How to Stock a Pond in Texas (Tips, Species, Guidelines)
Texas is known for being an ideal location for fish farming due to its climate conditions and favorable topography. Local aquaculture generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue per year, opening up dozens of jobs and economic benefits. Fish and aquatic plant farms collectively form one of the backbones of Texas’ economy. A bird’s eye view of coastal areas reveals ponds in all shapes and sizes, inhabited by a wide assortment of delectable species.
Although fish farming is widely encouraged as a means to meet the demand for high-quality and locally-produced proteins, not just anyone can build a pond and grow large densities of fish in any location. Ponds that are less than 5 acres in surface area don’t require too much paperwork, but they must be stocked and managed correctly to meet their highest potential. Even ponds that are less than an acre need to be run with many considerations in mind.
This article will take you through some basic guidelines, stocking suggestions, and ideal species for both new and old ponds in Texas. Many locals with small ponds tend to favor polyculture, which involves cultivating multiple species to form a functional food chain. If you have an existing pond that you would like to stock for personal profit or as a shared diversity hotspot for recreational fishers, the information below should guide your objectives.
Basic Considerations for Texan Ponds
1) Site assessment
In terms of serving as permanent locations for freshwater life, not all sites are equal. Some contain features that may eventually ruin the design or complicate the maintenance of ponds, whereas others may enhance their structure and attract beneficial biota. The site that you select for a pond affects how much water it is able to receive and what type of substrate it must be built on. Moreover, it limits the shape, size, depth, and edge features (slopes, spillways, lining) that are necessary to retain its form and minimize water loss.
When selecting a site for your pond, take soil and water samples to evaluate the stability of the substrate and to detect considerable inputs of pollutants. With your design in mind and with the aid of aerial photos or topographical maps, try to gauge which part of your property would be best. Visualize what types of trenches or spillways would be necessary to maintain the integrity of the pond.
2) Pond size
The size of the pond would significantly determine the optimal stocking density, ideal species for the pond, annual harvest rates, and management requirements for smooth production. In Texas, many small ponds are primarily used as a source of water for farming activities and to support the needs of livestock.
These small ponds are unable to support complex food webs. They may be stocked with minimal numbers of small and feed-trained species. Larger ones (e.g. bass) requiring live food will need to be stocked in ponds that are greater than an acre in surface area. Multi-species ponds should always ideally be larger than 1 acre. Carefully evaluate the surface area of your pond as an overestimate of its dimensions can lead to overstocking.
3) Water conditions
Across the state, water conditions may differ due to variations in the substrate type, watershed features, and biological components of water sources. In some areas, water tends to be more alkaline and should thus have a higher buffering capacity against fluctuations in pH. In others, water may be more turbid due to the presence of easily eroded substrates or the frequent passage of stormwater.
Ponds with unstable and undesirable water conditions may have to undergo renovations or be naturalized with more vegetative features prior to being stocked. Although some fish, such as catfish, may thrive in muddy and unstable conditions, poor water can negatively impact production and may eventually compromise primary productivity rates.
4) Pond features
The temperature, depth, substrate properties, and vegetative components of your pond can likewise determine the appropriate stocking densities and suitable species for optimal growth. Note that these features, particularly depth, may also influence all other physical pond parameters.
The contours of the pond as well as its aquatic vegetation and natural structures (such as sunken timber and boulders) all add to its complexity. Complex ponds are more likely to mimic the workings of wholly natural freshwater systems, which contain a wealth of microhabitats to support the development of a self-sufficient ecosystem. Complex, large ponds can usually support the growth of a wider variety of stocked fish.
5) Aeration features
Pond stratification, which usually occurs in deep ponds without a source of aeration or water flow, can create pockets with dangerously anoxic conditions. Low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels will invariably lead to fewer chances of survival, particularly for stocked fish that are accustomed to high oxygen conditions.
In ponds, DO levels are primarily affected by plant photosynthesis rates, wind and wave action, water temperature, depth, salinity, and fish density. Stock your pond with conservative densities, especially in the absence of mechanized sources of aeration. Note that DO is consumed by the live occupants of the pond, and will need to be replenished by either natural or mechanical means to support the growth of your fish.
6) Property permits
Before you fill a pond with water and stock it with fish, you may require necessary permits from local authorities. The Texan government is relatively encouraging when it comes to obtaining water from public watercourses, especially for small ponds.
The Texas Water Code allows locals to construct and fill ponds on their own property as long as these have a surface area of less than 200 acres. Note, however, that this exemption from permit requirements is only given to individuals who intend to use the pond for livestock, fish, or wildlife. If the pond is intended for commercial use or for irrigating property features like golf courses, a permit is required. The use of groundwater may also necessitate a permit, particularly if your property is located in a conservation hotspot.
