A few years ago, my son Matt and I were doing some demos at Bass Pro Shops at Arundel Mills Mall and we had an interesting, if not brief, conversation with some local bass tournament anglers. They were fully decked out in their tournament shirts, complete with sponsorship patches and names on their backs. Truly, they appeared to be professionals. As they went by our booth, they hung on one of our displays that had photos of quality largemouth bass we had caught the past few seasons.
"How big is that one?" asked one of the anglers, pointing to a picture of Matt with a huge bass.
"About nine pounds," said Matt.
"Where did you catch him at?" the angler asked.
Matt told him that he had got the fish, a personal best, at a local farm pond only 10 minutes from our home. The anglers looked at each other and one of them said, "That doesn't count." And with that they walked on, only to return a few more times later to stare at the very same photo.
It seems odd, if not even disdainful, that some fishermen tend to look down on fishing in private water. Indeed, there are many public venues where outstanding bass and panfish opts reign. But there is a lot more to fishing private water than meets the speculative, or even the jealous, eye.
For some reason, a percentage of anglers view private water angling as "cheating," "easy," or like "shooting fish in a barrel." It has been associated with "privileged" folks who have an inside track to sensational private lakes and ponds where only the chosen few can venture. You have to know somebody, get an "in" for fishing rights, and, of course, the fishing is always "out of this world" and you never leave there without "slaughtering them." What's odd is that a very large percentage of deer hunting in parts of the mid-Atlantic is done on private land, with a lot of very impressive trophy whitetails being harvested and mounted, and photos rightfully published in many outdoor magazines to distinguish the hunter's success. Like anglers, hunters have to work and gain relationships with land owners in order to attain hunting privileges. It's not a cakewalk.
Growing up in rural Carroll County in the 1960's and 70's, I was fortunate to associate with farmers and landowners who had ponds and lakes that they allowed us kids and teenagers to fish. Even as young people, we began to develop relationships with the pond owners and would offer bluegill fillets or help around the farm to show our appreciation. Some would readily accept our offers, but many were just glad to see people enjoy the resource and were happy to see a hunting and fishing heritage continue. In a lifetime of fishing, I have been fortunate to fish over 100 private lakes and ponds in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. I would say that 50-percent of them were "good" lakes and maybe 15-percent could be classified as truly exceptional. That leaves a lot of marginal or even poor water that we scouted and fished over the years. Not every private lake is a "gem."
I will be the first to tell you that, on more than one occasion, I have seen angling opportunities squelched because "a friend of a friend" kept bringing "another friend" along to fish, without ever running it by the pond/lake owner. Throw in the disrespect of overharvesting the fish stocks, be it bass or panfish. Add to that the leaving of trash. Yes, this still happens to this day. Sadly, some anglers who get permission actually think they are in co-ownership of the land and lake. Who wouldn't blame the owner for shutting it down?
It goes without saying that private water offers a lot of advantages. Things like close to home, solitude, beauty, and not to mention, the prospects of exceptional fishing. They are great places to take kids and the chance of encountering the hubbub of local parks are non-existent. Plus, there are no park entry or boat launch fees, something that will loom large in the coming years for many outdoorsmen and women.
As mentioned, one thing that the permission of fishing private water should never be is abused by the assumption that all your fishing buddies are now privy to a new fishing hole. I once had a pond owner tell me I could bring my wife, my son, but "never bring a friend." Believe me, I never brought a friend. Other pond owners don't seem to mind giving fishing rights to several anglers, provided all personal regulations are met. Common sense really plays a big role here. Most of the contacts I have are from people I have known over a period of years, and a relationship aside from fishing often emerges. Many lake and pond owners don't fish, and the idea of learning from an experienced angler, like yourself, can be appealing.
Different pond owners tend to have separate harvest restraints governing their waters. Most tend to favor the release of adult bass, but others may request an effort to remove the bluegill numbers if they appear to be stunted or too high in number. Currently, I have been assigned to a private lake that has an overabundance of large channel catfish that seem to be predating on a high percentage of young-of-the-year bass and panfish. Although I have no desire to keep and eat these 30-inch-plus fish, we will make an effort to relocate them to other waters where the catch and release of these fish will bring joy to other anglers. Other than the catching, the fun part, it's going to take work and effort to get them transported safely to other waters.
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Everybody always assumes that private water is the home to big fish and the catching is no more than kid's stuff. But the truth is that small waters react quicker to cold fronts and seasonal changes and high pressure systems, thus making them a tough call at times for tactical approaches. I have been skunked at ponds I knew had numbers of 5-pound bass in them. It is not always an easy street when fishing the smaller, less pressured waters. It is, however, always worth the investigative effort. Do yourself a favor this year and go back to your roots in fishing. I bet there's a pond or private lake near you that has good fishing, and start making memories where it really all began.