A Case for Selective Panfish Harvest
November 09, 2017
Panfish could use a press agent. Collectively, full-grown bluegills, crappies, and perch would benefit from a newer, progressive image. Maybe start with a new name — anything not synonymous with gorging oneself on piles of crispy, delicious bites of flaky white meat.
Palmfish? Funfish? The "People's Fish?" Okay, I can't think of anything good at the moment. But now that I mention it, I could go for a perch po' boy sandwich. A couple 11-inchers from clear icy waters would do me just right. Might invite a few friends. Two fair perch apiece ought to get the job done.
Roll those pearly fillets in egg and milk, and dust them in Back Porch Fish Fry — my favorite batter. It's the "ultimate" fish fry. Says so right on the label. Get the oil hot — I like 400°F when frying with canola. Drain the fillets on newspaper then lay them on toasted hoagie buns and garnish as desired with garden tomatoes, spinach, red onion, and a thin coating of lemon and caper Mayo.
Doesn't take a mountain of fillets to feed a family. Twenty, 25, 50 or more fish? Those are some mighty hearty appetites. Consider a single deep-fried bluegill fillet can contain in excess of 200 calories. Run the numbers and you realize how much food value — and ounces of meat — lies in a limit of 25 sunfish.
Consider that in most states, a single licensed angler can legally harvest 25 to 50 sunfish daily, and many states impose no limit at all; this often also includes crappies and yellow perch. But even with liberal possession limits on waters that can stand such pressure and quickly replace harvested fish, anglers are selectively targeting and taking the largest individuals.
On ice, we've witnessed countless times anglers culling small fish from buckets each time they catch a larger fish. Regardless how capable a fishery is of growing and replacing larger panfish, rarely is it a bad idea to release larger individuals. I appreciate what In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has said about the harvest of sizable sportfish, applicable to any species: "There can never be enough big fish, no matter where you are. Even on the most fertile fish factories where biologists tell you it doesn't hurt the fishery to kill big fish — like Lake Erie and its trophy walleyes — it's never a waste to put a big fish back. Big fish are always more important in the water."
I'm not sure when folks decided they needed to collect and stockpile fillets from full-grown panfish like they were currency, but that's one thing we could change about how we view these special sportfish. Anglers have little trouble understanding the importance of releasing walleyes over about 20 inches, or stream trout beyond about 14, and certainly large bass. So why can't we impose the same selective harvest ethic to panfish as they do other species?
Big 'Gill Harvest: '¨A Short History
"Big bluegills still exist," says legendary Minnesota Guide Brian Brosdahl, who in his three-plus decades of hardcore panfishing has witnessed the fall of many fisheries. "But in the last 20 years, populations have been sniffed out and decimated. In the past five years, even some the most remote lakes I fish have been discovered and selectively vacuumed by unethical anglers. Vulnerable populations can be easily rooted out through social media now, where not everyone is ethical. It reminds me of the way buffalo were once hunted to near extinction on the frontier, but now the mission is to rid the earth of big bluegills, crappies, and perch.
"I see this 'conquering' mentality out there. They're hunting fillets like it's a gold rush. I watch the same anglers fish 7, 10, 12 days straight, parked on spots, stockpiling panfish until there's little left. A lot of these groups work as large panfish removal machines.
"The decision to release has got to be made in advance," Brosdahl says. "You can't hold fish in a bucket of water until you decide to release them later. They won't survive, unless you've oxygenated the water and optimized the temperature.
"We've got to limit catches from deep water, too. Fish that come from 25 feet or deeper are likely to die. You can't sort or cull these fish from your bucket. If you want to fish deep, harvest your limit and stop. And if the fish are 12-inch-plus crappies or perch, consider finding a shallower spot.
"Throughout the northern tier of the ice belt — Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and into North Dakota — it can take a decade to grow an 8- or 9-inch sunfish, and that's under ideal conditions," Brosdahl says. "I start each guide trip by explaining that if clients insist on taking one trophy bluegill over 9-inches to mount, that's okay. But everything else that touches 9 goes back."
Five or 10 years ago, most fisheries would eventually rebound following a one- to three-year period of intensive wintertime harvest. But now, waves of ice anglers cycle back through previously hot lakes before they can fully recover.
