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              The Resurrection of Fox Den Lake
           (An Aquarist Tackles Lake Restoration )
                       by Robert Rice
                  email robertrice 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 lily's 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

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 .
If you are interested in native fishes I recommend you check
into   the   Native  Fish  Conservancy  a  not  for   profit
conservation organization dedicated to serving the needs  of
native   fish.  The  NFC  welcomes  Aquarist   and   amateur
naturalists to join this broad based organization.

 <A HREF="http://nativefish.interspeed.net/">Native Fish Conservancy


Robert Rice
Help Preserve our Aquatic Heritage join the Native Fish Conservancy
 at our website  http://nativefish.interspeed.net/