Fishing Down on the Farm

Fishing Down on the Farm

How to find and fish the ultimate largemouth pond

  • By: Chad Mason
After a pleasantly cool morning the summer sun rose high and hot. Although the fishing could surely continue, the catching probably wouldn't, so my partner and I left the pond to stew its way through the midday heat. It was 10:30 am, and we had lost count of the bass that had attacked our bugs over the last four hours. At times there seemed to be a bass for every foot of shoreline, and most were over two pounds. We caught them on the surface, we caught them eight feet down, and we caught them everywhere in-between.They were strong fish, thick and deep, colored a transparent green like the water they came from, and when we unhooked them their dark, brassy eyes glowed with vigor. Big rewards from small waters In a world where quality angling destinations often seem to be dwindling, farm ponds are a happy anomaly-great fishing on the increase. In my home state of Iowa alone, there are an estimated 80,000 farm ponds, and almost a thousand new ponds are built every year. More than 10,000 of these ponds receive ongoing management assistance from state fisheries personnel. With an average of 50 pounds of largemouth bass per surface acre, these ponds offer a staggering tonnage of fly-fishing opportunity close to home. A farm pond is a fertile food pyramid supported by plankton, amphipods and insects at its base. Moving up that pyramid, you'll find crustaceans and amphibians, then bluegills and finally bass as the apex predator. Although bass do feed on insects at an early age, as they get bigger they move on to crayfish, frogs and bluegills. A good pond may contain up to 75 pounds of bass per acre, all munching on as much as 250 pounds of bluegills per acre. That's a total of 325 pounds of game fish per acre! To put this number in perspective, consider that Colorado trout streams are designated "Gold Medal" if they have 60 pounds of trout per acre, a figure that sounds almost barren alongside the fecundity of a Midwestern farm pond. Recognizing the best ponds Not all farm ponds are created equal, however. Although you occasionally hear a story about a lunker bass landed by a barefoot farm boy in the mudhole behind the barn, an elaborate list of requirements must be met to produce optimum fishing. Here's what to look for: Watershed characteristics:Mature, healthy woodlands make the best watersheds for farm ponds. Grassland/prairie is second best. Pasture is third, and cultivated cropland is the least desirable watershed type. However, good fishing can be found even amid intensive cultivation if a buffer zone-consisting of dense grasses, trees or brush-surrounds the pond. The best ponds will have well-established vegetation growing close to the waterline, indicating a stable water level from year to year. This, in turn, indicates a sufficient watershed area to sustain the pond through normal fluctuations in annual precipitation. Size: Look for ponds at least 1/2-acre in surface area. You can quickly size up a pond with your feet by walking around the shoreline and counting your paces. For round, oval, triangular or rectangular ponds, look for a perimeter of at least 600 feet, or about 200 long paces. For T- or Y-shape ponds, look for a perimeter of at least 900 feet (300 paces). Shape:The best farm ponds are built by damming the junction of two or more ravines, yielding a "T" or "Y" shape. Such ponds have more shoreline-and thus a greater percentage of littoral area-than round, oval, triangular or rectangular ponds. And that means more spawning space for both bass and bluegills. Depth: To resist oxygen depletion in summer and winter, a pond needs at least 8 feet of maximum depth. To test depth, I use a spinning rod and a slip-bobber, with the bobber-stop set 8 feet above the sinker. I cast this rig into what appears to be the deepest part of the pond. If the bobber sits upright, I know the pond has adequate depth. Livestock usage: Avoid ponds where livestock has direct access. Good ponds in cattle country will be fenced against livestock intrusion and have a pipeline that delivers water from the pond to a watering tank outside the pond area. Vegetation: Although vegetative cover may vary somewhat, an ideal pond will have aquatic vegetation coverage of about one-fourth of the pond's surface area. Greater coverage can make it too easy for prey species to evade bass, resulting in slow growth rates. With less coverage, the pond may not support a productive food web. If a pond has most or all of the above characteristics, you can almost bet it has bass. Rarely will landowners invest the necessary effort to produce good fish habitat without stocking a pond with fish. Of course, you won't know for sure until you fish the pond, but that's part of the allure of farm ponds. Finding ponds and gaining access You might find a good trout-fishing destination by looking it up on the Internet, but you won't find a good farm pond that way. Get in your car, drive the country roads and look for ponds. On-line aerial photos are rarely helpful, because they're often 10 years old or more. New ponds can blossom from initial construction to great fishing in as little as three years; conversely, degradation caused by changes in land use can quickly kill ponds that looked good on an outdated aerial photo. Spring waterfowl migration is a prime time for scouting, as swirling flocks of ducks and geese may reveal the hidden locations of ponds not visible from roads. Expect to find very few ponds in flat, featureless, intensively row-cropped areas, with the exception of "borrow pit" ponds created during the construction of highway overpasses. Most farm ponds are built in broken terrain with ridges and ravines, where agriculture consists of a patchwork of row crops, hayfields and pastures tucked among woods, and where the soil types are more conducive to pond construction. In many cases, finding the owner will be tougher than finding the pond. The last 30 years have not been friendly ones, economically speaking, for rural America. There simply are fewer landowners on the land. Plat books (available from county auditors' offices) are