The Resurrection of Fox Den Lake
An Aquarist Tackles Lake Restoration
roberterice at juno_com
Many folks dream of living on a lake. To be able to fish from your own backyard appeals to many of us. Imagine catching the big one just a few feet away from a cold one. Sounds great, huh? What people fail to realize is that a lake or pond is more than just a bass factory. A lake is an entire ecosystem. The size and health of it's super predators (bass, pike, etc.) depends on the strength and diversity of that ecosystem. It takes more to create large fish than just a watery hole in the ground. It takes a healthy vibrant lake. The kind of lake teeming with fishes of all types, game and non game species. The non game species are the foundation on which a great fishing is made. Without them you have nothing but a few skinny Bass and Bluebell chasing each other around desperately seeking enough food to survive. Hardly the type of fishing that is memorable.
I live in the Panhandle of Florida near Pensacola in a coastal town called Navarre. When we first moved to the area, the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico (less than a mile away) and the lure of fresh seafood seemed to be all I could have asked for. Imagine my surprise when we moved into a home that backed up to a 2 acre drainage freshwater pond masquerading as Fox Den Lake. I was ecstatic. For you see I am an avid fisherman of a different type. I spend much of my free time out in the waters collecting and studying non game fishes of all sizes and types. I have aquarium reared a great many North American Native Species and thought perhaps this lake would hold some unusual species for the home tank. You know catch a few bass while loading up the fish tank with some nice Killies and shiners.
I was dead wrong. After settling in to the House I began to sample my lake , which I share with 10 other homeowners. I was unpleasantly surprised. It held high nitrites due to the run off and scant few fish and plants except for Gambusia affiniss the dreaded mosquito fish and huge floating mats of algae. All in all it was a water hole not a lake. I was disappointed at first and then challenged. The few Bream in there were skinny and of poor health. No Bass were collected by hook, net or dynamite (Just kidding on the dynamite part). The water temperature in the summer soared to the mid 80's. The lack of vegetation and flat surface of the water created a perfect solar panel. The pH was a respectable 6.5. All in all I had a mixed bag to work with and decided to start from the ground up.
First off the lake lacked any significant structure. The barren sand that covered the bottom provided very few places for fishes to hide. That problem was going to have to be addressed and fast. I took a two pronged approach. First I put (threw) a series of fish boxes, logs, and five gallon plastic buckets into some of the deepest holes. The branches and boxes provided cover for the younger fishes and the plastic buckets with several 1 inch holes in the sides and a cement bottom provided necessary nesting sites and cover. If by chance you have access to cement pipes throw them in there. I have found that cement piping makes excellent structure. I was limited to using things I could drop in from the shore or a canoe. You must also keep in mind that on a private lake you may take some liberties that you could not on a public lake. So check with your local Fisheries personnel for any restrictions you may have.
The second problem was the more serious one and required a more long term fix. The lack of suitable rooted vegetation had allowed hair algae to dominate the lake. As this huge mat of algae rotted in the summer heat, it used up all the oxygen, the subsequent fish die off's and foul odor made the lake unsightly and unpleasant. I realized if the lake was gonna grow some worth while kind of plants, it was up to me to decide what they was going to be. After a little research was undertaken I decided to establish two main plants, native lilies were to be on the surface, and underneath the water, giant vallisnaria. I chose those species for a variety of reasons, the foremost being they were native to my area and I could easily collect them from other locations. The other factors included, durability, looks and reproductive rate. I wanted plants that would thrive in my lake but not take over. Native plants were my only practical solution.
I spent the better parts of several weekends standing waist deep in the lake planting Lilly tubers and eel grass root balls in a mess of strange places. The neighbors seemed to find it amusing and would cheerfully sit and watch me muck around in the lake finding the occasional deep spot the hard way. I felt a little foolish but I knew it was the right approach so I stuck to it. I was rewarded in my second spring on the lake, with a very large bed of eel grass (giant vals) and lilies popping up in the mid range shallows. Their crisp white flowers made the lake stunningly beautiful. My neighbors who before looked at me as if I was a bit nutty, began to trickle over to the house and to get the inside scoop on the resurrection of Fox Den Lake.
The second step was to add diversity in the available forage. Contrary to the hype mosquito fish make poor forage and even poorer mosquito fish! Their primary forage consists of plant matter, free swimming insects, and eggs and young of other fish. True they do eat mosquito larvae on occasion but not at nearly the rate of many other common native species. In addition, their habit of remaining in the shallowest water makes them generally unavailable as forage for the predatory species. I did a little research and talked with some of the folks in my Native Fish Club (North American Native Fish Association) and came up with a species list which would cover the full range of forage from the very small on up! For starters I added banded pygmy sunfish (Ellasoma zonatum) this tiny guy (under 1.5 inches ) hides in the weeds at the edge of the lake feeding primarily on mosquito larvae and in turn becoming food for larger fishes. He is prolific and very tolerant of harsh conditions. This is one of the hidden fellas that makes a lake that much healthier. We know he does good. We just don't know how much good he does! I also added the minute livebearer (Heterandria formosa) and the equally small least killie (Leptalicania ommata). These little guys make an excellent mosquito control group while being forage for the young sport fishes.
