Fee and Lease Pond Fishing Profile
Reviewed March 2019.
Many landowners across the United States have turned their farm pond or ponds into a resource that is quite attractive to different consumer demographics. These ponds are stocked and managed to provide fee-fishing opportunities to parents who wish to have a quality experience with their young children, professionals who wish to get away with business clients, families interested in an interesting alternative to a traditional reunion and as a local environmental educational resource for primary school educators.
For-fee fishing operations fall into two categories: fee fishing, where an hourly or day rate is accessed the user, and lease fishing, where a seasonal or yearly user fee is accessed, usually for exclusive rights to the resource. Some operations specialize in trophy fish, where the user has an opportunity to fish, perhaps in perfect solitude, for an exceptional animal in a retreat-like private setting. Others are catch-and-release or catch-and-keep operations that cater to families and novices with limited fishing experience.
Today, this type of private fishing retreat serves a role, the role of alleviating the strain of population pressure on public resources. They may offer an alternative to crowded situations or reduce the need to travel great distances to indulge in a quality outdoor experience. These operations also are playing an important role in the development of young and first-time outdoor people, increasingly women. In a somewhat more controlled environment, experience can be gained and skills can be mastered before attempting more challenging outdoor situations. Some operations offer Youth in the Outdoors, Becoming an Outdoor Woman and similar outdoor education and outdoor experience programs free or at reduced-fee prices to these program sponsors. In turn, this acts as a friendly introduction to the facility and stimulates word-of-mouth advertising and repeat customers.
In the United States, our wealth of public-land and public-access fishing opportunities has reinforced a public perception that fish are a free resource and that access to the sport also should be free. The reality is that our public fishing resources are supported by state and federal tax dollars and voluntary contributions through various check-off programs, as well as the private fund-raising activities and lobbying efforts of sportsperson interest groups.
Today, most users have no problem paying for an opportunity to participate in an outdoor activity that they see as a quality, managed operation likely to contribute to a positive experience for them and their families. Users tend to understand that a private body of water requires stocking, personnel support and related management, and perhaps such energy and infrastructural inputs as filtration systems and weed control programs.
Planning the Operation
Ponds naturally exist or are constructed for reasons that may include flood control, recreation, livestock watering or irrigation. The aquaculture and aesthetic enjoyment values of these resources constitute a solid profit center unrecognized by most landowners. If properly managed, they can provide angling opportunities and aesthetic experiences as good as, or in many cases better than, public waters.
Ponds also may be a way to remediate damaged areas of a farm or ranch. For example, an active program In Missouri converts old strip mine pits and quarries into water-oriented recreation resources. These man-made features impound about 9,000 surface acres of water in the state. Most of these pits have the potential of producing many hours of quality fishing, as well as enjoyment for the landowner and potential income as a fee-fishing resource. Several publications are available from Missouri Extension Service that discuss the special issues associated with reclaiming and managing these areas. A recent study in Wisconsin cited sport fishing as a 2.3 billion dollar industry that directly supports more than 26,000 jobs and generates $100 million in state tax revenue to help pay for natural resource management and protection programs, as well as critical services that range from primary school education programs and health care for the elderly.
Fee and Lease Fishing
Fee fishing allows pond owners to supply fishing opportunities to the increasing number of anglers frustrated by crowded public areas and to simultaneously use an under-utilized resource for economic gain. The two basic types of fee fishing are long-term leasing, and daily or hourly use fees (day leasing). Long-term leases involve exclusive fishing rights to a private pond or lake that can be leased on a long-term basis to an individual or group. Daily or hourly use fees (day leasing) usually are associated with operations that also rent equipment, sell food or offer meeting or retreat facilities.