helpful, but good old-fashioned door-knocking never goes out of style, and may lead to further opportunities that you haven't explored. Expect occasional rejections, some of which may not reciprocate your courtesy. Just move on politely, and keep looking for other, more welcoming folks. Absolutely never set foot on a piece of property without the explicit permission of the landowner. And I don't mean the landowner's second cousin who said, "Oh, I don't think old Jed would mind if you fish there." Talk to Jed first. In farm country, trespassing is not soon forgiven, and word travels fast among neighbors. Philosophically, you may not agree with such territoriality, but what you think on this issue doesn't matter much if you want to fish a farm pond more than once. Truthfully, the most accomplished farm pond anglers are loving, long-term residents of their local places. The farm pond world is less accessible to vagabonds. I have changed my career once already (downwardly mobile) in order to keep my geography and the people who go with it. Some of those people have ponds. I've lived in my current home for 10 years, and one of my fishing partners has been here three times as long. We recently spent an entire day delivering homemade apple pies to landowners scattered over three counties. The friendships thus maintained are an end in themselves and not merely a means to fishing. But the fishing is awfully good. The best pond I currently fish became available when a fellow finally invited me to fish it after knowing me for seven years. This is a large pond formed at the confluence of two wooded ravines that drain a brushy prairie. It has prominent weed beds, deep clear water, flooded timber and large bass in abundance. The owner even lets me use his boat and actually seems disappointed if I don't come to fish the pond at least a couple times a year. It has been worth the wait. In farm pond country newcomers can certainly get onto some good ponds by asking politely, but the most exquisite sanctuaries will be shared with the angler who genuinely invests his or her life in the place and its people over the long haul. When I first moved to the Midwest, I lamented its preponderance of private property; but over time, as the place and its inhabitants made me their own, I stopped wishing things could be different. If you live in one place long enough and kindly enough, you will eventually be treated like family. Fishing tips After you've found a good pond and acquired permission, the hard part is over. The saying goes, "To the man with a hammer, all the world looks like a nail." It follows that to a fish called "largemouth," all the world looks like food. Largemouth bass in farm ponds may be the most cooperative game fish on the planet. Late spring and early summer are the prime times, yielding the most consistent surface action. Another prime season is early fall. Throughout the hot summer months, best fishing occurs at dawn and dusk or under the light of the moon. Many farm ponds can be fished very effectively from shore. However, a float tube can expand your options. I've also grown fond of a stripping basket-such as the Kennebec River Line-Tender-to prevent line from becoming tangled in my feet or on the bankside vegetation. Moderate-action rods of 8- or 9-weight are best for the meaty bugs you'll need to catch the biggest farm-raised bass, and I like rods of at least 9 feet in length. Most farm pond angling can be done with a floating line, and anything more than a sinking-tip line is unnecessary. One favorite technique is to use a dark-hued Dahlberg Diver on a sinking-tip line, simulating the movement of a frog toward the pond bottom. Cast this rig from a float tube toward steep shorelines, and pull the diver down into the depths. Brightly-colored poppers are good, too, when fished near shoreline cover on a floating line. Down deep, I have a lot of faith in the Bunny Leech in black or purple, worked along the outside edges of weed beds. Another good producer is a pattern I call the Pond Clouser. No more than a color variation of the venerable Clouser Deep Minnow, the Pond Clouser can be worked at mid-depth to suggest a tiny bluegill, or right on the bottom-in clean-bottomed ponds-to suggest a crayfish. It should go without saying that you release all your fish when fishing on somebody else's pond. In fact, I recommend stating up-front that you will practice catch-and-release when you initially ask permission. Sometimes the landowner will say, "Aw, go ahead and keep a few." If thus invited, still remember the following fisheries rule-of-thumb: No more than 15 bass per year should be harvested per acre of pond area, and these fish should be over 14 inches in length. Keep in mind that you are not likely the only person fishing the pond. Here in the Hawkeye State alone, farm ponds account for 1.6 million angler-days of recreation every year. Anglers who live in the mountains describe certain trout rivers as "home waters." Living as I do among the silos and the smokestacks, I can only encounter a wild river as a glorious but thankfully momentary escape from home. My home waters lie still and glassy, bathed in the music of cicadas and frogs, and they bustle as warmly as farmhouse kitchens behind their smooth windows. Wherever water stops to rest between black soil and a bright sun, life cannot be held back. It is always breaking out and, if well cared for, becomes a lasting home. Bass-Fly Recipes Bunny Leech•HOOK: Tiemco 8089, size 6•THREAD: Big-Fly B, black•EYES: 1/36 oz. painted lead (or lead-free substitute) dumbbell, red&black•TAG: Small loop of stiff 30-pound. monofilament extending off rear of fly to prevent tail from tangling around hook.•TAIL: Magnum-cut Zonker strip and 10-20 strands of blue Flashabou.•BODY: Cross-cut Zonker strip, tied in at tail and wound forward over shank.•Note: Total length of fly should be about 6 inches. Pond Clouser•HOOK: Tiemco 200R, size 4•THREAD: Danville 3/0 flat waxed monochord, orange•EYES: 1/36 oz. painted lead (or lead-free substitute) dumbbell, red&black•BELLY: Yellow bucktail•MIDDLE: Blood red Crystal Flash•BACK: Olive bucktail•Note: Total length of this fly should be 3 to 4 inches.