My second addition were several members of the killie family. killies or top minnows as they are sometimes called are colorful, tough mosquito eating machines! I have observed killies in an Aquarium eat nearly their halve body weight in mosquito larvae in a day! They also have so much species diversity that you can get them in all sizes from the less that two inches to the whoppers of over six inches. There are different types of killies common all over the United States so adding a local variety to your own lake should not be to hard. They are prolific, colorful and very durable. All in all they make an excellent pond/lake/aquarium species. I went with three types of local killies that I could collect locally with relative ease and which met the conditions and needs of Fox Den Lake. I chose golden topminnow (Fundulus chrysotus) a colorful tough Killie that grows up to four inches in size. My second choice was a killie (Fundulus cingalatus) my daughter calls the pink lemonade fish because of it's pink fins and brilliant displays in the home Aquarium. While just as durable as the golden topminnow this species remains well under three inches in size. I also added (Fundulus escambia) a hefty durable killie which quickly established itself in my lake. You of course have Killies near you that are equally suitable to the task. Check out the Peterson's Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes by Larry Page and Brooks M. Burr for species in your area. Do yourself, your lake and your fish a favor only use species from your area. Importing non local species can have devastating results.
Finally I added a small sunfish to bridge the gap between the sport fishes and the other "forage fishes". I chose the Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus). This 5 inch and under southern sunfish is a beautiful addition to any home aquarium, pond or lake. He is easy to keep and very prolific. Bass find these small-mid size sunfish their preferred forage. For those of you in the northern half of the United States the orange spot sunfish fills the same role. I highly recommend you collect either or both species for your lake/pond or aquarium. They are personable beautiful and easy to keep.
I collected two dozen plus of each individual "forage " species and released them in a shallow oxbow in the corner of the lake. Within ninety days I was able to collect young and juveniles of all species with a dipnet. Now over a year later the killies have begun to surpass the gambusia in numbers. The Dollar sunfish have propagated and are now numerous. A walk along the shore will reveal flashes of color as killies and sunfish dart along the surface and the bottom. The bass and bluegill have tapped into these new food sources and wait just below the drop off for someone to cross the line. You can hear the splash as they lunge towards a killie or Dollar sunnie that has gone just a bit to far in search of food or a mate.
Once I realized the killies and company were prospering in their new home I took the final steps. I purchased crawdads from my local seafood market and released about forty pounds of the beasts (red swamp crawfish) into the lake. They are strictly scavengers and vegetarians and provide an excellent clean up crew in the lake while providing top notch forage. Red swamp crayfish are local for me, I am sure you have a suitable species that you can collect or purchase locally. Find a good local species and use `em they will do the trick. Don't get brave and add a non local crayfish species the risk is too high. About one month later I went sport fishing at several local locations and over the next 4 or 5 weeks brought back live fish to stock the lake. I brought back thirty six adult bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus ) and eighteen 10-14 inch Largemouth bass ( Micropterus salmoides ). All specimens were immediately released upon my arrival home. I also began a regimen of weekly feedings. The gentleman who owned the local seafood market would collect the scraps for me and once a week I'd feed the fish about one five gallon bucket of scraps. The results were astounding. All of the fish spawned within a few weeks of their arrival and by mid summer two inch bass and bream were everywhere. Even a bigger surprise to me was the growth rate . With the year around warm weather and regular food the fish grew at a fantastic rate. The first spawns were sexually mature by fall. By early winter the size and number of fish had increased so much that regular fishing could be resumed.
Even more amazing was the change in the lakes condition. The huge floating mats of algae disappeared. The nitrates began to drop and the eel grass acted as a filter bed keeping the yard waste and sediments from causing huge fluctuations in the lake's fertility. The lily pads did their job. They provided cover from the sun stopping the solar panel effect. The lakes summer water temperature dropped a full five degrees. The lake no longer suffered from unexplained summer die offs. Leopard frogs and bullfrogs began to appear, adding music and diversity to this once barren landscape. Kingfishers, egrets, herons and ospreys all made the stop over for an occasional meal as they headed on to their unknown destinations. I found myself spending more and more time outside just watching. Soaking up the beauty nature provides.
Now my children catch bluegill to the point of boredom. bream as large as a pound have been taken out of the lake Just last week I caught and released a 3 and a half pound largemouth bass. So the process has gone from planting in this lake garden of mine to tending. I have added a few redfin pickerel (Esox americanus) to keep the bluegill population under control. I have tried my best to keep the fishing at a managed level, chasing the fence jumpers away and encouraging the serious bass fisherman to knock on the door any time they feel the urge. This fall I plan on making my last addition, channel catfish. I have placed homes for them in all the deep holes and with the increase in cover, killies and bream they should find a suitable home. I am confident that old Mr. Catfish, like the others, will settle down here and find lowly Fox Den Lake the kind of place to raise a family.