Fee and Lease Pond Fishing Profile

April 2022

Introduction dock on a lake

Charging a fee to the public to fish privately owned waters has been practiced for over a century in the U.S. and the roots of the practice trace back to pre-colonial Europe. Even before many public waters were considered poorly managed and over-fished by the 1970’s and 1980’s, fee-fishing operations offered a convenient alternative for a variety of consumers. In the years following WWII, the concept of “pay lakes,” “fish-out ponds” or “fee-fishing ponds” gained popularity throughout the country. Unfortunately, many of these businesses were not viable in the long term, and their numbers declined over the following decades. Current variations on this business strategy include everything from pay-by-the-pound operations to long term leases, similar to hunting leases, on private lakes.

Technically speaking, smaller ponds (one to three surface acres) lend themselves more readily to the high stocking rates and regular addition of harvestable fish typically practiced in put-and-take fishing. In these operations, visitors generally pay by the day or they are charged based on the total pounds of fish they harvest. In contrast, larger ponds and lakes are more suited to long-term leases for sport-fishing opportunities, relying on natural reproduction of the fish populations already present. In many long-term lease arrangements the liability insurance and management of the water body in question are the responsibility of the lessee(s). “Day leasing” is a term that describes arrangements that fall somewhere between these two strategies, with the owner responsible for managing the water body while sport-fishing visitors pay for each day of angling.

In each setting, marketing is an important aspect of business success. However, while fee fishing operations can be viewed as a marketing outlet for the producers supplying fish for the ponds, fee fishing businesses themselves must be focused on the recreational experience their customers will be paying for, not just the fish.   


Managing fish stocks

All of the regular management considerations for pond culture must be taken into account when operating a fee-fishing business. In fact, biosecurity, health management, nutrition and water quality monitoring all take on heightened importance due to frequent stocking, increased handling and high fish densities.

Pond sites for fee fishing must have conducive topography, soils that will retain water, and appropriate water resources. Wells are strongly recommended to reduce the potential for inadvertent introduction of wild fish and pathogens. A fee-fishing facility will require at least two separate ponds for management flexibility (quarantine, clean-out of none-harvestable fish, etc.), but 5 or more is ideal.

The choice of species to stock will depend on several factors, including geographic location, access to reliable suppliers and consumer preferences. Fish must always be farm-raised, for biosecurity, quality control and regulatory considerations. Fish suppliers and haulers must be reliable and professional, and regional aquaculture associations, state departments of agriculture and/or natural resources and local Extension professionals can potentially provide leads and contact information for suppliers and haulers.

In warmer regions of the country catfish is the most logical choice for stocking fee-fishing ponds, but hybrid sunfish, bass, crappie and even tilapia have been utilized (where permitted). Depending on the state, it may not be legal to sell some fish such as bass, crappie or bream by the number or pounds of fish caught, even from fee-fishing ponds. In other states, however, regulatory mechanisms are in place to allow fee fishing for game fish.

In cooler regions rainbow trout, walleye and other species have been used in fee-fishing businesses. Again, state regulations will largely determine which species can be considered for any particular operation. In some regions with intermediate climate conditions, fee-fishing operations stock catfish from March through November and rainbow trout from November through March. However, these species should not necessarily be stocked together, even during winter months, to avoid management complications as temperatures warm in the springtime.

Whether maintaining catfish or rainbow trout, some fish (as many as 30 – 40 percent) will tend to avoid bait and tackle over time, so ponds must be periodically harvested and fish transferred or processed. This will require adequate equipment (tractors and seines) and labor on site. Live sales to paying customers are often the best outlet for these fish, and many fee-fishing operations maintain large vats of fish available for sale and processing. Again, health regulations and fisheries laws should be checked to confirm the legality of this marketing approach.  

Depending on the geographic location and the species in question, stocking densities from 1,000 lb./acre to 10,000 lb./acre can be found in fee-fishing operations. Most operations rarely exceed a range of 4,000 to 6,000 lb./acre. The most profitable stocking density will depends to a great extent on whether customers are paying by the day or by the pounds of fish caught, but higher stocking rates involve higher levels of risk, even for seasoned fish culturists.