Pond management for fee fishing is a type of aquaculture, and aquaculture has some similarities to traditional row crop farming. The pond owner is attempting to grow a crop within a limited amount of space. This presents some problems, perhaps dealing with weather-related stress, battling weeds or undesirable fish species. Any farmer's crop production is limited by available acreage and quality and care of the land. Similarly, fish production is limited by the size, structure and food availability of a pond. In technical terminology, this is defined as the pond's natural carrying capacity. This capacity can be positively enhanced with supplemental food and aeration; and negatively affected by excess nutrients, algal growth, lack of dissolved oxygen or lack of feed.
Sometimes the pond must serve multiple uses, and some management alternatives, for example, plant control, supplemental aeration or filtration, often are expensive. The pond owner may not always be able to select the optimal strategy for optimal fish management. However, there usually is a fishery development and revenue generation strategy that can be developed to make the best out of a particularly challenging management situation.
Owners may have a wide variety of reasons for building or owning a pond; however, an important first step is developing some management goals. Begin by listing what you want to develop, then list the pros and cons of each goal. Review these and see if what you want to do is realistic. Test the ideas by running them past friends, relatives and impartial third parties including county, state or federal extension outreach professionals. The latter are particularly important if any state or federal funding or set-aside programs are involved in the new use plan.
The importance of establishing objectives for the projected uses of a given pond cannot be overemphasized. The first and most important step for proper pond management is to choose the primary use objective and understand the limitations that this may place on other agricultural or recreational uses of the resource. For example, small ponds today are commonly used to aesthetically enhance the landscape, but their relatively simple construction may not provide the best facilities for other activities like swimming, boating and fishing.
Careful consideration of use compatibilities and priorities are essential when planning any agricultural operation. If dealing with an existing pond, develop a two-focus appraisal that describes the pond as it currently exists and one that reflects the resource's potential with infrastructural improvements. This planning should be realistic. For example, if the water quality is unacceptable for a cold- and clear-water species of trout, it would be pointless to spend a great deal of time developing a plan for that type of venture. Develop a plan that reflects the entire fishing experience: this includes the game species but also includes amenities or services that create a certain guaranteed experience and present a certain level of return to both the operator and the client.
Ponds are frequently used in several ways to satisfy more than one agricultural or recreational objective. This too is something that needs to be included in a business or management plan. For example, having water available in the pond for fishing usually does not conflict with other uses such as swimming. When different uses seem to be at odds, assign priorities to the objectives and usually a decision will present itself. For example, the objective of providing for fishing may conflict directly with the objective of having water available for irrigation or fire suppression. If irrigation may lower the water level to a point where the fish population is endangered, then the manager must consider an alternative water source or have a recovery strategy planned for the fishery. Sometimes prior planning and sound management will eliminate or at least reduce these conflicts.
What makes a successful business?
Most fee-fishing pond or lease operators state that a necessary first step to establishing this type of business is to perform a self-examination that realistically examines how this enterprise fits into the landowner’s goals and life style. Then one should try to imagine the worst-case scenario for start-up, operating costs and time commitment. Next, examine all available environmental, human and financial resources. Is the water resource adequate? What is the need for re-stocking? Is the existing infrastructure sound for the enterprise or is there a need for improvements, for example, parking or toilet facilities? Are there low-cost, easy improvements that would enhance the operation?
Finally, conduct research. This research should include contacting the applicable NRCS, university Extension and state university or regional aquaculture specialists. Talk to others who offer this type of service, and go to trade and value-added agriculture seminars. You may already have met some of these individuals when preparing your business plan. Be sure to talk with your insurance agent. Most operations have at least a $1 million liability policy, and this usually covers the overall farming operation. This easily can include the pond operation, because for insurance purposes, aquaculture is considered a part of agriculture. Usually these umbrella liability policies are relatively low cost.
It may be helpful to create a brochure or list of recommendations for people coming with children. This is easy to incorporate as a "helpful hints" page attached to a liability statement. It also may be helpful to include a written map with instructions regarding safe and hazardous areas. For example, if there are areas with deep or swift water, steep banks, dams or uneven footing, it is good to set this in writing for the visitor. Set boundaries and explain them.
