The Most Popular PanfishIt doesn’t seem long ago that crappie fishing conjured pastoral images of rural anglers with simple tackle, wielding cane poles on oxbow lakes and ponds or lobbing minnows at brushpiles and stumps on a southeastern reservoir. Crappie chasers were widely considered consumptive in motive, and crappie populations thought to be nearly boundless when big hatches occurred. As a result, harvest regulations were minimal or nonexistent.

Today, change has come, and come fast. Crappie fishing websites crackle with the latest scoops on hot bites and new jig designs. There seems to exist a crappie belt that roughly comprises a region that has West Texas and Colorado on the western edge, follows a line from Nebraska through northcentral Minnesota, then eastward through Ohio and veering southeast to Virginia; running the eastern coastline through southern Florida, and west along the Gulf Coast back to Texas.

Here, angler surveys rank crappies among the top three preferred species. Here, crappie clubs and associations sponsor tournaments on productive lakes. Here, sales of poles, tubes, and other crappie tackle overshadow all other purchases except for bassin’ gear. Here, resource agencies are working to balance increasing interest in trophy crappie with the traditional harvest interests, studying angler attitudes and objectives, along with the biology and population dynamics of these wonderful and sometimes inscrutable panfish.

The Most Popular Panfish

CRAPPIE GEOGRAPHICS AND DEMOGRAPHICS

Crappie anglers are a diverse group that varies regionally and covers all age groups. The carefree nature of the bite at times makes the crappie excellent for introducing kids to fishing and for elderly anglers who’d rather fish from the comfort of a lawn chair. Typically you don’t need fancy tackle or a lot of patience to catch crappie.

Southeast and Midwest: As the In-Fisherman staff travel across the Southeast region and parts of the Midwest like Kansas, Ohio, and Illinois, we find full-time crappie guides working popular fisheries on large reservoirs. When the bite is hot, guides who specialize in catfish or bass may also switch to slabs. Today, more crappie guides are mobile as well, bouncing among two, three, or more states, following the best bites.

In these regions, many anglers fish primarily for crappie. They fish for fun and for food, and might be on the water several times a week. They’re often knowledgeable about movement patterns in their local waters and about effective presentations. In parts of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas, crappie fishing seems to be the top game in town. Around the large and famous bass fisheries of Missouri, Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma, crappie take a back seat in terms of popularity but invariably comprise an important recreational resource.

Florida has so many good crappie lakes that the fish are almost taken for granted, as saltwater species and bass take center stage in TV fishing shows and tourism promotions. Perhaps as a result, few guides regularly target crappie. But all the famous bass waters and many small ones that aren’t widely recognized house excellent populations of big black crappie that thrive in the dense emergent and submerged vegetation that abounds. And knowledgeable anglers pursue “specks” in earnest.

Canada: “Twenty-five years ago, if you mentioned crappies in Canada most anglers would have looked at you like you were crazy,” comments In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer. “Today, interest in crappie fishing has greatly expanded. And not coincidentally, so has their range. Increasing eutrophication and associated underwater vegetation, plus clearer water because of zebra mussels, have favored crappie over some previously dominant species like walleye and lake trout.

“For example, in Rice Lake, Ontario, a famous largemouth lake, no crappie existed 25 years ago. They’re now a prized and much-sought-after species. They’re abundant and grow large. In Lake Simcoe, a smallmouth hotbed, crappies have boomed over the last decade and are now the most abundant gamefish in the lake.

“On the other hand, crappies have long been popular in Georgian Bay and other parts of the Great Lakes such as Rondeau Bay of Lake Erie. Northwest Ontario is also traditional crappie territory. On Sabaskong Bay in Lake of the Woods, the ice-fishing catch alone can approach a quarter of a million fish. A couple lakes in Manitoba also have crappie, and they are noted for producing fish averaging from 13 to 15 inches.”

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The Most Popular PanfishWest: Scan the pages of the popular publication Western Outdoor News, and amidst photos of 12-pound largemouth bass and 200-pound yellowfin tuna, you now find features on crappie fishing. Indeed, many California waters offer outstanding fishing. Photos from Diamond Valley Lake, Irvine Lake, Lake Casitas, Clear Lake, and several San Diego impoundments frequently feature catches of multiple 2-pounders, stuff that would raise eyebrows even at Kentucky Lake.

Since crappies were introduced to the West, initially to lakes around Spokane, Washington, in 1890, and to California in 1908, populations have expanded. Black crappie have had a following in the Northwest since the 1960s (note Washingtonian Stan Fagerstrom’s crappie fishing classic, “Catch More Crappie,” published in 1977). Even then, Fagerstrom rued the fish hogs on waters like Silver Lake who carried fish out by the tubful, given the unrestricted fishing back then.

