I recently was asked how to improve the fisheries in the community where I live. Following is what I said. No matter where you live, you probably will be interested in what I have to say about the benefits of stocking and the problems caused by grass carp. Read on.
In Terre Du Lac, we’ve been fortunate regarding the health of our 15 lakes. They are decades old, but still maintain good clarity and water quality.
Sadly, the fisheries in those lakes have not fared so well. And in attempting to improve them every third year by stocking bass and bluegill, we are only making them worse.
I realize that some will not believe that. I’ve been dealing with the controversy regarding stocking for more than 25 years and am all too familiar with those who insist putting more fish into a lake will make the fishing better.
But that’s not true, unless a catastrophic fish kill has occurred and stocking is needed to restore the population.
Our lakes were built in the thin, rocky soil of the eastern Ozarks. That makes them infertile. That’s why they continue to have such good clarity and quality. And it’s also why stocking more bass and bluegill will not make the fishing better.
Whether fertile or infertile, a lake can support only so much fish “biomass,” just as a farm field can grow only so much corn. Not surprisingly, an infertile lake can’t support as much biomass as a fertile one. Plus, fish don’t grow as fast in infertile lakes.
Spend any time on our lakes and you easily can see that they have well established populations of bass and bluegill that reproduce naturally. In fact, the bluegill spawn two or three times a year.
If you fish for bass, what else do you notice? Most of them are small.
In short, our lakes have too many mouths eating too little food, and, when you stock more on top of the existing populations, you just make the situation worse. You add more competition for an already limited food supply.
Sure, putting in more bass and bluegill might temporarily add a few more fish for you to catch. But the tradeoff is that you are making it even more difficult for fish in that lake, especially bass, to grow.
What needs to be done to improve our fisheries is remove some of those small fish, not add more. I’m talking specifically about keeping bass of 12 inches and less. This will eliminate competition for a limited food supply and make it easier for remaining bass to grow larger, and, when they are bigger, they can more easily feed upon the abundant bluegill population.
By contrast, bass of 15 inches and larger should be released. These are superior fish that, if given the chance, will grow faster now that they have distanced themselves from most of the population.
Over the years, too many of these quality bass have been taken from our lakes, which has added to the problem of too many small mouths and not enough food.
Grass carp also have hurt our lakes and continue to do so. On the smaller lakes, they occupy so much of the biomass that other species, particularly bass and catfish, grow even slower than they would otherwise. And in at least one of our large lakes, Shayne, grass carp wiped out all of the beneficial vegetation, pushing big bass into open water and making them easier to catch. Greedy meat fishermen then caught and kept most of them.
By the way, these exotic plant-eaters do NOT “filter the water and improve water quality,” as one lakefront property owner insisted. In fact, they do just the opposite.
Aquatic plants filter the water and improve its clarity, along with providing habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. Take them out and you get the algae blooms that you often see during summer, especially on the smaller lakes. Grass carp feed those blooms with their wastes, as do lawn fertilizers.
If I were managing these lakes, this is what I’d do:
1. Stop stocking bass and bluegill. That will both improve the fisheries and save money for the community.
2. Keep the 12 to 15 inches protected slot limit for most of the lakes, but more actively encourage anglers to keep bass of 12 inches or less and release bass of 15 inches or more.
3. Designate one of the lakes, possibly Shayne, as a trophy lake and make the protected slot there 12 to 18 inches.
4. Stock the larger lakes (50 acres of more) with threadfin shad to provide more food for bass and crappie. Putting them in smaller lakes would just add to the biomass problem now caused by grass carp. But even though they are infertile, the larger fisheries should be able to handle the addition, as hungry game fish eagerly gobble up the new additions.
5. If the threadfin shad do well, then maybe add hybrid-striped bass to the larger lakes to create new sport fisheries. These are open-water predators that grow fast when food is plentiful, and they are sterile, so they won’t reproduce.
Finally, I’d ask property owners and anglers to please not stock grass carp, crappie, or any other species on their own. When they do, the consequences almost always are bad.