What did I get myself into?!? I had just finished surveying my new lake with a consultant and the bad news was in. There was a HUGE amount of work to do to get it back into shape. My new playground was vastly overcrowded with bass, had been stocked years before with WAY too many grass carp, was totally devoid of baitfish, had very little natural or artificial structure and needed every possible catfish and striper (yellow bass) removed. It was 2005 and I was only at the lake a few days to a week each month. How was I going to get all this done!
Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who wanted to improve the fishing on the lake. At the time, there were close to 40 locals who were members of the Fyrne Lake Fishing Club, a club I inherited from the previous owner when I purchase the property. (It was formally called the Viar Lake Fishing Club.) Under the guidance of my lake consultant, I requested that each member keep every striper, catfish and grass carp they caught as well as every largemouth bass under 12”. To make it easier on the fishermen, we installed a holding pen/net at the landing for any fish not wanted.
It worked! The fisherman started removing hundreds of small bass, stripers and the occasional catfish or grass carp. The members left in the net what they didn’t want to take home themselves while others removed what was there to add to their catch. While in Tennessee I even harvested from the net to provide meals for myself and my family. However, even with hundreds of fish being removed, the process wasn’t going as quickly as I wanted. There needed to be a faster way.
There actually was a faster way! The lake consultant said the fastest and easiest way to fix the lake was to DESTROY IT! By destroy it, he meant to treat the lake with chemicals to kill ALL the fish. I wasn’t willing to do that! For one, it would take several years before the fishing would come close to what it was, even considering its current off balance condition. I also had the club members to consider. Suspension of the fishing club would be necessary for at least 3 years, maybe more. The reality of the situation was that I had just been blessed with the privilege of caring for this place, a dream of a lifetime! And I didn’t have a peace about intentionally killing hundreds of thousands of fish not to mention the countless number of other aquatic creatures in the lake, just to improve the fishing. At that very moment, I made a commitment to myself to work with what God had blessed me with and build upon the quality of the current fishery.
So, I wasn’t going to kill all the life in the lake and start over. But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t aggressively explore other ways to achieve my goal! I had an idea! The lake consultant had used an electro-shock boat to survey the lake. That’s a boat that uses a combination of a generator, transformer box and electrodes to create an electrical field to temporarily stun fish without harm. During the survey we had shocked up over a 100 small bass, a catfish and a grass carp. What if I bought one to help remove unwanted fish from the lake! I could remove thousands! Not to mention the fact that shocking fish was just plain COOL! It’s the only guaranteed way to catch fish EVERYTIME! But, how was I going to obtain one? Was it even legal for a civilian to own one? Was it fair to the fish? Well, using it for pleasure fishing really isn’t fair. Shocking takes all the sport out of the hunt. But was it legal? I needed to do quite a bit of research before I purchased an electro-shock boat. I placed it on my wish list.
Removing unwanted fish was only part of my three prong plan to improve the fishing in Fyrne Lake. The other two prongs involved pumping up the food chain and adding substantial quantities of fish structure. The food chain in Fyrne Lake had been decimated by the overpopulation of largemouth bass. They had eaten and were continuing to eat EVERY living thing they could fit in their oversized mouths. Standing on the shoreline of the lake you could see small bass lined up waiting for something to move. I would throw small stones in the lake and rather than swimming away, the bass raced toward the splash in the hopes they would be the first to eat whatever had fallen into the lake. No wonder fishermen complained about not being able to get their bait past the bass to catch the bream and crappie!
Eventually we would remove enough of the small bass to make a difference (especially if I ended up getting a shock boat). But, that wouldn’t repair the damage the overpopulation of bass had brought upon the lake. The food chain had been broken. There wasn’t a single baitfish to be seen. But what species should I stock? Through my research, I discovered 4 bait species worth considering for Fyrne Lake’s needs: fathead minnows, golden shiners, threadfin shad and tilapia ... yes, tilapia!
Tilapia is the same fish you’ve probably seen on restaurant menus and maybe even enjoyed. It’s a great tasting mild fish. What you probably didn’t realize is that its offspring make great baitfish! And, do they ever produce offspring! During the warmer months tilapia spawn every month producing thousands and thousands of baitfish. They’re also plant eaters, like grass carp. Tilapia don’t compete with your game fish for food. They actually provide your bass and crappie with a tasty snack and nourishing meal - tilapia young! Since tilapia are such prolific breeders, there is a danger of them overpopulating a pond or lake in warmer climates. However, being a tropical fish originally farmed for food in ancient Egypt, they are vulnerable to cold water temperatures and become sluggish as the water approaches 55F and eventually die by the time the water reaches 45F. As their metabolism slows down these fish become easy prey for game fish and fishermen (with dip nets). And, if you’re having a problem with weeds (we weren’t) an adequate initial spring stocking of tilapia will keep a lake or pond clear all summer. For me, I was more interested in the tilapia’s offspring filling the bellies of our starving game fish. I placed my order right away!