Ideal Fish for Ponds in Texas
A Texan seafood staple, catfish are wonderful additions to farm ponds because they have a knack for thriving in a wide variety of conditions. If your pond is less than 1 acre, either channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) or blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) would be the ideal species to stock. They can also be stocked in larger ponds, along with bass and other forage fish species.
Channel catfish is the better option if you wish for rapid growth and intermittently harvestable populations. Blue catfish is the prime choice if you intend to grow larger-sized individuals. However, the largest of their kind belong to the top of the food chain and will likely compete with other apex predators.
Bass are some of the most highly sought-after sport fish in the US. The northern largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides salmoides), in particular, is perhaps one of the most valuable game fish in Texas. It has been repeatedly stocked in local ponds for decades. This species should be grown in ponds that are larger than 1 acre as they will require a forage base to survive and grow to trophy sizes. A moderate depth, ample vegetation, and relatively clear water are also necessary for optimal growth.
If you would like to stock sport fish that are unable to reproduce in ponds, consider investing in hatchery-grown hybrid striped bass. These are generally smaller than largemouth bass, but they can definitely pack a punch as fighters on the line. These can actually be stocked on their own and exclusively fed with supplementary feeds, though they may also fare well in ponds with forage fish.
Apart from being fine sport fish in their own right, sunfish are great forage fish in Texan ponds. These aggressive spawners can quickly replenish their depleted populations whenever vegetation and choice sources of protein are available. They are able to feed on a wide variety of natural food sources, including tadpoles, insect larvae, and snails.
If sunfish are an angler favorite in your area or if you intend to cultivate a quality bass fishery, you may stock a combination of bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) and redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus). The coppernose bluegill, a subspecies of L. macrochirus, is highly recommended as it does exceptionally well in warm conditions.
On their own, bluegills are generally able to meet the dietary needs of bass. Largemouth bass are able to control bluegill populations, but excessive vegetation and overharvesting of bass can result in overpopulated ponds.
4) Fathead minnow
The fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas) cannot exclusively form an adequate forage base for bass, but its populations can definitely serve as supplementary sources of high-quality proteins for catfish. In bass ponds, this species is usually introduced a few months before bluegill and bass are stocked as they can aid in the establishment and growth of fingerlings and juveniles.
5) Threadfin shad
If your pond is located in southern Texas, consider stocking it with threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense). This species is an excellent candidate for medium- to large-sized bass ponds with generous vegetation to provide it with enough cover to reproduce. In smaller ponds, larger fish will rapidly consume the entire shad population, so it is not the best forage fish. Like fathead minnows, however, it can be introduced as a supplement to the forage base or as live food for young sunfish, catfish, and bass.
6) Grass carp
If your pond is overgrown with vegetation, you may stock it with a few choice herbivores to prevent its waters from becoming overgrown with weeds. Grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) are a fine choice, but their wild populations do have the tendency to become invasive. In Texas, stocking this species is only legal if individuals are sourced from reputable hatcheries producing sterile strains. Stocking any other type of non-sterile carp may be illegal.
Species to Avoid
To conserve the quality of Texas’ natural waterways and to prevent your pond from being overpopulated with undesirable fish, avoid stocking species that are reputed to be problematic and invasive. Some of these can be managed in ponds that are at least 20 acres, though they are still not recommended as they may enter and disrupt the ecological balance in public water bodies. As much as possible, do not stock the fish listed below, especially without prior consultation with an expert:
- Gizzard shad
- Golden shiner
- Flathead catfish
- Hybrid sunfish
- Green sunfish
Stocking Suggestions for Small Ponds
In some ways, ponds that are less than an acre may be more challenging to stock and manage as every single addition would heavily impact all other life. Small ponds are also less compatible with aggressive and highly carnivorous fish, which can rapidly feed through a forage base. In Texas, the most ideal type of fish to stock in small ponds is catfish. This is due to their tolerance for minimal space per individual, capacity to withstand low oxygen levels, and their high value as food and game fish.
Before introducing new fish to small ponds, existing fish should ideally be removed as they may disrupt the development of stocked fingerlings or compete with them for food. Small ponds are more compatible with feed-trained fish. In waterbodies that are less than 1 acre, it is unlikely that there will consistently be enough natural food sources to meet the needs of a growing population.