Water levels typically dictate fishing fortunes in the Southwest. When they’re favorable (high from rain), blooms of crappie occur in the small, shallow reservoirs of southeastern Colorado, such as John Martin, Pueblo, Nee Noshe, and Neegronda, as well as the steep-sided canyon impoundments of Arizona. Fisheries tend to be cyclic, but fast growth soon produces slabs. Larger waters like Roosevelt Lake have more stable water levels and consistently good crappie fishing, with many large fish.

North: Walleye are still king across the Northcentral region, and bass fishing is booming. But crappie fishing has a strong tradition too, with millions of avid followers, especially within the natural-lake belt from Michigan through central Minnesota. The long ice-fishing season provides plenty of opportunity for crappie fishing, as the fish group up and often bite well. After ice-out, fishing pressure in some areas intensifies further, as seasonal closures ban fishing for bass, pike, walleye, sauger, or muskie.

As crappies stream into shallow bays in early spring, anglers stream into accesses to take home a limit. The fish are vulnerable and harvest is high. Once other species become legal targets and crappies spread into open waters, fishing pressure declines drastically.

Northern crappies grow fast on abundant minnows and zooplankton. Minnesota boasts a larger black crappie state record (5 pounds) than all states but Louisiana and is tied with South Carolina and Missouri. Though 2-pounders are undeniably more common in top southern waters, maximum size of the fish does not follow a north-south gradient, with records north, south, east, and west in the 4-pound range.

CRAPPIES UNCOVERED

Great Lakes: We all know about booming populations of Great Lakes smallmouths, walleye, muskie, perch, steelhead, and more. Guess what — crappies seem to be on the rise as well. The crappie boom is on at Lake Erie’s southern harbors, from Sandusky, Ohio, to Erie, Pennsylvania, to Buffalo, New York. Craig Lewis, owner of Erie Outfitters in Sheffield, Ohio, finds himself in the midst of the action, at least during the spring and fall runs.

“During spring, all the harbors attract lots of crappie, both black and white,” Lewis says, “though they’re hardly fished compared to the amount of attention they attract on Ohio’s inland reservoirs. After they spawn, however, crappies seem to literally disappear into Erie’s open waters. They’re rarely taken by anglers chasing walleyes, perch, salmonids, or bass.

“There are so many opportunities for other species that no one has taken it upon himself to find the fish in summer. And Lake Erie hasn’t yet attracted attention from tournament sponsors who focus on inland waters.”

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According to Lewis, the fall run generally starts when water temperatures fall to about 60F, usually in mid-October. “The shiners move inshore then, and both species of crappies enter harbors and also swim up most of the tributary streams, mixing with steelhead in the early part of the fall run.

“We don’t understand the dynamics of this fall movement. Sometimes you catch all white crappie, sometimes all black, and sometimes a mixed bag. The size of the fall run also varies from year to year. But what’s consistent is for smaller fish to start the run. The slabs follow later — good numbers of 15- and 16-inch fish. In fact, the Ohio record crappie was caught in the Vermilion River. Other top spots are Lorain Harbor, Edgewater Harbor, Sandusky Bay, and Marblehead.

“There’s tremendous opportunity for bank anglers or those with small boats. In spring and fall, the countless boat slips are empty and you can fish the dock systems, along with breakwalls and piers.”

The Most Popular PanfishWe also know of excellent spring and fall crappie fishing in Lake St. Clair. There are reports that some bays and ports on lakes Michigan and Ontario offer good opportunities, too, and it’s likely that enterprising anglers can discover nearly unfished populations in areas where other gamefish have traditionally been sought. From Duluth Harbor at the west end of Lake Superior to the St. Lawrence River at the downstream end of the Great Lakes, you may find a fall and spring bite.

Northeast: Across New England and the Mid-Atlantic states north of Virginia, crappie remain a minor species, not a target of most anglers and not a priority for fishery managers. In these coastal states with great saltwater fishing opportunities, trout are the traditional favorites of sweetwater anglers, though bass fishing challenges salmonids for the top slot in several states. Most panfish anglers target yellow perch, sunfish, and bullheads.

Perhaps as a result, fishing can be super in many of the countless small weedy lakes of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and central New York. Abundant large black crappie are primarily targeted by ice fishermen during the relatively short winter season.

Ponds: Roger Bullock, an avid crappie chaser now living in Arkansas, notes that private waters may hold the best promise and points to the new Missouri record black crappie, a 5-pounder caught in April as evidence.

CRAPPIE TOURNAMENTS

Organized crappie events began around 1983, when Johnson Outdoors began holding Crappiethon competitions on popular waters across the eastern U.S. They ran through 1995 when the American Crappie Association, also known as Crappie USA, purchased Crappiethon. Crappie USA is the largest crappie organization today, with over 4,000 members in all states of the U.S.

except Hawaii, according to the President, Darrell VanVactor. Membership is $20 per year, which includes a subscription to Crappie Journal, the association’s publication.

