Although tilapia are endemic to Africa, their tremendous aquaculture potential has led to nearly worldwide distribution within the past 50 years. They have become the 2nd largest food fish industry in the world. Tilapia are also popular forage fish in bass/bluegill ponds because they reproduce heavily, are efficient users of natural aquatic foods, will aggressively consume pelleted feed, and they tolerate a wide range of water quality conditions.
Tilapias belong to the cichlid family. The Nile tilapia is the species most often used in pond stocking. The Nile tilapia's taxonomy has been revised many times over the last 30 years and the current accepted name is Oreochromis niloticus. Tilapia consume a large variety of natural material in ponds and lakes including: plankton, detritus (dead organic matter), aquatic invertebrates, and some aquatic vegetation. Nile tilapia are prolific spawners, beginning when the water temperature reaches about 70 degrees. A female tilapia weighing 200g (0.4 lb) can produce up to 500 fry every 3 to 5 weeks until the water temperature cools in the fall. Males will build a nest, closely resembling a bluegill nest, in 3 feet of water or less. Several females will deposit eggs in this nest for fertilizing by the male. The eggs are held in the female's mouth for incubation. The tilapia fry continue to hide in the female's mouth when danger threatens for several more days. The female is ready to mate again about a week after it stops caring for the fry. Tilapia are native to tropical habitats and die when water temperature drops below 50-52 degrees for several days. However, tilapia are more tolerant of high water temperature, high salinity, low dissolved oxygen, and high ammonia concentrations than other freshwater forage species.
Tilapia in Sport Fish Ponds
The high rate of reproduction, coupled with the high fry survival and fast growth, make tilapia an excellent supplemental forage for largemouth bass. Tilapia are often stocked in tandem with threadfin shad to offer bass a constant supply of high-quality forage. However, tilapia are an excellent substitute for ponds that have difficulty sustaining threadfin shad. For example, ponds less than 1-acre have little open water for threadfin shad to "school" and have safety in numbers. Juvenile tilapia are especially easy bass food when they become sluggish in the fall; usually when the water temperature drops to 60 degrees. And large bass will gorge on the larger tilapia as they become lethargic. This allows bass of all sizes to enter the winter in excellent condition. However, tilapia are well-suited for bass/bluegill ponds for several other reasons. Tilapia also feed on detritus and are especially effective at reducing organic waste that causes odors in small, highly fertile ponds. Historically, tilapia have been stocked in ponds for aquatic vegetation control. Once the water temperatures drops into the 60's for good in the fall, the tilapia have done their job and you can begin removing them for the dinner table. By this time, it is not uncommon for the original stock tilapia to be in excess of 4 pounds! The body cavity of tilapia is placed well forward, yielding a large triangular fillet of firm white flesh that is excellent in flavor. If they are regularly fed, they can often be caught on hook and line with anything that resembles feed. Golden raisins, bread balls, or even artificial flies in the shape of a pellet can all entice a hungry tilapia. Tilapia become extremely sluggish before they die in the winter, and can be netted as they swim slowly in the shallows.
Tilapia efficiently utilize plankton in ponds as well as pelleted feed. Therefore, growth and reproduction can be directly increased by fertilizing and supplemental feeding. Tilapia usually respond well to feeding schedules developed for bluegill. If the bluegill are currently on a feeding schedule, you may need to increase the number and length of feeding events to accommodate the additional mouths. Tilapia generally stop feeding when the water temperature falls below 63 degrees.
When and How Many to Stock
Adult tilapia in the one-half to 1 pound range should be stocked when the water temperature is consistently in the 60s, which is usually by the end of April or middle of May in the southeast. Tilapia utilize natural food so efficiently that crops of more than 2,700 lbs./acre can be sustained in well-fertilized, production ponds. However, a much lower stocking rate is recommended in bass/bluegill ponds. An increase in bass growth is detected with stocking rates as low as 10 pounds of tilapia per acre, on larger lakes where a high stocking rate is cost prohibitive. However, a greater and more consistent impact is achieved with stocking rates from 50 to 100 pounds per acre.