• Gus Hetcher

Grow Huge Fish!

Everyone loves catching big fish. Whether it is on a lake or your backyard pond, we all enjoy the thrill and sense of accomplishment that comes with reeling in trophy fish. For some of us, being able to grow bragging-sized fish is the main reason we own private lakes and ponds. However, to grow huge fish, the fishery must be balanced and there needs to be adequate forage.

An aquatic ecosystem can be imagined as a pyramid of interconnected food chains. At the top lies the top consumers, which contains predatory fish like bass and walleyes. In the middle levels lies the secondary and primary consumers, which include panfish, minnows and aquatic invertebrates. At the bottom are producers, such as aquatic plants, algae and phytoplankton. When there are gaps or shortages in any of these tiers, the fishery can become unbalanced and stunted. In ponds and small lakes, it is often the primary consumer tier that is missing or in short supply, which includes minnows.

If your lake or pond is top heavy with predators, there will not be enough forage for them to reach desirable sizes. For most pond fish, high density equals slow growth and poor size structure. To grow trophy fish, it is essential to maintain lower densities. How low this density needs to be depends on pond fertility and forage abundance. Electro-fishing and fyke-netting surveys are two important methods for assessing fish populations and removing over-abundant fish.

A strong minnow forage base is critical to growing large gamefish and panfish. Minnows provide a valuable soft-finned source of protein and nutrients, which enhances growth rates, gamete production and survivorship. Minnows are prolific and can spawn multiple times a year. If conditions are favorable, a self-sustaining population of minnows can be achieved. Unfortunately, in smaller lakes and ponds, minnow mortality rates may out-weigh recruitment due to a lack of habitat cover or too many predators in the system.

In other words, minnows may not achieve a self-sustaining population in your water. This is why we recommend stocking minnows every year to ensure your fish are growing to their full potential.

Along with minnow stocking, supplemental feeding with a protein-based fish pellet can also increase growth rates; particularly for species such as bluegills, trout and catfish. Look for fish meal-based food and avoid fish food that is primarily made with soy protein if you want your fish to provide quality table fare. Supplemental feeding can be done by hand or by using a timed feeder, such as a Texas Hunter® fish feeder.

All fish in this article came from a Wisconsin pond that is stocked with minnows annually and is supplementary fed weekly.

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