A certain level of comfort and familiarity comes from pond fishing. It's where many of us honed our angling skills before setting out for larger waters. After all, ponds are microcosms of bigger systems. All the elements of the Fish + Location + Presentation = Success formula must be mastered to achieve success. With a smaller area to cover, patterns emerge more quickly and rewards more readily. Looking back on four decades of fishing ponds, I'm reminded of the diversity of pond options available across the country and the tremendous opportunities that currently await panfish anglers. Spending summers in central Wisconsin during my youth, fishing local mill ponds meant precious hours pursuing every possible species of panfish. I learned how subtle currents in these dammed ponds affected various panfish species. Rural irrigation ponds presented another option, where fishing quality depended on water level and temperature. These small "contained" ponds allowed for seasonal patterns to be easily observed and tracked.
At home in Chicago, I'd fish ponds in Forest Preserve lands. These are high-usage fisheries where presentations need to be downsized and refined. Other small, community ponds received less pressure and fished easier. Here, I experimented with both a flyrod and homemade poppers and mini crankbaits for panfish. The shift to ultralight gear and artificial baits translated into greater success on other bodies of water.
With a driver's license came the ability to explore forestry land for remote Northwoods bogs that harbor plate-size crappies and jumbo perch. Countless treasures remain hidden on federal and state land, including reclaimed strip pits that offer the challenge of fishing infertile waters with deeply cut banks. Some of the biggest panfish in the country continue to reside in these locations.
In time, invitations came to fish untapped cattle ponds in Southwest Iowa. These waters produced a seemingly unending supply of 8- to 10.5-inch bluegills. Next were sand pits in Northeast Nebraska, where hundreds of 1.5- to 2.5-pound crappies could be caught with ease during peak periods. These large, deep, featureless ponds were once used to commercially raise Kokanee salmon. Such fisheries make you scratch your head and wonder what else might be out there.
Back in the city, during the residential building boom, retention ponds sprang up with each new subdivision and real gems were discovered. One-pound bluegills weren't out of the question from manicured ponds where fishing wasn't even an afterthought for most residents. Then people discovered the value of having their own ponds and managing them for high-quality fishing.
It's at this time I met Nate Herman of Herman Brothers Pond Management Company in Peoria, Illinois. With a wealth of pond experience under my belt, he showed me for the first time what was truly possible in terms of growing exceptional panfish in an assortment of settings. Calling upon his expertise and straightforward approach to pond management, the mystery of growing giant panfish became much clearer.
When asked what it takes to grow monster bluegills, Herman breaks it down into key elements. "First, bluegills need lots of food from the moment they're hatched to the end of their lives," he says. "Second, good water quality is necessary 12 months a year. Many ponds have great water quality for 6 months a year, okay for 4 months, and not so good during the coldest days of winter and the hottest days of summer. Third, the presence of bull bluegills is necessary to grow trophy bluegills. Finally, it's critical to keep numbers of young bluegills in check to maintain good growth. Predators can be used to thin young bluegills to achieve this."
Expanding on the requirement of ample food, Herman notes that not many lakes have what a fish needs to thrive through every stage of life. "To overcome this, we often raise bluegills for their first year of life in bluegill-only ponds where conditions are optimal for growth potential. Newly hatched bluegills feed on zooplankton and we can fertilize ponds to improve zooplankton production. Then after a month, we start adding Purina AquaMax 400 Fish Food to their diet. After 3 months, we switch to AquaMax 500 Fish Food as a daily feed. So during their first year, bluegills are fed well without risk of being eaten."
Absent these management practices, bluegills typically grow to just 2 to 3 inches during their first year, and most are eaten by predators. In a bluegill-only pond, they can grow to 4 to 6 inches in a year. "After a year in the hatchery pond, we select the best bluegills for stocking into trophy bluegill ponds and use the rest for stocking into bass forage ponds," Herman explains. "Not only are we giving our stocked bluegills a huge jumpstart, but we also are selecting bluegills to grow to trophy size, or to be bait."
He stresses the importance of water quality as a factor for growing trophy panfish. "If a fish is stressed during anytime of its life, it won't live as long or eat as much. When constructing ponds, we create a good mix of deeper water for water storage and sanctuary, along with shallower depths for food production. During summer and winter — seasons with higher chances of oxygen becoming critically low — it's important to have highly oxygenated water available. Properly designed aeration systems can be added to circulate and oxygenate water." Improperly installed systems, however, can have the opposite effect and increase the probability of fish kills by deleting a pond of cool oxygenated water.
Herman touches on another aspect of trophy bluegill management in ponds that may go overlooked. "Ponds can have optimum water quality and lots of food and still never grow big bluegills," he says. "What happens is when a male bluegill becomes sexually mature, his growth potential slows dramatically. If trophies are the goal, then you want your bluegills to be 'late bloomers.' If all the big male bluegills have been taken from their spawning beds, then the younger, smaller males immediately become sexually mature and their growth slows.
"When big alpha males are present, the young bucks don't waste their energy trying to spawn. Instead, they focus on eating until they become bigger and stronger than the resident alpha males. It's important to have the biggest and best males reproducing and keeping the other younger males from becoming mature too soon. The biggest damage you can do to a bluegill fishery is to remove the big spawning males. Over time you can drastically change the dynamics of the entire population. It's recommended that all males over 8 inches be released."
