If I were a teacher and blue tilapia were students, I would give them an "A" on their report cards for their work in summer school in my little pond in Muskellunge Creek Bottom.
Blue tilapia, in case you haven't guessed, are fish, relatives of the ones you can buy, already filleted and chilled, in the supermarket.
I stocked 13 of them up to 6 or 8 inches in length in mid-June, following directions and suggestions of Don Schooner, who runs Inspired by Nature, a pond management business at Weston.
For him blue tilapia represent the end of a 14-year quest. Schooner raises other fish in three ponds for stocking in customers' waters - fathead minnows, sterile white amur, redear sunfish, hybrid striped bass, and yellow perch. But he was looking for a species that would gobble up troublesome vegetation yet provide some sport and food as well.
His wish came true when he came across the blue tilapia, the most cold-tolerant of this equatorial species that hails from the Middle East and Africa. Of all the tilapia family, only the blue will survive down to 45-degree water temperature.
"This is very important as it allows them to be viable for an additional several months at our latitude," said Schooner. "This also means that the tilapia will not overpopulate as they will die off in late October to early November."
Blue tilapia are fun to catch, as scrappy and eager as bluegills to take the bait. They taste good too, and those are just the bonuses.
They look something like hybrid sunfish or bluegills, but inch for inch are a bit chunkier in the shoulders, with vertical "tiger" striping like a yellow perch, and a definite bluish cast to its upper body.
But the family is so prolific - they are mouth-brooders like guppies - that they have become pests in the South, where they grow and reproduce year-round.
My own quarter-acre pond is 35 years old and produces vegetation like it was going out of style. I do prudent management things, including "lake raking" and weekly addition of packets of microbes to eat up the decayed bottom-muck [which is food for even more vegetation]. But adding a bluegill-like fish that stays ahead of the vegetation looked like the right stuff.
I can only shake my head in amazement now as I regard my October pond. It looks like the clock has been turned back 25 years. It is all but vegetation-free and brimful of juvenile tilapia and the 13 larger breeders I stocked in June - at least the ones an itinerant great blue heron has not yet fished out. Only a pond owner who has spent a summer in marshy muck, pulling a "Minnesota Lake Rake," can appreciate the joy. I watched in wonder as swaths of vegetation and algae disappeared week by week down tilapia gullets.
Schools of dozens of young tilapia, two and three-inchers, now roam the pond. An old bachelor bass is having a field day eating them. I can see from such explosive reproduction that they could become the new Asian carp if they could survive the cold.
So I'll gladly buy a few new adult fish from Schooner through his Alabama supplier next spring and start over. And I have no problem skimming off any that are not big enough to catch and eat this fall when they are killed by cold. They will make good raccoon food down in the creek bottom.
So far Schooner informally has surveyed about half the 90-odd pond owners participating in his trial blue tilapia run. Ninety percent of them, like me, are enthused, he said. Those who are not are the ones not doing the microbes and other pond maintenance, such as raking where needed.
Schooner asserts that the fish are not magic bullets, but simply the top-down feeders on rampant vegetation.
As for fall harvest of the tilapia crop, Schooner has been keeping track. He says that you get as much meat off a five-inch tilapia as you do a seven- or eight-inch bluegill. Some fish grow to a pound or more as well in a summer.
He and I caught 14 of them that weighed 7.37 pounds on an electronic scale. We ended up with 1.51 pounds of meat after filleting, so expect 20 to 25 percent by weight in fillets, depending on how meticulous you are with the knife.
Any ultralight spinning rig, or a flyrod and spinning reel rigged with a bobber and small hook will suffice. For bait a 49-cent can of corn is all you need, though you can spice it up by also adding morsels of any of the Berkley Gulp! baits designated for trout or panfish.
For the taste-test among a party of six, I pan-fried three messes in a cast-iron skillet on my old, reliable Coleman stove during a creek-bottom picnic. I used Panko Japanese-style breading on the fillets and they went to the last morsel. No complaints, only compliments. One diner said that they reminded him of crappie, another said yellow perch, yet another claimed walleye.
Schooner can be reached at 419-669-4084, or visit online at ibnature.com.
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