Kristen Traugh

The Pond Primer

Most of us have fond memories around ponds. Maybe we remember the chase for elusive trophy bass or hollering for help to grumbling adults when fishing lines became tangled in tree branches. Either way, ponds can be a beneficial asset for families and landowners. They can be a staple for fishermen, people who want to enjoy wildlife, or landowners looking to increase the value of their property.

Here in the South, ponds are popular sources of water for deer and other animals, especially during dry months. Some pond owners drain their water to plant food for ducks and create hunting opportunities. Others harvest fish, which are caught for personal use or sold. Some people with ponds simply appreciate knowing where their food comes from and how the fish are produced. For those looking at supplemental income ideas, ponds are necessary for growing bait fish to sell.

“We have built ponds for property owners where the plan was to develop the land around the pond,” says Jed Griggs of Griggs and Sons Construction Inc. “It doesn’t have to be huge either. I built one in Houston County, [Georgia] that wasn’t more than five acres, and now if you ride by it, they have built million-dollar homes all around it… People like to look at water.”

In agriculture, ponds have a starring role in providing an aboveground water source for crop irrigation and livestock. But for those of us with limited space, backyard ponds or koi ponds are great options. Water features like fountains can be designed and added to make dramatic effects too.

Designing a Pond

If you’re ready to make your pond dreams a reality, location is of utmost importance. Ideally, ponds work best in areas that are bowl-shaped so you can take advantage of rainfall instead of pumping water out of the ground. Wells, though, can be used where natural water sources are nonexistent or aren’t reliable, such as during a drought. Streams or natural underground springs can be an added bonus.

Above all, soil type matters the most. You can have a prime location without the proper soil and vice versa if you’re not careful. Builders will typically look for a 70/30 mix or 70% sand to 30% clay. The clay will be spread into the bowl as a sealant to hold water.

Juston Stone owns Stone’s Aquatic LLC in Valdosta, Georgia, and spends a lot of time helping people build and fix their ponds. He suggests considering liners if you don’t have the correct amount of clay.

“You’ll spend more money pumping water constantly in a pond. Spend the money on a liner and be done with it. It’s a one-time cost while you’ll have a monthly fee that never ends for pumping water,” Juston says.

Liners work best on ponds three acres in size or smaller and most ponds with liners are usually an acre to an acre and a half. A larger pond requires bigger equipment and, therefore, a higher cost to install the liner.

When you decide on your pond’s location, you’ll need to apply for a permit through the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

Another factor to consider is the pond depth. “I’d recommend eight feet or deeper. It may cost you money upfront but it will save you money in the long run,” Juston mentions. “A four- or five-foot deep pond is really too shallow. It’s job security for me to be cleaning the pond. That depth will usually have too much vegetation from the sunlight.”

Most pond vegetation occurs naturally. But, if you want to create nursery habitats for fish, research native water plants, like the American lotus, dollar bonnet, and water willow. It’s best to avoid adding submerged plants and focus instead on species that are easier to control.

Even the slope on which your pond descends can affect fish populations since many species use shallow areas as spawning locations.

Maintaining the Pond

Just as with anything, caring for a pond requires some hands-on maintenance and Jonathon Pritchard definitely has experience with that. As the Public Fishing Area Manager of Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area in Bainbridge, Georgia, Jonathon supervises over 530 acres of water between the ponds, wetlands, and Carolina bays there aside from serving as a private pond consultant.

“The most important thing to do as you’re building a pond, is, as a property owner, figure out where you want to be five years or so after the pond is built. Management goals are the most important part. There is no one-size-fits-all-all for pond management,” Jonathon says. “If you know where you’re going, you know where to start.”

Most Southern fishing ponds are managed for trophy bass, but, unfortunately, that isn’t as easy as throwing some adult fish in the water. Water quality is the foundation of the pyramid to get to the trophy bass at the top. Tests can be done to check the alkalinity, hardness, and other metrics of the pond. Proper alkalinity can prevent wild pH swings, which can cause major issues. Ideal pH levels in a pond range from 6.5 to 9. Hard water is also a positive benefit as it provides minerals for fish health. Even common problems like excessive filamentous algae can be traced back to water quality. Good water will even encourage the growth of beneficial algae known as phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are microscopic floating plants that are at the bottom of a pond’s food chain. Next are the zooplankton, which feed on the phytoplankton and serve as the main food source for small fry.

“Green water is good when it comes to fish management. That green is there because there is phytoplankton in the water column,” says Jonathon. “It’s just like any terrestrial ecosystem. The base of the food chain is the plants. If you have a good environment for these plants to thrive, anything above them has a greater chance of being healthy.”

Just like in production agriculture, water-soluble fertilizer can be used to increase phytoplankton populations. But there is a threshold for that too.

Many excessive vegetation problems can be solved with herbicide treatment, followed by introducing grass carp to maintain the results. There is a palatability index for grass carp based on the vegetation they prefer to eat. Experts do instruct not to use fish food where carp are as they “will eat you out of house and home” as Juston says, and will lose their taste for plants.

