Homegrown Catfish Ponds
January 30, 2017
Channel catfish are among the most popular fish across the country. They fight hard, grow big, and are as tasty as they come. Further adding to their popularity, channel cats can tolerate a range of water quality and are adaptable to most any setting including small catfish ponds. All these factors make channel catfish a natural choice among pond owners and lake managers.
For most pond owners, channel cats serve a three-fold purpose. Primarily, they're a food source. Not for other fish but for pond owners on a put-and-take basis. Channel catfish are ideal for this purpose because they are readily available and cheap to buy from fish farms and hatcheries across the country. They also can be quickly grown to eating size with basic management practices.
Besides their food value, the sporting nature of catfish is another reason for adding them to a pond. Cats reign supreme in pulling power and stamina. It's the fish that generates more smiles and fish stories among young and old anglers alike. And for good reason — double-digit channel cats are common in well-managed ponds and some giants exist in ponds across the country, including the Washington state record of 36.2 pounds. The prospect of growing and catching trophy-size catfish from ponds as small as a half-acre should get anyone's attention.
Catfish also can be stocked to help keep a multispecies pond in balance. Catfish are nature's cleaners and help by scavenging dead fish that appear on a daily basis in ponds. They also help to control recruitment of panfish that can become overpopulated and stunted if not kept in check by predators.
Recipes for Success
Multispecies ponds are often stocked with a mix of largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish. The typical stocking rates are 50 bass, 500 bluegills, and 50 catfish per surface acre. In ponds with good water quality and a rigorous feeding program these numbers can be doubled. These stocking rates assume a "fresh" pond setting that is devoid of any other fish apart from baitfish that help sustain the initial fish stocking. Also, with a feeding program, the growth rate of fish is accelerated.
Nate Herman operates Herman Brothers Pond Management in central Illinois. Working with his brother, Justin, they offer comprehensive fishery management services to pond owners across the country. Having known Nate for years, I've come to understand his philosophies of pond management and that he's most excited about his job when pushing the envelope of what's possible in ponds. He says there are three limiting factors to achieving any goal in pond management — water quality, feed, and money — and with enough money you can typically overcome the first two.
To have a healthy pond that grows channel catfish to large sizes quickly, Herman says a disciplined feeding program must be implemented. "Since catfish are relatively cheap to buy from hatcheries, we recommend that our clients start with 8- to 12-inch stocker-size fish that retail for about $1 each," he says. "This larger size promotes survival. Smaller fingerlings are susceptible to predation by bass, and panfish can whip through catfish fry quickly. With a feeding program, 12-inch channels have the opportunity to grow two pounds per year and be eater size within the first year. Without a feeding program, growth rate is less than half that. Since channels have an average life expectancy of 12 to 14 years and can live over 20, you can see the potential for growing big fish."
Since money is almost always a factor, a feeding program should maximize results for minimal costs. For starters, Herman suggests a high-protein fish food that is utilized by all fish in the pond and helps them grow quickly. "We use Purina Mills Game Fish Chow because channel catfish are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. It's a floating, 32-percent protein feed that also benefits bluegills much more than traditional grain-based catfish feed. Catfish convert this food at an amazing 2.2:1 weight-gain ratio — meaning that 2.2 pounds of consumed Game Fish Chow translates into 1 pound of fish weight-gain. Game Fish Chow also delivers a better catfish flavor and includes vitamins and a balanced nutrition that provides resistance against disease for all fish in the pond. Since catfish also eat plants, insects, crustaceans, and fish, they're relatively inexpensive to grow."
Establish a daily feeding program with a directional feeder like the Texas Hunter LM135 that can be programmed to disperse food at multiple times a day for pre-set lengths of time. Position feeders on platforms on the upwind side of the pond to allow fish more time to eat before the floating feed drifts to shore.
Catfish learn quickly and within a few weeks become feed-trained. A school of catfish with their mouths open as they swim on the surface vacuuming up floating food might seem unnatural, but they quickly adapt to this feeding technique. In fact, a larger percentage of floating food gets eaten by fish than sinking pellets that quickly fall through the water column and settle in weeds and sediment.
Since intense feeding can be costly, overfeeding should be avoided. To determine if the appropriate amount of feed is being used, track how much the fish eat in 20 minutes and subtract the amount that remains from the next feeding. If no food remains on the surface after 20 minutes, increase the amount until the right quantity is reached. Unconsumed food also can reduce water quality by depleting dissolved oxygen as it decomposes.