What constitutes an acceptable "restroom area" is an important issue and needs to be addressed. If an adult, child or elderly person needs to answer the call of nature, the answer usually may need to be a prompt response. Porta-potty-type outdoor restrooms or similar units are affordable and can be conveniently located near access roads and parking areas. It is important to stress proper outdoor ethics. Most outdoor programs state that any human waste should be kept at least 200 feet from natural water resources. Public fishing areas present their own challenges. Encourage parents to bring plastic zip-lock bags along to pack out baby wipes, tissues and similar paper products rather than dump them in the porta-potty. Be sure to have onsite or accessible trash containers.
How do you acquire and manage your clients?
Once you have a resource that you can open to the public, many states and counties have free Internet and print agritourism resources. These include "things to do" and "what's happening" types of sites and publications. Identify local resources and see if you can get your operation listed. Sport-fishing-related Web sites are one potential resource. Many of these sites list "blog-type" reports on state or regional fishing activities. They usually have free or for-pay advertising to support their Web-related services. Similarly, many communities and chambers of commerce have local sites with free advertising. Also, it may be worthwhile to request that other local operators, for example, area game farms who offer bird hunting or similar sporting ventures, add a link to your operation. If you have a Web site, offer them a link to their business on your site. Offer to make tier promotional materials available at your business, and encourage them to do the same with your materials.
On Web sites, promotional fliers and signage, most operations clearly state the hours of operation and any restrictions on guest activity. For example, one operation lists that they are open 7 days a week during their operational season, there is no state license requirement, tackle can be furnished on request, a picnic area is available, and groups are welcome. They also stress that they are a wheelchair-accessible facility with a wheelchair-accessible fishing area.
Many operations cater to groups and have facilities for meetings and social gatherings. For example, one operation advertises "Company Fishing Parties," "Family Fishing Parties" and "Church Youth Group Outings." For these events, they have a waterfront-access brick and cedar "Hospitality Room" and a 30 foot by 40 foot day-use building that includes a kitchen area equipped with a stove, refrigerator and microwave. Weather permitting, an outside area is dedicated to social exchange, barbecue and dining. This operation requires a $50 to $100 per hour cleaning deposit depending on the size of the group and the complexity of the function. Some functions, for example, weddings, may require additional supervision and logistical support, extra electrical services, parking, portable toilets and similar considerations.
Additional amenities impose additional maintenance and labor considerations: fishing tackle, boats and motors, guide services, casting instruction (for example, fly-fishing clinics), meals or lodging. Some other aspects of client management are simple common-sense considerations like maintaining neat, clean water side areas, grounds and restroom facilities. Again, the operator is marketing a pleasant outdoor experience, not an excursion to the local litter-filled quarry. Some operators take a page from fishing tournaments and outdoor events where prizes are awarded. Especially popular with children and groups, these promotions involve fin-tagging some fish. Individuals catching a tagged fish can claim a prize (usually a $10 to $25 cash prize, gift certificate, fishing equipment or similar gift item).
There are many examples of successful fee-fishing operations on the Internet, and a quick survey of these should help an operator price their fish. For example, one operation prices trout at $0.50 for 6- to 7-inch fish on their most public ponds but prices 12- to 24-inch (6-pound) fish from a secluded pond starting at $20.
The Pond as Educational Resource
If the schedule or logistics permit, development of an outdoor education activity packet for children or school groups can be another activity center for the enterprise. This activity can be a wet, muddy one but incredible fun for all involved. In this activity, agritourism becomes nature tourism.