Once you have an established environment for the fish, forage fish species like bluegill, threadfin shad, and sunfish can be introduced. Bass enjoy a varied diet of multiple forage species. This is usually done in the fall so the fish can have a chance to spawn before adding bass during the next spring. As your fish population grows, it’s essential to monitor their health by looking for fuzzy white spots from an Ich fungal infection or any open sores.

Jonathon sums the process up this way: “All of this is going to increase that good algae production, the phytoplankton production. If you’ve got a strong base, then the next step on that pyramid is the zooplankton. The zooplankton feed on the phytoplankton and they are what the small fish will be eating. So we’re stepping up into that next step. Smaller fish feed bigger fish, and they feed really big fish and then you end up with an eight-pound bass.”

Problems in the Pond

If you’ve acquired a pond that needs some help, it can feel like a daunting task. Solutions are fairly simple though, even if they may involve heavy equipment. “If you have a problem, get it fixed before it becomes expensive,” Jed recommends.

A common problem of debris in the water can have several solutions depending on time, cost, and pond condition. Trees, especially pine trees, are usually the culprits here. Sap-laden pine needles are notorious for floating on the water’s surface for months before sinking and decomposing slowly. As matter decomposes, it can affect the pond’s oxygen level. Dredging and sludge removal, while it can get expensive, offer immediate results. Some people add freshwater microbes to help decomposition over time. Dock-mounted underwater blower fans are also used for creating underwater currents and preventing the accumulation of debris.

“It usually comes down to this,” Juston states, “Do you have more time or money?”

Juston Stone has built a business around ponds needing help and teaching classes to assist people with them. When Juston’s family purchased a pond property, he was hooked.

“My wife and I talked and prayed about it and we bought our first boat. Six months later, we were ready to buy our second boat!” Juston says.

Now these aren’t average boats either. Juston uses them in areas with excessive vegetation and he calls them “skid steers on water.” These boats are outfitted with twin props and a front-end loader to gather water vegetation. He can harvest about half an acre per day with his smallest boat, working up to a forty-foot barge with a conveyor mechanism for bigger lakes. This process can get ponds and the animals in them back to a healthier state.

Building Your Own Pond

Fortunately, South Georgia locals are well-versed in anything having to do with water. When Southwest Georgia Farm Credit’s Senior Relationship Manager Brian Wilson was ready for a pond, he called Jed Griggs.

“It’s just a fun process. It’s like building a house,” Brian explains. “You get to see all the different steps and then you can start the interior design and really make it yours.”

Jed appreciated the chance for creativity on Brian’s project. “It was an absolute pleasure working with Brian on his pond,” he says. “The only complaint I have is his place is the rockiest place I have ever built a pond in my life! We made several structure piles around his pond using the rocks. It turned out very nice. I’m proud he let me work on it.”

According to Brian, the feeling is mutual. “Even after he was done, Jed came back and brought his kids to see the pond. He took pride in his work and that meant a lot to me,” Brian says.

Whether you’re interested in purchasing a property with water, on the water, or adding some water, Brian suggests reaching out to a Farm Credit Relationship Manager.

“Ponds are unique to each landscape. They tell a story and they paint a picture. Each one is different and there are a lot of options. Sometimes ponds need to have dams repaired or be able to pump water for irrigation. Every situation is unique,” he says.

Based on studies done by American Forest Management, ponds can increase the value of bare land by 6%, with a range of up to 42%. They found that pond properties spent 20% less time on the market waiting to be sold.

Brian explains it this way: “What would be more expensive: a house on the beach or one several blocks away from the beach? It’s always the access to water. All the things that make a beach or a lake appealing can come with a pond. Water adds value through opportunity.”

The Pond Calendar

Spring/Summer- When your water temperature warms to sixty degrees, it’s time for a heavy dose of fertilizer. We have a long growing season in our region, so this will promote the initial algae bloom. Jonathan uses a Secchi disk to monitor phytoplankton populations. This simple test marks how far sunlight penetrates the water; when you have more algae, light will not be able to reach as far. Jonathon aims for a depth of twenty to thirty inches.

“Some people say ‘the first of every month, we’re going to fertilize.’ I just kind of let the pond tell me when it needs more fertilizer,” he says.

Be mindful that, during spring, fish are spawning and their body conditions may drop. Females are busy producing eggs, while males are building and guarding nests. They can be prone to more infections and illnesses at this time.

Once you have your pond chemistry and forage species established, you can add small fingerling bass here too.

Fall/Winter- Jonathon feeds fish year-round, but he does decrease the amount he feeds as the water gets cooler. This is also the time to stock your forage fish species.

“Fall is really your time to make any water quality amendments,” he says. “We usually lime the ponds at about two tons per acre. Just like with row crops, lime acts as a pH buffer and makes nutrients bioavailable in the ponds. We load the lime with a tractor onto a pontoon boat and wash it off with a fire hose basically. If you don’t have something like that, you can spread it on the edges of your pond.

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