“Our crappie tournaments are family-oriented and less intense than bass competitions,” VanVactor notes. “We have divisions for husband-wife teams and anglers 16 and under, plus an Amateur Division and Semi-Pro Division. At each tournament, we sponsor a Crappie USA Kids Rodeo for local youth, and encourage single parents to bring kids to learn about fishing. We also provide scholarships for youth, totaling around $250,000 since 1996.

“For competition, our Cabela’s Crappie USA Classic, scheduled for fall 2007 on Grenada Lake in Mississippi, will have a field of 204 teams and pay $175,000 in prize money. At all our events, we impose a 7-fish limit for 2-person teams, and fish must be alive to count. We release all fish after weigh-in. Many of the anglers have been using the big, round, KeepAlive livewell with the oxygen infusor system, made by LiveBait Technologies in Tennessee.”

Crappie USA events are regularly held in at least 15 states, from Chautauqua Lake in New York to East Toho in Florida through Perry Lake in Kansas and Eufaula in Oklahoma. Other regional crappie associations also hold tournaments, including Midwest Crappie, Buckeye Crappie Challenge, Crappie Unlimited, based in Alabama; Crappie Busters of Kansas, Crappie Anglers in Atlanta, and more. In all the events, teams often comprise brothers, husbands and wives, or father-son combos, supporting the family orientation of crappie tournament competition.

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REGULATIONS

In traditional areas of crappie popularity, regulations have evolved to address increasing harvest pressure and in response to angler interest in big crappies. While the number of anglers has not increased much, if at all, angler avidity has risen substantially.

Bullock decries the overall reduction in large crappies. “Today, nearly every angler has a boat and nearly all are equipped with sonar, a far cry from the bank fishing and rental boats so common 30 years ago. Crappie anglers read up on all the new techniques in In-Fisherman and Crappie World. Through crappie tournaments, more anglers have been shown the effectiveness of precision trolling. The ‘secret’ techniques that some of us used decades ago to catch fish outside the spring period now are common knowledge.”

On average, anglers today fish more frequently and spend far more money (corrected for inflation) on tackle than in previous periods. And as Bullock notes, they’re increasingly knowledgeable and efficient.

The Most Popular PanfishIn Kansas, for example, In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde notes the adaptation of walleye trolling tactics by Kansas crappie aficionados. “When crappies spread across a large expanse of a reservoir’s topography, or when the wind howls, trolling is far more effective than the drifting or casting methods traditionally favored in these parts.

“In response to fishing pressure, the daily bag limit was reduced from 50 to 20 in 2004 at Perry, Clinton, Melvern, and Council Grove reservoirs,” Kehde says. “Leonard Jirak, biologist with Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, encouraged the reduction and he reports some positive benefits. Fewer fish are harvested at any one time, which has spread the crappie catch across the calendar year. At our best crappie lake, Coffey County Fishing Lake, the limit is just 2 crappie per day, and they must be over 14 inches long.”

Wherever crappie have proved popular, the trend in management has been toward reducing daily creel limits. More states also are experimenting with length limits. Missouri led the way, though some Kansans resented folks traveling down I-10 to fish the plentiful and less strictly governed populations of eastern Kansas.

Mimimum-length limits of 9, 10, and 11 inches have been widely applied from Ohio to Oklahoma. In Minnesota, 9-, 10-, and 11-inch minimum-length limits have recently been applied to selected lakes, along with 5-fish creel limits. Grenada Lake in Mississippi, one of the best trophy crappie producers, is governed with a 12-inch minimum length limit.

In Canada, increasing interest in crappie angling has brought a reduction in creel limit from 30 to 15. Yet in New England and mid-Atlantic states from Maine to Delaware, where crappie remain overlooked, no harvest regulations are in effect.

Roger Bullock notes that regulations are great but enforcement is essential, as anglers get greedy. “On several famous crappie lakes, spring brings a huge influx of out-of-state crappie anglers,” he says. “Many travel in motorhomes equipped with big freezers. Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of game wardens, they engage in what’s called ‘tripping’ — taking more than one limit per day, often lots more than one.

“On several occasions, I’ve conned my way into their graces, leading them to braggingly display their bulging freezers. As I’ve left the area, I’ve tipped off the local conservation officer, hoping they’ll make a case.”

The budgets of many game and fish departments have been pared in recent years, and many are lacking a full enforcement staff. Here in Minnesota, the governor has made conservation enforcement a priority, hiring to fill nearly all vacant positions and adding some new ones. Other states need to set similar priorities.

For well nigh 20 years, we’ve been proposing and preaching Selective Harvest, emphasizing that this decision process is as critical for panfish as for bass and muskie. Keeping some average-sized fish, not necessarily a limit, for a fresh meal is one of the highlights of any trip. But releasing big fish to spawn and continue growing is necessary to maintain good fishing quality.

Meanwhile, below the surface, crappies follow their natural inclination to eat and spawn. A compromise in shape and size, crappies occupy a unique niche in our waters. They hold a unique niche in the hearts of all enlightened anglers, as well.