By Kevin Tate
On broad expanses of public water, catch and release remains an important practice but, where private ponds are concerned, removing a fair quantity of bass every year is critical to long-term success.
Most people who manage private ponds do so with an eye toward growing trophy bass, and anyone who manages a pond at all does so in the hope of providing good fishing.
The key to both, professionals say, is making sure to harvest as well as tend.
Don Keller, co-founder of American Sportfish in Montgomery, Ala., has been assisting pond managers with this balance for decades. On the subject of bass size distribution he quotes Dr. Rich Noble, a retired fisheries professor from North Carolina State University.
“In nature, largemouth bass populations tend to be dominated by small fish,” Noble says. “For viability of the population it is an advantage to have large numbers of small reproducing bass rather than moderates numbers of large fish. Lake fertility doesn’t change the size distribution much. If we are going to have big bass, we have to get the food to them, and the small bass are a big problem preventing that.”
“The total pounds of largemouth bass per acre (in a pond) is pretty consistent over time,” Keller says, “even if the size composition of the bass population changes. Therefore, you can have a high number of small bass or a smaller number of large bass.”
To optimize growth, Keller says the bass must be able to eat the largest baitfish they can reasonably manage.
“Eating food smaller than the optimum size is inefficient because more energy is burned in catching small prey than is gained by eating it,” Keller said.
The bluegill and other baitfish have to be able to reproduce at a rate that lets them grow to a sufficient size before being eaten, a condition an overpopulation of small bass prevents. Keller says simply catching and keeping bass can be all the management necessary to correct this.
“Typically, the bottleneck occurs at bass lengths of 10 to 16 inches,” he said. “Largemouth bass within this size range are so abundant that they deplete prey needed for growth by larger bass.”
Targeting all bass 16 inches and under, Keller says most fishery professionals recommend removing about 30 pounds of bass per acre per year from a well-fertilized pond.
“Selective harvest of the largemouth bass population, just like fertilizing or feeding, should be continued year after year,” Keller said. “The bass population, by nature, will continue to produce large numbers of small bass, which will be contrary to your goal.”
As the bass respond to the harvest, Keller says progressively larger fish will need to be removed to continue the program.
“If you started by removing fish less than 16 inches, after a few years you may want to move this up to 18 inches and under,” he said. “Quality bass management is best done through a combination of fertilization, feeding, stocking and more, but harvesting bass by angling to thin the population is one of the most effective and least expensive management practices out there to create quality bass fishing.”