Herman offers suggestions for those looking to design and manage their own trophy panfish pond. One of the first things to determine is basic pond construction. Depending on location, you might excavate a hole and line it with clay, or build an earthen dam to back up a creek and flood lowlands. It's easier to control and manipulate a pond that is dug out of the ground. It takes additional time, however, to create an underwater ecosystem in a freshly dug pond. For this reason, Herman suggests focusing on growing forage for a year or more before stocking predators in dug ponds.
In dammed ponds, fish take off right away. But long-term management can be harder to control, especially if you can't manipulate the watershed that feeds the pond. Whether dug or flooded, every element of construction must be thought out.
"A key to consistently producing big bluegills is to keep the numbers of young bluegills in check," Herman says. "I stock 1,000 bluegills per acre, feed them 100 pounds of high protein AquaMax fish food per acre, per month. I want most of the little bluegills to be eaten in their first year of life so I stock twice the recommended rate of predators. My approach is to stock 100 largemouth bass and 100 hybrid striped bass per acre. This double-dose of predators provides predatory control as long as long as young bluegills don't have many places to hide. That's why, when I build ponds, I keep shorelines free of debris, and place only a handful of brushpiles in deeper water for angling.
"This management plan only grows 1- to 2-pound largemouths, which isn't desirable for trophy bass anglers. But it grows 4- to 6-pound hybrid stripers. We remove from the lake any largemouths that grow over 15 inches long. The goal is to keep predators small, plentiful, and hungry at all times. We want them eating 1- to 4-inch bluegills, not larger bluegills that we're trying to grow into trophies. For this reason hybrid stripers are perfect. Even when they get larger, their mouths stay small, so they don't eat bigger bluegills, just lots of small ones," he says.
This scenario of abundant small predators can play out in unmanaged ponds that produce trophy bluegills as well. Such systems appear relatively infertile and featureless, with an abundance of small bass and a low density of above-average-size bluegills. These bluegills are allowed to reach maximum size by not sharing the limited food supply with numbers of small panfish.
As part of Herman's business, he conducts countless lake assessments — electroshocking, taking samples, data analysis, and conducting angler interviews to determine the status of fisheries. He says it's more typical for him to shock unmanaged private lakes with big panfish as opposed to big bass. "Bass in unmanaged private waters almost always out-eat their food chain and create conditions more favorable for growing big panfish," he notes. "Typically, body condition of the predators in a trophy panfish pond are below average." Often, recruitment of bass in ponds is high, which results in an overpopulation of small, slow-growing bass.
"Growing extra-large panfish reflects a fish population that's actually out of 'balance,'" he says. "A balanced fish population is a pyramid with more small fish at the base and fewer bigger fish at the top. Most people like to manage their pond as an upside down pyramid — more bigger fish and fewer smaller fish." Similarly, for growing trophy bluegills, predator-prey communities are out of balance. In a balanced bluegill-largemouth bass community, there are more smaller fish and fewer bigger fish of each species, with intermediate size distributions. In trophy bluegill ponds, the situation is unbalanced, with relatively fewer but larger bluegills and overly abundant, small bass.
Crappies & More
"I manage lots of crappie ponds, and I keep pure bluegills out of them. Instead, I use hybrid bluegills with crappies. Hybrids are 85 to 90 percent male, so there are fewer opportunities for them to breed and overpopulate. In this case, predators are needed to eat baby crappies as opposed to baby bluegills. Otherwise, crappies can get out of hand in a hurry, as they're prolific breeders."
For Midwest crappie-only ponds, Herman stocks 10 pounds each of fathead minnows and golden shiners per acre in the spring. He allows them to breed all summer before stocking 750 black crappie fingerlings per acre in the fall. The crappies eat the fatheads through the following fall, when he stocks 100 largemouth bass, 100 hybrid stripers, and 20 walleyes per acre. "The reason I wait that long for predator stocking is to let the crappies 'rule the roost' and gobble up the forage. I don't want the other predators eating anything but baby crappies. This recipe grows big crappies in just 2 years and monster crappies in 3 years."
Ponds can be managed to grow trophy size panfish of any species, including crappies, perch, bluegills, redears, pumpkinseeds, and hybrid sunfish. Certain panfish thrive better in a particular climate. Some are mutually exclusive in smaller systems. Others do better when stocked in conjunction with a specific predator species to control excess panfish offspring. However, the most common limiting factors for panfish enthusiasts seeking trophy fish are time and money.
Where money is not an issue, timing can be accelerated to quickly grow trophy panfish in either an existing or newly constructed pond. With limited resources, the end result may take slightly longer and the pond owner may be called upon to take a more active role in the management process. For those whom building a private pond isn't possible, options include seeking permission to fish private waters, paying to fish a managed lake, or exploring for hidden gems on public land.
No matter how or where you find a trophy panfish pond, it will undoubtedly return you to the wonders of your youth when chasing ever bigger and bigger panfish fueled your passion for fishing.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan often prowls the many panfish ponds near his home in Des Plaines, Illinois.