Ponds are amazing ecosystems full of plants and animals that live in or near the water. Printed resource material is a great asset. Handouts in the form of "Did you know?" briefing packets or observation checklists or set up as a game for children can be great engagement tools. A checklist or activity card that lists common birds, turtles, frogs and plants are fun for children; however, remember that this is an educational activity that develops their observational skills as well as their understanding of the environment. Be sure to include something about each creature or its relationship to the pond that you want the child to recognize. For example, the mud around a pond often reveals the tracks of many animals that either live within or visit the pond. All of these animals need the water, but perhaps for different reasons. Some, like deer, come to drink the water. Others, like birds and turtles, are here to hunt for food or find sheltered nesting sites. A "matching" game card that shows the track, picture of the animal and its role in the pond ecosystem could be a fun teaching tool. Another that begins to describe what biologists call "trophic relationships" (who eats who and who lives where) could be a similar matching game that describes the ecological dynamics of the pond. This could be plankton to insect nymph to little fish, crayfish or tadpole; little fish, nymph or tadpole to fish; fish or crayfish to bird (kingfisher or egret) or mammal (raccoon). Do not be afraid to introduce some adult terminology like "trophic relationship." Even small children who see the example and use their net and strainer to catch a pan full of wriggly little monsters can easily grasp what some adults may consider an overly complex concept.
Children and many adults investigating pond life will find fascinating creatures. For example, all of the aquatic insects have adaptations and unique structures for breathing and filter feeding or catching prey. These organisms are a great source of information on physiology and behavior. Snails are readily available; examine the shell and foot. By using slime from the foot, snails can move all over the pond. To breathe, pond snails rise to the water surface and pull oxygen into a special sac. Many kinds of frogs lay their eggs in ponds and the eggs hatch into tadpoles. As tadpoles grow, they eat algae and decomposing plant material. Crayfish hide around rocks and sand during the day and are most active at night. (Like the raccoon, this is a great example of a nocturnal animal.) Crayfish nibble on plants and eat some animals they find. Like many aquatic insects and fish, they have very good camouflage and can be tricky to spot in the water. Water bugs include water boatmen and backswimmers. They are fun to watch swimming, but children need to be cautioned. These insects have piercing mouthparts for injecting digestive juices into their prey and then sucking the digested material from the prey, like using a straw to drink a milkshake. If carelessly handled, these creatures can inflict a harmless but very painful bite. Water striders look like skating spiders but are insects that stay above the water by exploiting the surface tension of the liquid with specially adapted feet. Giant water bugs can be 1 to 2 inches long. Late in the summer you can find some with eggs glued to their backs. Various snakes live around ponds; most are specialized for particular prey. These are just a few examples of the numerous creatures that children can examine.
Consider a pre-arranged "Guide Kit" that is ready to go for these sorts of groups. The kit would include what the adult leader needs (wading shoes or mud boots, field guides and other printed resources, scoops and dip nets) and things for use by individual or small groups of children (buckets, pans or handout materials). Shallow storage tubs, buckets or dishpans are better for viewing the small swimming and crawling creatures if they are white or light colored. Plastic bags and rubber bands to make temporary "viewing cells" for passing around or for watching the little critters could also be included. Disposable white plastic spoons are helpful to move the animals around without having to touch them. Bait shops, sporting goods stores and pet supply centers often sell fine-mesh nets, fish food and similar supplies. Several large magnifying glasses are essential for seeing the tiny legs, tails, gills and other specialized parts used by these little water animals.
Legal Considerations for Farm Pond Fishing
State licensing requirements vary a great deal. In some states all fishing regulations may apply. In others size or fish count may not, but in order to legally transport, the client may have to show a note from the landowner or a state-issued transport tag. The state of New York is a typical case. The following paragraphs are taken almost word-for-word from a New York Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) Web site:
Prior to stocking fish in your pond, the landowner must obtain a "Farm Pond Fish License" from the New York DEC. This license allows the licensee, his immediate family, and his employees to take fish at any time, in any size, in any number, and in any manner as stipulated in his license. The farm fish pond license also serves as a stocking permit, eliminating the need to obtain a separate DEC stocking permit (not present in most states). The stocking permit usually is required to stock fish into any New York waters. The Farm Fish Pond License is free and is good for five years. You can obtain an application for the license from a DEC Regional Office.
