in a friend’s pond will usually supply ample bluegill stock. Make sure you get bluegill – not some other species such as green sunfish. An alternative is to stock 100 fingerling bluegill per acre in the fall.
Minnows make excellent forage fish, especially for young, growing bass. The two principle minnow species are fathead minnows (round body, dark color) and golden shiners (compressed body, shiny color). Both are prolific spawners that can provide a lot of small forage. The fathead minnow lays adhesive eggs on the underside of vegetation, rocks or old lumber (such as wood pallets) placed in the pond. The golden shiner lays adhesive strings of eggs on vegetation. Fathead minnows are relatively slow swimmers, and therefore are easily eliminated from a bass pond. Until that happens, they can provide excellent forage for young bass. Unfortunately they are fairly expensive for the limited benefit they provide. Golden shiners are faster swimmers that can sometimes grow to a size larger than most bass can eat, plus they prey on the eggs of bass and other fish. This is not a major problem in a trophy bass pond because there are bass large enough to eat them, and bass may need periodic restocking anyway.
Stock about a gallon of adult shiners per acre by early spring. Fish should be two to three inches in length because larger golden shiner females are likely sterile. Also add spawning substrate. Fatheads should be stocked at the rate of about five gallons per acre. Check with a local fish farmer or minnow dealer to get a quantity discount on minnows. Do not use minnows seined from the river because they may be mixed with small undesirable fish such as carp or bullhead.
Fertilize the pond in the spring at the recommended rates (see Pond Fertilization, page 36) to create the plankton bloom that feeds forage fish. Take care not to over fertilize, especially after the first year. Bass are sight feeders and may have trouble feeding if visibility is too low. Also, over fertilization can lead to oxygen depletion resulting in a fish kill.
Now we come to the big decision – what size and type of bass should you stock in the pond? Largemouth bass are the obvious choice over smallmouth or spotted bass for almost all Oklahoma ponds. Next is whether to stock the northern-strain or the Florida-strain of largemouth. It is true that most recent state record bass from southern states, including Oklahoma, have been the Florida-strain or a cross between a Florida and northern-strain bass. But also true is the fact that Florida bass commonly experience winterkill, especially in ponds across northern Oklahoma but also statewide during hard cold snaps. Rapid drops in temperature appear to cause greater mortality than mere low temperatures. Consequently, Florida bass in ponds are more susceptible to winterkill than those in larger lakes. Because it takes a number of years to grow a trophy bass, you probably don’t want to risk winterkill after all the time, effort and money you’ve spent. The first generation cross (F1) between the Florida and northern-strain largemouth may survive cooler temperatures and reach trophy size. Be sure of the genetics of any fish you buy because some Florida bass broodstock are not 100 percent pure.
Florida bass seem to differ from their northern counterparts in another important aspect. One study found the Florida bass are more difficult to catch both initially and during subsequent attempts than northern bass. If a high catch rate is an important objective, than don’t stock Florida bass.
The decision of whether to get small fingerlings free from the ODWC (for new or reclaimed ponds) or to buy larger feed-trained bass depends on whether the faster growth of the fed bass is worth the extra cost. The limited data available on fed bass indicates that they tend to grow about twice as fast as unfed bass for the first year or two. They seem to do better when supplemental forage fish are available, especially as they get older. Perhaps this is because a complete, inexpensive feed has not yet been developed for adult largemouth bass. The best feed for the money to date appears to be a catfish or trout ration that is at least 36 percent protein.
Stock about 100 bass per acre in late spring or summer after all forage fish have had a chance to spawn. If you have stocked the feed-trained bass, then feed all the floating pelleted feed they can consume in ten minutes. Feed daily or as often as possible during the warm weather, generally when the water temperature exceeds 65°F. Some studies indicate that alternate-day feeding wastes less feed and produces a better feed conversion ratio. With patience you will be able to enjoy watching them grow.
Bass reproduction often is limited in a pond with abundant forage. Annual stockings of 100 six-inch bass per acre may be necessary if seining results indicate low bass reproduction and survival.
Check the progress of your trophy bass pond occasionally using angling results. Generally, do not remove any parent stock bass unless their body condition starts to decline as indicated by a skinny appearance or stomach that curves in rather than out. Also, you can add more forage to correct poor body condition of bass.
One of the best ways to add forage is with a small extra or “satellite” pond devoted to forage production. It is especially convenient if this pond is located just above the trophy bass pond and equipped with a bottom drain so that forage fish can simply be flushed into the bass pond with the turn of the valve. Stock the satellite pond each spring with brood forage as described earlier in this section, fertilize at recommended rates and flush into the trophy bass pond in mid to late summer. The satellite pond also can be used to produce fingerling bass if young bass do not appear in your sampling of the trophy pond in future years.
The harvest of bass after the third year following stocking will vary among ponds and from one year to the next depending on the amount of feed and forage provided and whether bass successfully spawn and survive the predation of other bass. Again, when sampling by fishing look to see if bass are in good condition or if they are stockpiling at one general size and not growing through to larger sizes. At some point you probably will need to remove some of the bass in the 12- to 18-inch range (one to three pounds) to allow remaining fish to grow to trophy size. Start by removing about 20 pounds of bass per acre and check to see if growth has improved in a couple of months. If you catch a lot of bass in one size range, it would be wise to harvest some of them. The only time a bass larger than 18 inches should be harvested is when it is considered a trophy suitable for mounting, when it is in poor condition, or when you just can’t tell your child or grandchild they can’t take that four-pound bass home.
Now let’s look at the case in which you want to take a typical bass-bluegill pond and turn it into a trophy bass pond without killing out all the fish or going to the work and expense of adding forage fish, fertilizer or fish food. It can be done, but only if you settle for a lot fewer fish, both to catch and to harvest. Also, it will take longer to grow small fish to trophy size. You probably already have a few decent-sized bass for starters and a good supply of sunfish, if not a large stunted sunfish population.
First, allow fishing access to only those people you can trust to abide by your bass harvest rules. Some people can’t resist taking a couple of three pounders home. You, as the trophy bass pond manager, will have to decide when to selectively harvest a few bass; otherwise, you will never get very many to trophy size.
Second, determine if there are any six- to eight-inch bass present – and indication of successful reproduction and recruitment. If there are only a few young bass, you need to catch or buy some large fingerlings or small juveniles to stock in the pond. Stock up to 100 per acre or whatever you can afford.
Third, if there is too much aquatic vegetation present, remove most of it so that small forage-size bluegill cannot escape bass predation (see Aquatic Vegetation Control, page 33). Note that a pond with absolutely no escape cover in the form of vegetation or brush piles will produce good bass fishing (assuming a reasonable number of bass are left unharvested) for a few years, but it will eventually run out of small forage. One such one-acre pond contained 75 bass averaging three pounds each. The pond produced excellent bass fishing for about three years while grass carp controlled and eventually eliminated every bit of cover. At this point the pond only had a few very large bluegill left, and the bass started to show signs of poor body condition. A pond needs some cover for successful bluegill reproduction, or the number of bass, especially in the 12- to 18-inch (one to three pound) range, must be decreased to produce a few trophy bass.
Remember, trophy bass are at the top of the food pyramid, and there is not much room at the top unless you artificially expand the food base at the bottom through supplemental forage, fertilizer, feed or some combination of these. Also, you need to harvest some to the intermediate-to-large bass, leaving a few to grow to trophy size.