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EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: WNY ponds are being set-up for significant summer fish kills

The winter of 2010-2011 was not a kind one for local landowners who have bass ponds on their property. Most ponds in Western New York froze over on Thanksgiving and didn’t thaw again until Easter. We weren’t blessed with the periodic thaws and rains that keep smaller local waters ice-free or a little open on occasion in the winter months.

That ice cap resulted in significant winterkill and many disappointed anglers that spring as carcasses of fish, large and small, washed up on the shores of those ponds. The ponds on our farm were especially hard hit – our walleye population was completely decimated and trophy-sized bass in excess of 5 pounds littered the shore.

The winter of 2014-2015 was colder and more brutal, but the ice-over wasn’t as sustained. Still, it led to some die-offs of larger bass in many local ponds.

Ice-out following both of those winters was really heartbreaking ... you do everything you can to manage a decent recreational fishery for your family and then Mother Nature has her own plans.

Those ponds faced with that adversity are recovering. But, it still takes a while to grow trophy bass in this area.

But, just as landowners thought they were getting closer to remaking their fisheries, this summer happened.

Due to the oppressive heat and that official drought conditions that have overtaken Niagara, Orleans, and Genesee Counties, the conditions are ripe for summer fish kills.

What is summer kill?

Fish, like all animals, need oxygen. The oxygen that they breathe in from the water comes from two sources: the oxygen that enters the water from the air and the byproduct of photosynthesis of algae and weeds growing in that body of water.

This year, we’ve been mostly rain-free, which in, turn, has limited outside oxygen from entering ponds, because they are not getting churned by the droplets. You need consistent and recurring rain to keep the oxygen flowing and mingling. When that doesn’t happen, such as during prolonged hot and dry spells like this, even small ponds can stratify and oxygen levels can vary through the depths.

A big storm won’t help the situation, either. It will make matters worse. Now, when it might rain, any downpour from a bad thunderstorm could immediately sully the waters by upsetting and displacing dissolved oxygen that is present in the water and pushing the low quality water into the areas that the fish are frequenting.

Then, in summers like this, full of sun and warmth, algae growth becomes prolific. Check out any local farm pond and you’ll see them absolutely covered with surface weeds. You would think this would help the fish by creating more oxygen. It does, to a point, but then things change when you get too much algae: those plants produce oxygen, but they also need it at night when there is no photosynthesis taking place -- in blooms like those we’ve been seeing, the algae can sap the oxygen from the water at night.

Summer kill is not pretty: The fish suffer and die a miserably slow death. Basically, they suffocate. Their carcasses will become buoyant and they will wash up on shore less than a week after their deaths. Their bodies will be white, maybe even fuzzy, which is a fungus created by their rotting. It’s disheartening for any angler or animal lover to see this.

How to prevent summer kill

It’s too late now to make a difference, but future summer kills can be prevented with small commercially-available windmills or one of those sprinkler fountains.

Good pond management can also cut down on summer kill rates by ensuring there is not too much plant life in your pond. To do that, you would have to use a weed rake in the summer and/or introduce grass carp to the pond; we haven’t found the latter to be very successful – we have nearly 10 grass carp over 10 pounds in weight in one of our ponds and it’s still choked.

But, remember this: you can’t remove all plant life, because you still need those oxygen producers to do their thing, especially in the winter.

What to expect this year

Don’t be shocked if the piscatorial body counts start mounting soon. Smaller, shallower ponds without deep holes and a high density of plants and bass and panfish will be especially hard-hit. It will affect countless ponds across the area, which are already being hard hit by incredibly-low water levels.

If you are a fisherman it will be yet another depressing event following those of recent winters.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.



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