How to make your Farm Pond a Fish Haven

By Ben Leal

The song of birds in the meadows and fields greet a cool Iowa morning. The family car is loaded up and ready to make the short drive to Grandpa’s house for a day of family fun. Pulling up to the house, the kids can see that all preparations have been made down at the family farm pond. Without a hint of hesitation the kids run down…”GRANDPA!” arms outstretched…with a hug and a smile he wraps them up in his arms. “Who’s ready to catch some fish?”…

And with that a great day of fishing on a farm pond begins. Little Barbie Doll fishing poles all strung up ready for Susie and Jenny, and then there’s one for little Kevin, he likes Superman. There is no doubt that many of us anglers got our start out on a family farm pond somewhere here in Iowa.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimate that Iowa farm ponds host some 1.6 million visits by licensed anglers each year. Farm ponds by far offer some of the best first experience for kids and adults. Fish are easier to catch since they are not pressured as they are on big lakes. And when the kids get tired of chasing after bluegill and bass, they take a dip or chase a frog or two back in to the water.

These great little fisheries don’t just happen though. There is quite a bit of time and effort that goes in to them to make them viable stable aquatic residences for fish, aquatic insects, frogs, etc. But what happens when undesirable fish are accidently introduced by a friend or relative using minnows for bait. What about vegetation? How many of you have been out to a farm pond you knew was teaming with fish, yet as you walk out you find a thick mat of weeds growing throughout the pond?
We’re going to dig a bit deeper in to how we can manage and maintain our farm ponds. Some of these will be easy and quick, while others depending on the severity of the problem may take some professional help.

Helping as an Angler
Before we get in to the details of managing a farm pond, let’s take a look at what we as anglers can do to help farm pond owners manage their fisheries. Many land owners that have stocked farm ponds will allow you to fish them. There are two important things to consider when fishing a farm pond. First is to ask for permission…that’ll keep you from having to deal with law enforcement officers, which will certainly put a damper on the day.

“One of the most important things that you can do as an angler is have a conversation with the owner and find out what his management goals are for the pond”, said Iowa Pond Guy owner Brandon Harland. “Another thing you might do is keep a log book. Record the species of fish you caught and maybe the length then share it with the pond owner”.

Information like that can help an owner determine if there is an over population of a particular year class. You want to see a variety of fish size and species, rather than a large number of fish in the same class. This also helps the pond owner especially if he doesn’t fish it often or even at all.

One of the biggest issues the Iowa Pond Guy sees is that some pond owners don’t allow for any kind of harvest or exploitation of the fish population that is there. In the long run that can have detrimental effects on the population as well such as stunted fish or an overpopulation of one species versus another.

“Sometimes it takes human intervention to get things back in check to where they need to be” added Harland. The flip side of that issue is overharvesting. An owner may freely open the pond up for anyone to fish without any accountability. “That piece is hard to manage, so if anglers take time to share what’s taken out of the pond, he can also make some management decisions on the amount that is harvested.”

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources prohibits the dumping of minnows into area lakes, rivers and streams. This rule is in place to prevent the spread of an invasive species in to local fisheries that are detrimental to the natural fish population. “I suspect it’s not so much of an issue as to the minnows that are being used, but rather what’s in the bait bucket when it’s dumped in to a local fishery”, said Harland. Invasive species not only come in the form of fish, but plants as well.
Fishing with minnows isn’t really an issue for most pond owners noted Harland. The concern is that there may be an angler that is fishing a pond, looking for a specific fish. Rather than asking the owner for permission, the angler may bring in a bucket of a preferred species for “stocking” purposes and ultimately that has an adverse affect on the pond and fishery.

“A lot of these farm ponds that are built have much of the natural structure taken out of them during the construction phase”, added Harland. “As anglers one of the things that we can do, specifically during the ice fishing season, is to drag some structure out on the ice that will sink and create habitat within the pond”. This creates nursery habitat for the fish in the pond and will allow for some of the smaller year class fish to get established and grow to a catchable and decent size.
It’s really not that difficult to find usable structure that can be sunk in to a pond after ice out. Christmas trees work very well and are readily available after the holiday season. Other options are pallets that are no longer needed. Pallets can be tied together to form a teepee and cinder blocks secured to the bottom pallet. Whatever it is you sink just make sure it is environmentally safe or you risk having an adverse reaction and possibly a major fish kill if you are putting something that has toxins in the pond.

Pond Health
Ponds are a lot of fun to fish, especially early in the year when it’s not too hot and the fish are willing and eager to bite. Warmer weather brings about changes to the pond and weeds and algae start to become problematic. “Nutrients in Iowa soil tend to be one of the biggest issues facing pond owners”, said Harland. “Getting a water quality test done will give the owner an idea of where the nutrient level is in the pond”.

Water quality testing is recommended on a monthly basis, but given our weather patterns and time constraints one should concentrate on the period from April to October for testing. Common water quality parameters tested include but are not limited to: dissolved oxygen, pH, ammonia, phosphorus, nitrate and nitrite, chloride, fecal coliforms/bacteria, blue-green algae, water transparency, total nutrients, water temperature, etc.

Water testing can be done by the pond owner or if preferred a lab can analyze the water and provide a more detailed report. For an owner that wants to do a quick test at home, kits such as the API Pondcare Master Liquid Test Kit that will test for pH, ammonia, nitrite and phosphate levels. Alternatively the State hygienic lab can also test water samples from the pond, process and provide results.

“We do quite a bit of beneficial bacteria application in area ponds”, continued Harland. “This helps reduce the nutrient levels in the pond and starve out the nuisance plant growth.” Pre and post testing is done on the water quality of the pond to see where the water quality stands following the beneficial bacteria application. These bacteria help clear up the water and break down the nutrients improving water quality, and are a better alternative to using herbicides.

Bass, bluegill and catfish tend to be the predominant pond fish that we see in Iowa ponds. Crappie are also found in farm ponds but many are small due to the size of the pond and the lack of a predator/prey balance that helps keep the population in check. “Crappie tend to do better in larger ponds”, added Harland. “If you want to add crappie to your pond, make sure that you get the predator population, such as bass and catfish, established first then add the crappie.”

One species of fish that is not common but can be established is walleye. “Water depths of about 15 – 18 feet are what we recommend for adding walleye”, added The Pond Guy. “Though that’s not a hard and fast rule, but that is what we recommend.” Ponds that are deeper will help moderate the temperature during the summer. Harland noted that ponds that have been stocked with walleye have some amazing growth rates. Fingerlings stocked at about the 4-6 inch range will grow 3-4 inches a year.

Iowa farm ponds are some of the best fisheries we have in the State for all types of anglers from beginners to seasoned veterans. These great bodies of water offer a place to catch our first fish, learn more about fishing and are forgiving when we make mistakes. Whether you are an owner or an invited guest angler, farm ponds will bring years of enjoyment as long we help maintain the health and quality of that small fishery.