In northern reaches of the ice belt we've been losing stocks of top-end size sunfish for over half a century. Moreover, a stock of big bluegills in a lake can be decimated in a single fishing season, or on small water, within a few weeks. For every angler ticketed by conservation officers for over-limits, assume that dozens of others are stocking freezers and "double dipping" panfish limits every day without recrimination. You know who you are and you're only shooting yourself, the fishery, and your fellow fishermen in the gut.
If only we'd known how rare these big old bluegills would soon become. It's eye opening and disheartening to read historical accounts of netting and creel survey data from fish populations between 1950 and 1990. The data are instructive and give us a glimpse of what healthy, balanced bluegill populations look like, while showing how quickly things can go wrong.
Given sufficient spawning habitat, predator abundance, and bluegill growth rates, fisheries are meant to contain multiple year-classes, including plenty of mature fish over 8 and 9 inches. With a few small steps in the right direction — progressive panfish regulations blended with voluntary selective harvest — we can return to the good old days within our lifetimes.
Two previous studies from Michigan and Wisconsin show how vulnerable sunfish are to exploitation. Just one month after Third Sister Lake, Michigan, was first opened to angling, 24 percent of legal-sized (6-inch) sunfish were harvested. In another lake newly opened to the public in 1976 — Mid Lake, Wisconsin — anglers harvested 13 percent of bluegills greater than 6 inches within the first three days, and 35 percent by the end of the third month.
A creel survey from 1961 showed that 40 percent of harvested bluegills from Lake Andrew, Minnesota, measured 225 mm (nearly 9 inches) or larger. By 1995, only 1 percent of the bluegills in this lake measured this size or larger.
Another study, "Angler Exploitation of Bluegill and Black Crappie in Four West-Central Minnesota Lakes" by fishery biologists Bradford Parsons and Jeffrey Reed, sheds light on the rates of exploitation of both species, as well as the scope of angler harvest of top-end panfish. During the four-year study, average total mortality for the four lakes was 75 percent for bluegill and 59 percent for black crappie. Annual angler exploitation rates averaged 25 to 35 percent, with average sizes declining rapidly.
It's clear that harvest of big bluegills in northern tier ice-belt states is often excessive and unsustainable. If you're no longer catching big bluegills in your lake, it likely isn't because they've suddenly become harder to catch. Big bluegills are typically the most aggressive and first fish to be removed from a population. Rather, it's likely because they're no longer there.
In populations biologists refer to as "balanced," bluegills larger than 8 inches can be relatively abundant, with at least several other strong year-classes present in the population. Healthy fisheries often house relatively smaller numbers of sunfish, with more top-end size spawning males and moderate numbers of large, yellow-orange females. Growth rates vary greatly, based on latitude, fertility, water temperature, and forage. In Minnesota, it can take 10 years or more to grow a 9-inch sunfish under nearly optimal conditions, while in Iowa ponds, bluegills can reach 8 inches or more in 5 years.
Some lakes lack the ingredients necessary to grow numbers of big bluegills. When lake fertility is low, and biomass (particularly zooplankton) is lacking, bluegills grow slowly. In many shad-based reservoirs, big bluegills are often rare because shad outcompete them for available zooplankton.
Prime big-bluegill fisheries often contain limited areas of optimal spawning habitat, often hard-bottom, sand/rubble shallow flats peppered with hardstem bulrush and a variety of other plant species. Water clarity is often stained, limiting growth of vegetation, which can shelter small sunfish from predation. Very high vegetation densities, such as stands of Eurasian milfoil that cover a large portion of a water's surface area, provide excessive refuge and reduce healthy levels of predation on young bluegills, perpetuating numbers of small sunfish.
Predators can be important to balanced fisheries, keeping bluegill numbers in check through predation. Largemouth bass are particularly effective predators on small bluegills. Studies in Missouri, South Dakota, and Nebraska have shown that waters with abundant bass less than 12 inches long tend to produce higher quality bluegills.