Aeration and water quality management are essential factors in a successful fee-fishing operation. To avoid disease losses and encourage active feeding (and hence, susceptibility to angling) fee-fishing managers must maintain sufficient (if not optimal) oxygen concentrations 24/7. Test kits must be on hand and fully supplied to monitor other parameters such as pH, alkalinity, ammonia, nitrite and chlorides. Water quality must also be monitored to avoid conditions that could lead to off-flavor problems. All ponds should have moderate- to high levels of permanently installed aeration in place, but electrical distribution and aerator installation must adequately prevent any possibility of accidental electrocution.

Feeding must be carefully managed in fee-fishing operations. Too little feeding can result in health problems and reduced quality, but too much feeding tends to reduce hunger and the urge to take baits and lures. In general, feeding rates of ½ percent of fish biomass daily or 1 percent every other day have proven successful in most fee-fishing ponds during spring, summer and fall months, dropping down to 1 to 2 percent twice weekly during the winter.

Vegetation control is another important aspect of fee-fishing management. Unwanted vegetation can be introduced with shipments of fish, from customers using contaminated tackle or bait, and from wildlife such as birds, turtles or furbearers. Excessive vegetation will interfere with good fish, so when prevention is not entirely possible, control becomes essential. Many labeled aquatic herbicides have strict withdrawal periods before fish can be considered suitable for human consumption. Grass carp offer a more organic approach to vegetation in states where their use is permitted. Some grass carp will inevitably be caught in fee-fishing ponds, so check on the permit requirements and regulations as to whether they can be sold if caught.

Diseases cannot be avoided entirely in fee-fishing operations, even when suppliers and haulers use best practices to avoid stress. Disease monitoring must be a regular practice, and personnel must know what to look for. Many fish diseases are caused by opportunistic pathogens that are always present, and frequent stocking of recently harvested, handled and transported fish can result in stress-related opportunistic diseases even under the best of circumstances. Treatment options for many diseases will be limited due to the required withdrawal times for any fish destined for human consumption. Multiple ponds will allow newly-delivered fish to be quarantined and monitored, and if some fish must be treated to control a disease, other ponds will still be available for harvest.

As in any other type of fish culture, record keeping is essential for all aspects of fee-fishing production management. Good records will indicate where problems are occurring and when operational practices must be adjusted or corrected. Fish health, feeding, water quality and harvesting records are all necessary for informed decision making.


Managing Other Aspects of the Operation

Fee-fish facilities must be easily accessible by good roads and have reliable utility service including electricity, water, phone/internet and sewage. It is not always possible to convert existing ponds into successful fee fishing operations. Customers and staff must have safe and easy access to all areas of the operation, including ponds, restrooms, concessions and parking. For this reason, hillside and watershed ponds are often poorly suited for fee fishing activities.

Levee ponds are often more easily adapted in terms of access for stocking, harvesting non-cooperative fish, and most importantly, fishing. Although they may tend encourage some aquatic vegetation, shallow levee slopes are an important consideration to minimize the possibility of customers accidentally falling into the water, especially younger, handicapped or elderly clientele. Banks should be mowed and maintained to allow the water line to be easily viewed and to minimize cover that can encourage the occurrence of snakes, turtles and furbearers.

Fee-fishing operations should conspicuously post signage warning of possible dangers and forbid the possession and/or consumption of alcohol on the premises. In the event of a lawsuit, the key question in a court of law will be whether the establishment has taken reasonable and sufficient measures to protect clientele from avoidable harm.   

Fee structures can be based on pounds of fish caught, a flat entrance fee, or a combination of these, but concessions have become an integral component of the business model for most fee-fishing operations throughout the country. Tackle, bait, food, drinks, sunscreen, first aid supplies and even clothing are typically available for purchase. Optional live fish sales, cleaning and packing can boost profits, but all applicable state and county health regulations must be addressed.

