I traveled to the little town of North, South Carolina, and turned right onto Highway 178. After crossing a tea-colored stream, I went through a gate into my friend’s property. An 18-acre lake lay about a half mile into the property and it was a mild spring day. I loaded up a Jon boat with 150 pounds of fish feed and pushed off to fill fish feeders, and to survey the lake for early weeds. The lake water was also light tea-colored; acidic, tannin-colored water is common to the central part of South Carolina. The lake was fed by a swamp to the east, separated by a beaver dam, and then the lake fed the stream, which travels to Edisto River.
The lake was completely calm, and I paddled up a channel that ran along the shore. I slowed and let boat drift to a stop. Leaning over the boat and turning it so the light was still good, I could see about 3 feet into the water with my polarized glasses. There was a Christmas tree sunken under the boat. The needles were long gone but all the small branches were still intact. The whole tree was decorated with 1-inch fish ornaments. Young bluegill had taken up residence in this structure I installed in January. It was a great nursery habitat. Structure refers to three-dimensional habitat for fish to enjoy in a pond or lake. This occurs naturally in the form of aquatic plants, rock outcroppings, shelves that provide rapid changes in depth, and submerged trees. Fish populations benefit from increased habitat in the form of structure.
One of the pond management things you can do this fall to help your fish is to add three-dimensional habitat, especially if you have a bass-bluegill pond. Bass and bluegill are actually both part of the sunfish family and one of their attributes is that they like to stay near some sort of structure. It makes them comfortable. When you are trying to culture bass and bluegill in a balanced system, the bass should control the large number of small bluegill. Keeping them in close contact with one another is key. Structure does this. It also concentrates the fish population so that you know where to go when you would like to catch a few.
Each year, I would cruise the neighborhoods and pick up curbside Christmas trees in January. With the trees piled high on my trailer, I looked like a Grinch that didn’t arrive on time to ruin Christmas. Using Christmas trees for structure is a common recommendation when reading pond and lake management guides. Something you learn when trying to launch them: the trees float, and it takes more weight than you think to sink them.
There are several tried-and-true types of structure and you can use your imagination to make more. A good place to start is the weight: 5-gallon buckets and 20 pounds of concrete mix. Then you can add any type of structure that will make good three-dimensional habitat.
• Vinyl siding that has been cut into small strips and bent in different directions
• Bamboo trees 4-8 feet tall
• Polyethylene irrigation piping pipe –used or new
• Other recycled material- piles of broken concrete, tires, pallets
After construction is complete, launch the structures in depths appropriate for their size, keeping in mind that deep areas may not have enough oxygen to support fish during the summer.
You can also cut small unwanted trees along the pond bank and allow them to fall in the water; some people like to leave 18-inch tall section of the tree stump as a hinge so that it does not float away. In addition to making good fish structure, this partially submerged tree trunk will be a habitat for turtles.
Liming is another fall activity. This involves adding agricultural lime, calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate to the pond. The calcium and magnesium components raise the hardness, while the carbonate component supplies alkalinity. Hardness increases the successful hatching of fish eggs and the survival of small fry. Crawfish and other crustaceans that your fish will use for a food source will benefit from hardness as well. The alkalinity reduces the daily variations in pH, giving your fish a more consistent environment. It also promotes healthy chemistry in your pond mud and helps to cycle nutrients.
Naturally-occurring hardness and alkalinity can vary greatly depending on your soil type, water source and geology. Lime is inexpensive; however, applying it is a challenge. Brace yourself: You will typically need one to two tons per surface acre.
How do you know if you need to lime? You can use pool testing strips or aquarium testing strips to get a general idea of the hardness and alkalinity in your water. Your county’s cooperative extension service system will usually have a testing service as well. A level of 100 parts per million (ppm) on both alkalinity and hardness indicates that your pond has adequate lime. 20 ppm would indicate a definite improvement with a lime application.
Lime can be applied by shoveling off a platform constructed over the front of your boat. It can also be sprayed in or washed in from the edge with a pump. One to two tons per acre is a lot of heavy material. Be safe with respect to your back, and also take care not to load too much on a boat and tip it over.
Pond plants are dying back for the season this time of year and developing thatch along the shoreline. Thatch varies among different plants. Pickerel rush and cattails are native plants but do produce a lot of thatch that dies in the fall. If left alone, thatch falls in the pond, and creates sludge and structure for the aquatic plants to grow on next year, creeping further into your pond and slowly filling it in. Unless that’s your goal, it should be removed or thinned. A brush ax and pitch fork are commonly used. The “Pond Shark” is a great tool specifically for managing shoreline vegetation on your pond. I have used it and it works.
Erosion can affect pond health long-term and erosion control is a timely project for the fall. Patching up edges of your pond that have been damaged by livestock, geese or simple weathering is a good idea. Simple application of a winter rye grass or other cool season ground cover can be effective. Reinforcement products made from coconut fiber, jute, straw mat, or other fibers that are wildlife friendly can be installed and staked in to control erosion and make for more successful grass stands. Addressing developing erosion early can prevent silt and mud from washing into your pond where it will affect the volume and water quality over time.
And you thought you were just going to relax and enjoy the pond this fall?
Next time, I will talk with you about cage culture of fish.
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