Bluegills from populations where they grow fast often possess thick, burly midsections, with relatively short, stout bodies. Older 'gills from lakes where they grow slowly or from stunted populations can appear more streamlined and thinner across the chest. Even the mature male bluegills may lack a pronounced hump, indicating prematurely spawning fish known as "sneakers," a phenomenon that occurs when too many alpha male bluegills are removed from a population. The removal of these males is particularly damaging to a fishery because as sneakers begin to infiltrate spawning beds and displace absent alphas, the trend can quickly become an epidemic that's nearly impossible to reverse.
Even while anglers in far northern climates experience ongoing challenges with protecting and restoring stocks of large sunfish, fringe ice-belt states such as Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois appear to be holding their own. Jeff Kopaska, fishery biometrician with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says his state's Master Angler Program has seen an increase in trophy (10-inch or larger) bluegill entries during the past five years.
Kopaska says about half of the 500 qualifying bluegills entered during that period were caught from farm ponds — the most frequently fished type of waterbody in his state. "The other half of the fish were from high-yielding lakes with heavy fishing pressure and 25-fish bag limits.
"A bluegill on Big Spirit or West Okoboji reaches 9 inches at age-7 or 8," he says, "but is only likely to live to age-8 or 9, maxing out at 12 inches. Farther south on Twelve Mile Creek Lake, 'gills reach 9 inches at age-6 but aren't likely to live longer than 8 years. Some individual fish at this latitude can reach 9 inches in just 4 years. These fish mostly max out between 10 and 11 inches."
Kopaska adds that while he believes Iowa and similar states could turn out more trophy panfish with increasingly restrictive regulations, determining the appropriate cutoff between managing for trophies versus managing for the harvest demands of anglers is difficult. "It becomes a matter of legislating an ethic, which raises other issues — biology, climate, and limnology notwithstanding. You also have to look at how much longer that fish is going to live.
"In northern climates where it takes fish longer to grow large, tools like lower bag limits can be important," he says. They can also be effective farther south, but often aren't necessary because of fast growth rates and relatively short lifespans. Other factors can also play bigger roles than harvest. How much of the lake consists of littoral zone? What kind of vegetation exists? If it's a very dense species such as curly-leaf pondweed or brittle naiad, small sunfish easily hide and evade predation (a key contributor to natural mortality).
"Many lakes in the southern regions of the ice belt are surrounded by farm fields, where excess nutrients wash into the water. We also have a month or longer growing season than lakes farther north," he says.
Selective Harvest Humpheads
Although management goals must often try to appease harvest-oriented anglers and trophy seekers alike — a seemingly paradoxical proposition — selectively harvesting smaller, more numerous 7- and 8-inch sunfish while releasing specimens 9 inches and larger can effectively address both user groups.
In Minnesota, Wisconsin, and several other states, certain lakes identified for their propensity to grow large bluegills have been protected by 5- or 10-fish limits, where statewide limits are 25. One promising recent study by Andrew Rypel of the Wisconsin DNR has evaluated the effects reduced daily bag limits (from 25 to 10) have on bluegill size structure in seven Wisconsin lakes over the past 15 years. Rypel identified and selected lakes based on size and growth of bluegills. Problem lakes were identified as those with poor size structure but good growth rates, where angler exploitation was identified as the main culprit.
The results showed that mean length and mean maximum length of bluegills increased in five of the seven 10-fish limit lakes. On average, bluegills in all lakes increased by an average of 1/2 inch — a substantial increase when you consider the relative sizes of sunfish. Rypel noted that over time, greater gains in bluegill size are within expectations.
Conversely, in an eighth study lake, where the bag limit increased from 25 to unlimited, mean total length decreased substantially, dropping from over 8 inches to under 6. Rypel added that the next stage of the project — which will run another 10 years — is to add new management strategies on an additional 100 Wisconsin lakes — some with 10-fish limits, some with 5-fish, and others with reduced limits only during the spawning season.
Superseding any progressive regulation or lack thereof, anglers must learn to exercise self-control while acknowledging the value of selective harvest. Whether or not 25 and 50 panfish limits are sustainable or wise, anglers seeking fish for the table and a single trophy can realistically achieve both goals. Regardless of where you're fishing, Stange's axiom is spot on — big fish are always more valuable in the water.