UAPB specialist explains fish habitat
Fish need somewhere to “hang out.” Providing them suitable habitat promotes a healthier fish community and often better fishing, said Scott Jones, small impoundment extension specialist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
“Fish habitat is a term that includes just about anything a fish could hover around, within or underneath, and it even includes the bottom substrate that could be used for burrowing into or building spawning nests upon,” Jones said. “Habitat can refer to structures — artificial, rock or plant-based — that fish can use as a place to spawn, feed or hide.”
Fish habitat provides substrate for microbes and periphyton to grow. This attracts small fish to feed on the organic life and to use the habitat as refuge from predation if it is dense enough.
“Predator fish come to feed on the small fish within and around the habitat. If the habitat is large and complex enough, it is possible to have every species of fish in the pond occupying the same structure,” Jones said. “This is beneficial to the fish community as everything a fish needs is located in a small area. It is also beneficial to the angler as all the fish you may want to catch are congregated in a small known area, which can increase fishing efficiency.”
Studies evaluating habitat and fish abundance and condition have yet to paint a clear picture of the ideal amount and type of habitat to maximize various fishery goals, Jones said. What is known is that habitat that is too sparse, too abundant or too homogenous produces poorer results in fishery performance metrics than those habitat characteristics falling somewhere in the middle.
“There appears to be a sweet spot between about 20 and 40% total area occupied by habitat that results in better performance out of the typical Arkansas sportfish combination, including bluegill, largemouth bass and crappie,” Jones said. “Unique fisheries featuring channel catfish only, hybrid sunfish with or without channel catfish, and hybrid striped bass can thrive with little to no habitat so long as they are fed fish feed daily. These unique fisheries are usually located in ponds smaller than about one acre.”
When preparing fish habitat sites, think diversity, Jones said. The best habitat sites utilize a range of structure diameters and gap widths to accommodate various sizes of several species.
For example, using tree debris, stack trunks so that they crisscross leaving large open gaps for large fish to swim through. Then, use intermediate and small limbs to create very dense areas of small sticks that only small fish can get through, he said. This will provide a habitat site offering refuge for tiny fish all the way to your largest predators.
“Fish habitat can be made from just about anything,” Jones said. “Your imagination is your only limit.”
Wooden shipping pallets make good habitat, either stacked in towers, or in combinations of stacked, slanted and vertical arrangements. Pallets will need 1-3 concrete blocks, depending on the manufacture of the pallet and size of the structure, added to sink them consistently.
“Other common DIY habitat options include ‘crappie condos’ made by embedding bamboo trunks into 5-gallon buckets of concrete,” he said. “These can be trimmed to the height and width of your choosing, and they are a great way to put nuisance bamboo stands to good use.”
“Georgia cube” refers to a PVC cube interwoven with corrugated drainpipe popularized by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources that has been utilized by state agencies for habitat projects throughout the U.S. The structure is weighted by pouring gravel into the bottom pipes before assembling the structure or attaching concrete blocks.
“There are also commercial pre-made artificial habitats available for purchase. While these products can be expensive if you need a large area enhanced, they are often easier and quicker to assemble, transport and deploy than some of the other options,” Jones said. “They last forever while some forms of woody cover would need periodic replenishment.”
Used drums and barrels cut in half and laid on the bottom can provide excellent cavity habitat for catfish to spawn in. Just be aware of what the barrels were containing before their retirement, and properly clean them before deployment to ensure harmful residues don’t affect the water, fish, and potentially, the fillets, he said. Piles of broken concrete culverts, large rocks and construction scrap can also serve as fish habitat.
“Aquatic plants provide excellent natural habitat for fish. Shoreline emergent plants that only grow a few feet deep into the water tend to be more easily managed than fully submerged species,” Jones said. “Many aquatic plants can quickly spread to nuisance abundance if not closely monitored, so they are often discouraged in smaller ponds. That said, allowing some plant growth can be beneficial to the fishery.”
For more information, contact Scott Jones at (870) 575-8185 or [email protected].
Debbie Archer is an extension associate – communications at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.