Many operations enforce minimum specifications for fishing poles and tackle to minimize the possibility of fish breaking flimsy lines or poles and getting away only to die in the ponds. Catch and release is also not allowed, to minimize fish’s aversion to bait or lures and/or avoid later stress-related mortality. In pay-by-the-pound operations, before accessing the ponds customers must be reminded to make sure they have sufficient cash to pay for their catch. To avoid the potential for introduction of diseases or unwanted species, many operations prohibit the use of live fish for bait.

Every fee-fishing business will require some combination of licenses and permits, as well as liability and business insurance. Owners should take steps to ensure that personal property, liability and obligations are separate from those of the business. Review at local and state level in terms of    Zoning restrictions, health requirements, fisheries regulations and other regulatory aspects should be reviewed at local and state levels. Some form of regulatory oversight can be anticipated for water supplies, pond construction, building construction, drainage modifications, discharges of pond effluents or treated sewage, live fish sales, live bait sales, selling/handling of food and processing/packing of fish.

Some states license fee fishing operations based on surface acres of water, and require minimum annual stocking rates to assure legitimate business practices. However, due to overly restrictive fishing license regulations, in some states fee fishing operations may be impractical or simply not possible. Fortunately many states provide for fee-fishing facility licenses, which allow for permission to provide fishing opportunities for pay on privately controlled lands and waters, without the need for customers to obtain individual recreational fishing licenses.   

Security issues must be addressed to discourage theft and vandalism throughout the facility, not only along the perimeter. Landscaping and fencing must accommodate both security and aesthetic concerns. A combination of motion sensors, security lighting and internet–compatible cameras and alarms can detect breaches and other emergencies in real time, but various means of rapidly responding should be in place and coordinated with local law enforcement.

Marketing Considerations

The more “natural” the setting, the more appealing a fee-fishing facility will be for all customers. However, fee-fishing businesses should be located near cities and towns with sufficiently large populations to provide a pool of potential customers (ideally within 25 miles). Fee-fishing often attracts families with young children or older family members, and emphasizing handicap-accessible opportunities (beyond those required by local and federal laws) will often attract customers.

The on-site experience is the key to cultivating satisfied customers that return for more fishing. “Good fishing,” or a consistently high catch rate, is the main reason why customers come to fee fishing operations rather than utilizing public waters, but in this day and age consumers have high expectations in regards to every aspect of their experience.

On-site rules must be reasonable, but a family friendly atmosphere will generally attract more customers than it discourages. Enforcement of facility rules and requirements may occasionally be necessary, so maintain good communication and professional relationships with local law enforcement agencies.

Other strategies that have proven successful at fee-fishing businesses throughout the country include:

  • attractive facilities,
  • large clean restrooms,
  • abundant shaded areas,
  • low noise levels,
  • well-behaved clientele,
  • no need for individual fishing licenses (this is the case in many states, but not all),
  • no need for a boat,
  • the option to purchase fish on site,
  • the option to have fish cleaned/packed,
  • lots of seating,
  • lots of fish,
  • “good” concessions, and
  • courteous and helpful staff.

Although not specifically listed above, constant ant, wasp and rodent control is an important aspect of both maximizing the customer experience and minimizing liability issues. Trash cans, ring buoy floats with ropes, rescue cans (US Coast Guard approved), First Aid kits, and emergency alarms must be in place adjacent to all ponds.  

Before investing in a fee-fishing business, the presence and location(s) of other fee fishing operations already available to the target market must be assessed. Many states actually maintain lists through offices of tourism, agriculture or fish and wildlife. These lists should also be utilized to attract customers once operations are underway.

Historically, word of mouth has been the primary marketing strategy for fee-fishing operations in the U.S., but word of mouth has taken on a whole new meaning in the online age. Modern fee-fishing operations must enhance their visibility and online presence via webpages, social media accounts, and targeted digital marketing. Nonetheless, tried-and-true strategies such as school field trips, youth organization visits, and special events for handicapped clientele, senior groups, and church organizations are still valuable marketing approaches for fee-fishing businesses.  


Prepared by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center