Grow Your Own Menu

Using your pond to raise fish for the dinner table

A deck or dock over the pond makes it easy to feed fish in a pen. This pen contains 200 rainbow trout
A deck or dock over the pond makes it easy to feed fish in a pen. This pen contains 200 rainbow trout

Success in selling to customers who own large ponds is often based on improving the water quality and nutrient management to increase their recreational enjoyment. But have you ever considered selling on the basis of customers growing their own food?

Consumers knowing where their food was grown has energized farm markets across the country and revitalized the family practice of gardening. But what about fresh fish? The majority of seafood consumed in our country is imported from locations that may not enforce the same quality standards that exist in our country.

Think about your customers who have large ponds and have bought just about everything they need. The one thing they’re missing: a simple system to grow their own fresh fish in a clean environment. Would they be interested? I think so … especially if you provide them with a new opportunity to interact with their ponds every day. This is a great family activity, and nobody has to pull any weeds.

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Pen-raising (also known as cage-culturing) fish is a common aquaculture practice. On a large scale, there are offshore systems for salmon and even bluefin tuna. On a small scale, there are pens used to keep bait fish healthy until you find some time to go fishing again. In the middle, we have been providing customers with a package that includes a plastic mesh pen, a small aerator with air diffuser, a scoop net, a brush, fish food in a container and good instructions. The response has been fantastic and the results quite tasty.

Fish pens are available in a variety of sizes and materials. When selecting which one to purchase, consider the type of fish or critter being raised as well as the environment. We use a round pen that is four feet tall and three feet in diameter, constructed of black HDPE mesh. This pen can produce more than 100 pounds of trout, panfish, catfish, hybrid bass, yellow perch or bullheads. It’s possible to grow two different species of fish in the same pen or add a pile of crayfish for a late summer boil. The plastic mesh material provides better abrasion resistance when compared to nylon netting and more underwater protection from turtles, who also enjoy a fish buffet. Catfish or bullheads are less likely to get their barbed fins stuck in plastic netting than in nylon netting, and algae is easier to brush off to maintain water passing through the pen. Pens that have a PVC framework provide additional flotation in case a dock is not available for attachment, but these should be removed for winter if ice conditions could cause damage. One important suggestion: please check the state regulations governing fish stocking before buying fish from a supplier and setting up a fish pen for your customers.

Rainbow Trout will grow one inch a month if fed daily. Start with six- to eight-inch fish in March and enjoy a fresh fish harvest in the fall.
Rainbow Trout will grow one inch a month if fed daily. Start with six- to eight-inch fish in March and enjoy a fresh fish harvest in the fall.

Included in our package is a linear aeration kit with a 2.0 CFM output and enough weighted hose to allow the diffuser to be attached to the bottom of the cage. The compressor noise is not obtrusive and the bubble action rising up through the pen keeps the fish healthy, especially if the stocking density is high and feeding occurs several times a day. We have customers who keep their pens ice-free during the winter and harvest rainbow trout for Friday fish fries.

Two other items that are very helpful are a scoop net and a long-handled brush. The net is used for removing the fish during growth measurements, removing dead fish (it happens) and capturing fish to compliment those garden-fresh vegetables. The net that you supply should have a handle long enough to reach the bottom of the pen and a coated net material if catfish or bullheads are being raised to reduce the time spent in the fun task of untangling them.

The fish food and the container that protects it are important elements of the system and create a positive experience for the customer. To sell a customer on the idea of growing fish in her pond, you need to promote interaction. This interaction is ideal when feeding the fish is fun and not a chore. Placing the weatherproof container of fish food near the pond is better than having to carry a bucket from the shed or garage each time.

This circular fish pen is 36 inches in diameter and stands 48 inches tall. The largest crop of fish we have produced in this style of pen was 275 pounds of black bullheads, which are delicious.
This circular fish pen is 36 inches in diameter and stands 48 inches tall. The largest crop of fish we have produced in this style of pen was 275 pounds of black bullheads, which are delicious.

The science behind feeding pen-raised fish starts with selecting food that satis- fies the nutritional requirements of the fish being raised. Trout grow faster when fed a higher protein level (example: 45 percent) but catfish, yellow perch, tilapia and sunfish do just fine with 32 to 35 percent protein level food.

Floating food or sinking food is another choice that should be considered based on the feeding habits of the fish. Some fish are more sensitive to light conditions due to their eye structure and grow best when fed a sinking food. The problem is that you cannot monitor how much food is consumed (and it’s not as fun to watch).

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The fish food you use should have a guaranteed analysis that shows it is not older than 90 days from the date of manufacturing. Old food or moldy food should not be used. It may cost a little more to provide a higher quality fish food, but the results are better. Encourage your customers to feed the fish at least wice a day, as frequent feeding results in faster-growing fish. The amount of food to use is a general calculation based upon 5 percent of the fish’s body weight. For example, if you stock the fish pen with 100 trout that each weigh about 10 ounces, the amount of food to start feeding with should equal 50 ounces. If your customer feeds the fish twice a day, each time 25 ounces of food should be used. It is best to supply pellet-trained fish of at least eight inches in length. Under ideal conditions they will grow about one inch per month when the water temperature is above 50 degrees. Stop by once a month to check the size of the fish and adjust the feeding ratio if necessary. This could be a service that you provide along with another bag of food.

A metal container like this will hold a 50-pound bag of food and keep most predators out.
A metal container like this will hold a 50-pound bag of food and keep most predators out.

If we put this idea in motion, you will soon be selling your customers an outdoor experience that allows them more interaction with their ponds (which they enjoy), an activity to share with family or friends and the option to harvest a supply of delicious fish. By promoting the experience more than the components of a package, you’ll soon find that your customers are thrilled even if they forget to feed the fish every day.

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