Water temperature and time of day also factor into how much food should be used. Herman explains, "The optimum time for feeding fish is in the afternoon and evening when dissolved oxygen levels are highest and water temperatures have warmed. Catfish feed and put on weight best when water temperatures are above 70°F. Below 55°F, digestion and metabolism decrease significantly. I advise my clients to discontinue feeding below 55°F."
While catfish can survive in marginal conditions, good water quality helps maximize biomass of big fish. "If sufficient wind doesn't reach the pond, you may need an aeration system to circulate the water. It's recommended to 'turn over' the bottom and top water in a pond at least once every 24 hours. Water that doesn't circulate can become stagnant and lead to low dissolved oxygen, stress fish, decrease growth rates, increase disease potential, and cause die-offs."
He says one of the biggest mistakes in managing catfish in ponds is failing to harvest and restock catfish as needed. "Ideally, to keep catch rates high, stock channel catfish every year. A minimum of 30 percent of catfish should be harvested each year and 35 percent restocked each year, or double that every two years. If a stocking regimen of 100 catfish per acre is adhered to, the math is simple and it's a matter of harvesting fish and keeping good records.
"This stocking-harvest scenario creates multiple ages of catfish, and avoids a situation of too many big catfish. Since old catfish that have been caught several times can be the trickiest fish to catch, having multiple ages present with 'young and dumb' catfish is the key to high catch rates."
Herman prefers a closed pond system that lacks natural reproduction of channel cats. With a closed system, you can accurately chart how many fish are stocked and harvested. Maintaining healthy populations of panfish and bass can keep catfish recruitment low if they reproduce naturally. For pond owners seeking to encourage catfish reproduction, panfish stocking should be avoided. You also might substitute hybrid bluegills or another panfish species like redears that don't reproduce as successfully as bluegills in ponds. In addition, catfish spawning habitat such as barrels, pipes, and rockpiles with crevices could be added.
Herman says that if your interests include noodling (hand grabbling), submerge 10- to 12-inch diameter pipes or 30-gallon barrels in 3 to 6 feet water. Noodlers reach into these structures hoping a big cat clamps down on their hands. With a firm grasp on the fish's mouth, the cat is pulled from its lair.
Beyond Channel CATS
Since he is always looking to expand options for his customers, Herman has begun substituting blue catfish for channel cats in ponds where appropriate. The allure is that blues grow larger and do equally well in a wide range of temperatures. He's started to experiment with mixing blue cats, crappies, and bass. The goal is to produce quality crappies that are kept in check by the blue cats and bass.
"Since blues are piscivorous — mainly eating fish and clams — we use Purina Mills Aquamax 600 feed in blue cat ponds," he says. "Aquamax is a fishmeal-based 40-percent protein feed. Fish can become conditioned to eating most anything from dog food to bread to leftovers, but growth rates go through the roof when the correct feed is used. With a good forage base and Aquamax feed, we can grow blues at a rate of 4 to 7 pounds per year. Blues in the 30- to 40-pound range aren't out of the question, they're expected. The largest obstacle to blue cats in ponds is the lack of supply. There are few hatcheries producing blues for pond stocking, but supply will eventually catch up with demand."
While some pond owners are "bucket biologists," transporting wild fish from lakes and rivers to private ponds, many states have laws against this practice, often to help control the spread of exotic species and VHS, a deadly infectious disease caused by the hemorrhagic septicemia virus. Flatheads might be a tempting option in ponds, but transplanting them may be illegal. Some states like Kentucky still permit commercial fishermen to sell live fish that are caught in public waters to private fishing clubs.
Herman says that flatheads are more difficult to manage in ponds than channels and blues. "Large adult flatheads that have spent their lives in rivers can have a difficult time feeding in a small closed system without current. They also don't take well to a pelleted feed program and it becomes difficult to manage them. I've avoided managing ponds with flatheads. This may change slightly since my acquisition of the Giant Goose Ranch near Canton, Illinois, with 52 lakes and ponds to experiment on. But I advise my customers to stick with channels and blues."
With sound management advice and a disciplined approach to harvesting, restocking, and feeding fish, catfish are a fun and productive addition to any pond. They can be raised to trophy size with other fish species in a balanced pond setting or as the primary species for a steady supply of catfish dinners. Channels are the popular pond cat, but don't be surprised to see blues showing up more in ponds across the country. Thirty-pounders could be just outside your back door in the near future.