Growing Big Bass – Adam Bean
If you were to ask many sport fishermen to name their top five favorite fish, many would have the largemouth bass somewhere on the list. The largemouth bass is undoubtedly the most popular sport fish in the U.S. For many, the holy grail of bass fishing is the dream of landing a double-digit bass. If you’re lucky enough to own a pond or lake, one of your goals is probably to grow giant bass. But how do you grow giant bass in your pond or lake? It all boils down to how much energy a fish can put into growing as big as it can. While many factors contribute to how large a fish may grow, we will focus on three main factors; environment, genetics, and food.
The environment you provide your fish plays a significant role in how your fish behave and thus grow. Unfortunately, most of us can’t control what part of the country our pond is in. If you live in the northern 3rd or the U.S., you will have a hard time growing a double-digit bass, but you can still grow large fish relative to your region. If you’ve purchased an existing pond, you also can’t control the size or design of your pond. You can enhance your existing lake by adding structure and planting the proper aquatic vegetation to provide your fish with places to hide, ambush prey, and spawn. However, if you are building a pond, then this is where your choices start to influence your ability to grow large fish. You want to design your pond with plenty of depth, contour, and structure. Fish only grow if their energy input is higher than their energy needs to function daily. If they have to move long distances to find the right conditions or hunt for food, they won’t be able to put that energy into growth. Many people may think a larger pond is better, but in reality, a smaller surface acreage pond with good depth transition is more beneficial than a larger surface area that’s relatively uniform in depth or shallow at one end and deep at the other. To grow that bass of a lifetime, you want it to move around as little as possible. If it can eat and move from shallow to deep water all within a small area, that fish will probably never leave and can conserve energy that can be put towards growth.
The second factor to consider is genetics. I’m sure many have heard the phrase wealth creates wealth. Well, large bass create other large bass. The largemouth bass has two distinct strains: the northern and Florida strains. The northern strain is more aggressive and faster growing but smaller. The Florida strain is much less aggressive and sensitive to swings in weather but notoriously grows to gigantic proportions. How you choose to stock your pond comes down to your goals and where you are located. The Florida strain largemouth should only be stocked in the Southern half of the Southern states. Florida strain bass can be susceptible to cold water and can even winter kill just from the cold. If you are in the country’s northern half, your only option is true Northern strain largemouth. While they don’t grow quite as large as their Florida cousin, it is still possible to grow a double-digit Northern strain bass. Some sportfish growers in the South have started producing a cross between the strains, commonly referred to as F1 hybrids or just F1’s. These blend the best traits of both strains, as they have the aggressiveness and weather tolerance of the Northern strain and the growth potential of the Florida strain. These fish could be a good option if you are located in the lower 3rd to half of the country. While the F1 has some traits of the Northern strain, most biologists do not recommend it for the Northern part of the country, as it is still susceptible to winter kill. No matter which strain you decide to use for your pond, giant bass are possible. But it may be time to rethink your genetics if you have an established pond that won’t produce fish above 2-3 pounds and are in good body condition.
The food chain is the last factor to consider, but perhaps the most important. As we talked about with the environmental factors, each fish has an energy budget that must be met to survive. A certain amount of energy must be taken in to perform metabolic functions, swim, and breathe, among other things. After that, a fish will use any extra energy for reproduction. You may think this is only for part of the year, but reproduction is a perpetual process. In the winter, fish develop eggs and milt. In the spring, they migrate to spawning areas and complete the spawning process. After this exhausting period, males will guard the nest and hatched fry, and females will migrate out of those areas to heal. They spend the summer recuperating from the spawning process and then putting on weight in the fall to prepare for the harsh winter ahead and start the process all over. Only if they have enough energy to complete all of these processes can they put any extra energy into growth. This is why the forage base is so important. The less energy a bass spends on movement, feeding, and reproduction, the more energy it will have to put toward growth. And where does a fish get this energy? From its food source.
While it is possible to have a naturally balanced predator-prey relationship within a lake and still get good results, supplemental feeding will take your pond from good to great. If your goal is to grow gargantuan bass, supplemental feeding is the ticket. While feeding the bass themselves is good (and entertaining), feeding the natural forage base might be even more critical. After reaching more than a few pounds, a bass needs large food offerings to continue to grow to a truly colossal size. While a 3-pound bass can eat a bunch of small bluegill or minnows and meet its energy requirements, it costs much more energy than just eating a single large bluegill. This is why the small lakes in Southern California, for example, grow notoriously large bass. The state stocks 1-pound trout in those lakes for recreational anglers to catch. But the bass love that they can eat 1 pound of food in a single bite. And the legendary size of those fish shows what large forage fish can do to grow a largemouth bass. While it is important to have smaller forage options for younger fish, big forage options can take a bass from big to that fabled double-digit mark. Feeding a good quality complete feed or a mix of feeds, such as the offerings from Optimal, can be just what your pond needs to grow legendary bass. As little as 1 pound per surface acre per day can make a big difference, but feeding rates will need to be monitored and adjusted for results in each pond, as no two ponds are alike. No matter the combination of factors or how you manage your pond, supplemental feeding is an excellent option for those who want to grow giant largemouth bass in their ponds.
With everything discussed above, there is one more factor that everyone needs to keep in mind, no matter their goals…patience. The science of pond management is inexact and lengthy. You need time to see your goals come to fruition and for your fish to reach their true potential. A largemouth bass in a natural lake that is 5-pound is probably 4-7 years old, and a 10-pound bass is most likely 10+ years old. Good management strategies and supplemental feeding might shave a little time off of these numbers, but you can’t go from an ok pond to an excellent pond in a year.