Fathead minnows could also fill an important place in the ecosystem of Fyrne Lake. Otherwise known as tuffies (olive grey) or rosy reds (golden/red strain), these baitfish are very slender and average between 2 and 3 inches in length making them an ideal crappie bait and they are actually sold throughout the US for that exact purpose. In a new pond or lake (or one recently “cleansed”), you’ll want to stock baitfish a season or two BEFORE stocking your game fish to allow the baitfish to become established. Otherwise, all your breeder baitfish could be consumed before they have a chance to spawn. That’s especially true for fatheads. They’re slow moving and an easy target for a hungry bass or crappie. Since I wasn’t starting the lake’s fish population over from scratch, I had to find a way to give the fatheads a fighting chance to spawn, and I found it. Fatheads need dense structure to hide in… massive amounts to have a chance for enough to survive the numerous lurking mouths. I wanted these baitfish established, so I placed my order and immediately started placing all the brush we could round up along the edge of the cove next to our release point to provide immediate cover and spawning structure.
Fatheads are fine for crappie and juvenile bass. However, to reach lunker size, bass require a greater ratio of protein vs expended acquisition energy than these fathead minnows could provide. The established bream in the lake were doing their best to provide that protein, they just couldn’t keep up with the demand. They needed help. The tilapia would serve as a stop gap measure, providing baitfish during the warm months, but they’d all die out by winter. I wanted to permanently establish a baitfish that in conjunction with a revitalized bream population, could provide what our bass needed to become monsters. Golden shiners filled the bill. Adult golden shiners average between 3” and 5” with a much beefier build than fatheads providing the desired protein ratio. I added them to my order!
My plan was coming together! The fatheads were the first to arrive and as hoped, many made their way to the structure we placed in a nearby cove and soon began to spawn. When the golden shiners arrived, rather than just release all of them at the landing, I wanted to transport a portion of my purchase by boat a mile away to the very top of the lake. I believed that by spreading them out, I would double my chances of getting these fish established in Fyrne Lake the first try. The challenge was to transport a sufficient quantity from the landing on the boat without overstressing (killing) the shiners. Jenny Fagin, from Greenwater Fish Farm, came up with the answer.
I had found Jenny online while looking for a baitfish source. Located in Milan, Tennessee, Greenwater Fish Farm supplies a variety of baitfish and game fish as well as grass carp and tilapia. Jenny and her husband Dan founded Greenwater in 1997. Both with degrees in aquaculture from Auburn, they have grown a successful business serving several adjoining states providing sport fish for privately owned ponds and lakes. With her dad, Ed Davis, they supply baitfish across the mid-south, food size tilapia to local grocery stores and fingerlings across the nation. When I discussed my plan of moving a large quantity of the golden shiners to the far end of the lake, she immediately shared the solution. Jenny explained how she transports fish by truck for long distances by feeding pure oxygen into water through stones (like a fish tank pump) or pipes with numerous small holes. This process provides ample oxygen to densely pack a container with fish, especially the relatively short distance we were going to travel by boat up the lake. We now had a plan!
On the day Jenny brought the shiners, she released most of the fish from the landing while the rest we gently placed in a 55 gallon drum in our boat. Oxygen pumping full blast, we quickly started our trek to the top of the lake. It seemed like it took forever! The extra weight of the water in the drum (400+ lbs.) made the boat ride low in the water and slowed our progress. I kept checking on the fish, making sure they weren’t gasping for oxygen at the surface. So far, so good! We finally made it to the top and started the release. Almost every fish made the journey! Only a couple floated limp in the water. It was normal to lose a small percentage on a transport and considering that we had just moved several hundred, losing a fraction of 1% was a success. Now all that was left was to stock the tilapia I had ordered. Jenny checked the water temperature and confirmed that we needed to wait another month until the lake would be warm enough.
May came and so did the tilapia! I was amazed to see the variety of colors ranging from dark brown, orange, pure white and every mixture in between. The ones Jenny delivered that day were about the size and shape of a mature bream with a slightly longer & thicker body. These tough looking little fish quickly spread throughout the lake and did what they do best, spawn! In fact, I was amazed to see a cloud of fish fry along the shoreline that very same day! How could that be? I Googled tilapia and discovered that some varieties are mouth brooders. After the laid eggs are fertilized by the male tilapia, the female fish will scoop them up in her mouth, incubating them until the hatchlings are ready to swim out on their own. At least one of my stocked fish had a mouthful of fry!
Boy, this effort at bringing Fyrne Lake’s fishery back was becoming quite an adventure and learning experience. My efforts so far of removing unwanted fish, flooding the lake with hundreds of thousands of tilapia fry through stocking breeder tilapia, and establishing baitfish back into the food chain was beginning to turn the lake around. However, there was still much more to do! The lowest rung of the food chain, plankton, needed to be pumped up to maximize Fyrne Lake’s potential. That would involve fertilizing the lake… a potentially dangerous proposition! Done incorrectly, a fish kill can result. There was also one more baitfish I wanted to investigate, threadfin shad. I’ll cover both of these subjects in my next article.