Jim Luco is run off his feet in the summer as he manages a fruit and vegetable farm frequented by visitors who come to buy his produce.
So when the day is mostly done and there’s a little time to relax, he goes out to his pond and feeds the trout.
Handfuls of fish pellets bring the rainbows splashing to the surface, their shiny bodies and tails flashing in the last sunshine of the day.
Luco’s face lights up in a smile as he watches the action. He rarely fishes in the pond, but his grandchildren, ages five and three, revel in the activity.
“It’s great for the grandkids to come out, even little kids, and see them catch a fish. It just thrills them to the bone,” said Luco.
His enjoyment matches the stories heard by Peter Thomson, owner of the McNabb Trout Hatchery in Saskatoon.
“Lots of people tell me that one of the biggest joys they have is not the actual fishing, but going out with their kids and grandkids in the evening with a pail of fish pellets and throwing them out there just to watch them hit.”
Thomson, a retired schoolteacher, sells rainbow trout fingerlings, mostly as a hobby.
“I’m still dealing with schools,” he quipped.
Like most hatcheries, he buys trout eggs from the United States and hatches and raises the fish to fingerling size, ready for sale to farmers and acreage owners who want to stock their ponds and dugouts.
“It’s really not a terribly expensive hobby,” said Thomson.
“You can put 100 two-inch fish in your dugout for $70 or $75. If you get lucky and they all survive, you’ve got 75 people fed.”
Some people keep the fish for a season and others attempt to overwinter them and increase size. Trout will not reproduce in ponds because they need specific conditions, including swift flowing water.
New fish can be added each year, if desired, because trout don’t feed on each other.
Luco’s pond is 20 feet deep and holds about half a million gallons. He stocked it with 200 fish, which were about 14 inches in size this summer. He can overwinter his fish because he has pond aeration and depth.
“I’ve left them in there five years, six years. They’ll get three or four pounds, probably. They’re like aquarium fish. They grow to the size of the aquarium. They usually don’t get a whole bunch longer but they get quite a bit deeper and fatter, broader.”
Thomson said the water body should be at least 16 feet deep with aeration to overwinter the fish.
Lorne Louden, who operates Ackenberry Trout Farms in Camrose, Alta., concurs.
“A good pond is deeper than 15 feet and hopefully somewhere in the neighbourhood of 600,000 gallons minimum, and up. The deeper the pond, the more fish” it can accommodate, Louden said.
He sells fingerlings and pond equipment, and finds himself spending many hours on the phone answering questions about ponds and fish. Just because a pond has healthy fish one year doesn’t mean the success will continue.
“What discourages people is lack of education,” he said.
“They just (don’t) realize that the pond has aged and now they need aeration, so people should plan for that if they’re ever building a pond for fish. It’s best to build a pond where power is available.
“People build ponds out in the middle of nowhere, where they can’t even get a windmill to aerate it, and then they get very discouraged that they spend $10,000 building a pond and they didn’t put it where it would be a continuous fish pond for the next 10, 20 years so they could amortize their investment. I’d be frustrated too if I got into that situation.”
Louden said aeration also reduces nutrient load in the water and encourages insect growth so the trout have more food.
If a pond is aerated in winter, the fish can usually sustain themselves without supplemental feeding.
Stocking rates are a common question. Naturally, it depends on the size of the pond. Louden recommended 150 fish for a 100 by 150 foot pond.
Thomson assesses it as 200 to 300 trout per aquatic acre.
Predators can be an issue. Luco said the steep sides on his pond discourage wading birds.
“They’ll come and stand on the dock, but they can’t get in to feed, so they’re not much of a problem and only with the smaller trout.
“The cormorants, on the other hand, will dive and clean you right out, so you’ve just got to watch for them and scare them off when they come around.”
For some farmers, the attraction of birds and other wildlife is part of having a pond.
“It doesn’t take long for things like blue herons to discover that you have fish in your dugout,” Thomson said. “I don’t think any farmer in Saskatchewan is upset with visits from the occasional blue heron.”
However, Louden said if fish protection is the main goal, he’s had success with pond dye, which limits birds’ ability to see the fish.
He has also used electric wire to discourage herons, and thin filament fishing line stretched across a pond to discourage diving birds like ospreys.
“The hawks come down, they don’t see it at first, but after they spin out of control and land in water a few times, they’ll go to a different pond after that.”
As for feeding the fish, a pond or dugout with a freshwater feed might supply enough freshwater shrimp for the fish to eat, supplemented by whatever insects they catch.
Luco buys fish food from Viterra for his nightly fish watching activities. A 20 kilogram bag costs about $20, so he’s not concerned about the cost.
The amount of food available will affect fishing success, Louden said. If the fish have lots of freshwater shrimp to eat, they won’t be eager to rise to a fishing line.
“We’ve even had customers that swore that there was no fish in their pond” because fish were eating shrimp instead.
Trout, the most common fish used to stock ponds and dugouts, are sensitive to heat, as Luco discovered during one hot summer about five years ago, when the pond temperature rose to 28 C.
“Their bodies couldn’t take the change in temperature to come from the bottom up to the top to feed and it would basically cook them, so they just perished.”
Aeration solved the problem.
It can also keep algae in check but sometimes other measures are needed for this common pond problem.
Louden said effective algaecides are available.
Luco uses barley straw, but Louden cautions that pond and dugout owners should know what they are doing before they rely on that remedy.
“I get very discouraged to see these black bales of barley straw in our customers’ ponds and causing subsequent algae blooms. So if used right, it can be beneficial. If used wrong, it’s a negative thing,” said Louden.
“(Luco) is one of the few that caught onto it a long time ago and did it exactly like he was told to do it.”
Moving water and replacing straw twice a year are among the ways to make it effective. Otherwise, it can become a stinky mess that adds to unwanted pond nutrients.
Most people stock their ponds in April or May. Some net or catch them in fall unless they plan to overwinter.
Albertans who want to stock their ponds or dugouts require a licence, which costs $10 per year. A first-time licence costs $40 because it includes an inspection to ensure no fish can escape into public waters.
That is partly to avoid whirling disease, a devastating fish ailment, Louden said.
“It’s a nasty disease in the U.S. and because we’re free of it, they shut down our borders to importation of any live salmonoids.”
No licences or fees are required in Saskatchewan to stock a privately owned water body.
However, they may not be stocked with native fish such as walleye, pike and pickerel, and no stocking is allowed if there is potential discharge into a waterway.
In Manitoba, licences are required if a dugout is used for a hatchery or commercial fishery operations.
In British Columbia, a permit is required to stock fish in a dugout and only trout are allowed. Grass carp are prohibited.