From this point on, the pond owners should be aware that the laws governing fishing require all persons 16 years of age and older to have a valid state fishing license except citizen-resident landowners and lessees or members of their immediate families actually occupying and cultivating farm lands when fishing on such lands. This means that guests or friends of the pond owner must have a license to fish the pond even though it is privately owned. Laws pertaining to seasons, size limits, and daily take also apply to the owners of private fish ponds; however, they are negated if a farm fish pond is licensed by a Farm Pond Fish License.
This may be just the beginning for the pond owner, particularly if the operator is interested in branching out into other aquaculture or hospitality areas. In this example, DEC has separate licensing and permit requirements for bait-fish production, commercial fishing (harvest of particular species with nets or other devices), farm fish pond permit (for fish "cultivation"), fishing preserve (for man-made ponds that are "wholly contained" on the property of the applicant), hatchery permit (for rearing and propagation of certain species). Triploid grass carp, lake sturgeon and piranhas all have their own highly restrictive licensing. Any enterprise that includes lodging, preparation and sale of food, and many other activities requires inspection and licensing. Again, these requirements differ from state to state.
Pond owners may also be responsible for the well-being of habitats downstream of their property. For example, if an excessive rotenone treatment is applied during a pond renovation and it causes a fish kill downstream, the owner is liable for replacement costs associated with the cleanup. Determining if threatened or endangered species live in your area is extremely important. Warm water (or no water) released from a pond could, in extreme circumstances, endanger a sensitive aquatic animal. If a pond-related stream is in a watershed known to support the spawning of anadromous fish (shad, herring), the owner may be required to take particular precautions with respect to fish passage and pond-fish segregation.
- Commercial Trout Aquaculture in Western North Carolina: Trout Fee-Fishing Ponds, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, updated 2006 - A list of operations by county with contact information.
- Developing a Fee-Fishing Enterprise: An Opportunity in Recreational Tourism, University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, 1998 - Contains an enterprise budget breakdown and a discussion of potential impacts on other on-farm operations.
- Farm Pond Management for Recreational Fishing, Cooperative Extension Program, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, USDA and county governments in cooperation with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
- Fee Fishing in Florida, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Describes the various types of fishing license and the cost associated with each license.
- Fisheries, Virginia Cooperative Extension - Online publications on a range of topics: (1) Clearing Muddy Pond Waters; (2) Control Methods For Aquatic Plants in Ponds and Lakes; (3) Pond Construction: Some Practical Considerations; and (4)The Control of Burrowing Crayfish in Ponds.
- Fish Management in New York Ponds, Cornell University Cooperative Extension - Numerous online publications on pond establishment and management.
- 4-H Virtual (Fish) Farm, Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, Virginia Tech and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University - Fish and seafood are cash crops for many farmers. Fish are raised for food, bait and pets. Farmers sell the fish they raise to processors, grocery stores and restaurants. Many farmers also raise fish in ponds and charge people a fee to fish.
- How can I learn to fish?, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) - Learn how to fish and prepare your catch for cooking.
- Management of Recreational and Farm Ponds in Louisiana, Louisiana State University, 2003 - This publication reviews planning considerations and management recommendations relating to a number of potential uses for small ponds.
- Outlook for Outdoor Recreation in the Northern United States, U.S. Forest Service, USDA, September 2013 - This study develops projections of participation and use for 17 nature-based outdoor recreation activities in the northern United States. Fishing, visiting interpretive sites, motorized boat use, downhill skiing and horseback riding are projected to experience the most growth in per capita participation.
- Private Pond Management, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, 2005 - Ponds can provide angling opportunities as good as, or in many cases better than, public waters. The purpose of this publication is to assist the pond owner in pursuit of healthy sportfish populations.
- United States Trout Farmers Association - USTFA is the oldest commercial aquaculture trade organization in the United States. Since its organization by a group of trout farmers, the association has created a strong, unified voice for the national trout industry. It now has members in nearly every state and many foreign countries.