To prevent small ponds from quickly becoming overcrowded, they will need to be intermittently harvested or stocked with sterile fish. They should also be mostly devoid of spawning structures, such as sunken logs and vertical vegetation. Successful spawning in small ponds can lead to the production of stunted individuals due to a reduction of space, food, and oxygen per fish.
Stocking Suggestions for Large Ponds
Texan ponds with a surface area greater than 1 acre are frequently stocked with a combination of largemouth bass, forage fish, and catfish. The prey fish are best stocked a few months prior to introducing bass into the pond. This ensures that their populations are steady and that there are sexually mature individuals by the time their predators begin to deplete their numbers.
For polyculture ponds to succeed and to prevent the need for restocking, they should always have well-balanced numbers of predatory species and prey. Additional channel catfish rarely compromise the stability of either largemouth bass or bluegill populations in large ponds, and vice versa, as long as periodic harvests take place. Recommended stocking plans for forage fish may differ according to rainfall zones in Texas.
In large ponds, forage fish and catfish fingerlings will need to be stocked at least 1 – 2 seasons prior to stocking bass fingerlings. Bluegills and minnows can form the entire forage base, though minnows will likely be fully depleted soon after the bass are introduced. Nonetheless, their early establishment in the pond ensures that populations of all existing fish have higher chances of survival within the first year of growth. Mature forage fish and large bass are occasionally stocked into ponds, but this practice is not recommended as it does not ensure that the forage base can self-replenish.
Importance of Sourcing Fish From a Reputable Hatchery
Reputable commercial hatcheries are not rare in Texas, where their annually produced fingerlings are usually in high demand. It’s crucial to obtain your fish from licensed hatcheries with a good reputation, even if it means spending a few more cents per fish. Fingerlings from questionable sources may carry transmissible diseases. Moreover, in the case of supposedly hybrid specimens, they may not be legitimately sterile.
Sample Stocking Plan for Texan Farm Ponds
The upper limits of your stocking plan will depend on the dimensions of your pond and on whether it has been fertilized or not. Fertilized ponds have a significantly higher stocking capacity as they support the growth of beneficial phytoplankton, which serve as the base of every pond’s food chain. Periodic harvests should also allow for higher stocking densities and should help remaining populations reach increasingly larger average sizes.
Small ponds can naturally accommodate anywhere from 150 – 300 individuals of catfish (either channel or blue catfish) and around 3 pounds of minnows per acre. If these are to be regularly fed and harvested, this number can go up to 1000 catfish per acre. Note that ponds that are supplemented with feeds need not be fertilized beforehand as the feeds provide enough excess nutrients for phytoplankton growth.
Large ponds with a forage base (thus presumably unfed with supplementary feeds) can usually accommodate 50 – 100 largemouth bass fingerlings per acre. The forage base may be composed of 500 – 1,000 bluegills and 5 – 10 pounds of minnows, which will need to be stocked a few months prior to introducing bass. In addition, up to 100 catfish per acre can be stocked if they are also of interest as harvest fish.
Restocking Bass or Forage Fish
In instances where a forage base is unable to support a thriving population of predatory fish, it may be necessary to replenish their stock. Conducting fish assessment evaluations should aid in determining whether or not supplemental stocking is required. If the forage fish themselves are observed to be more numerous than usual and show signs of stunted growth, it may be necessary to restock bass populations instead.
Increasing the stocked density of the apex predator is seldom recommended, however, as the culprit to imbalances may be poor water quality or excessive vegetation. Adding more bass to an already well-stocked pond may be disadvantageous, as competition among the bass themselves is heightened.
It may be necessary to conduct partial harvests of a specific species. More bass should only be stocked if there are no young bass found in the pond sample and there is an abundance of intermediate-sized bluegills. Conversely, bass may need to be removed if they have become overcrowded and there are very few intermediate-sized forage fish. If neither forage fish nor bass seem to be present in adequate numbers (likely due to the presence of unwanted competitors), it may be necessary to chemically treat or fully harvest the pond and conduct a full restock.
Managing the Stocked Pond
Fish populations in fully stocked ponds need to be monitored and assessed frequently. Attempted harvests and shoreline seining to obtain samples are some of the recommended means of visualizing pond contents. If your pond is used by anglers, aim to build a record of catch data as well. Data on the population structure within the pond is crucial for making decisions related to restocking and harvesting fish. It’s always best to create a clear idea of your pond’s species composition before taking corrective management steps.
Although many recommendations and theories on stocking multi-species ponds in Texas exist, keep in mind that every pond is different. Stocking outdoor ponds may seem like it has been broken down to a science, but trial-and-error, along with good judgment, is vital to success.