November 24, 2020
By Cory Schmidt
Perhaps the problem all along has been one of perception. The term panfish, to some, seems to imply that God put bluegills, crappies, and perch here for one reason: To be filleted and consumed in assembly-line numbers. The bigger the better, some folks also believe, for bigger panfish mean chunkier fillets, and more food. As In-Fisherman contributor and big-bluegill expert Jim Gronaw puts it, “Too often, anglers view the harvest limit not as a management tool but as a daily fishing goal and a measuring stick for success.” The unfortunate byproduct of such an approach is that currently, your chances of catching a 10-inch bluegill are rarer than catching a 50-inch muskie or 30-inch walleye. That’s a problem.
But if we’re looking for silver linings, we may be in luck. New management approaches in the Upper Midwest have started to show promise. Likewise, research is beginning to show that angler attitudes in some parts of the country are changing. Folks are increasingly realizing that the beauty of a big bluegill lies in its rarity, in the value of the quest. Some of us simply appreciate the opportunity to palm one of nature’s most interesting, quirky creatures, and then to put it right back.
From a fishery management perspective, it’s also become clear that we can’t manage “panfish” as one big category. Bluegills, crappies, and perch no more belong in the same category as do walleyes and bass, pike and muskies, or carp and catfish. It’s perplexing to me that even in this age of enlightened fishery science, many fishery agencies still classify and manage multiple species under the same “panfish” umbrella. That needs to change.
While bluegills, crappies, and perch often intermingle in the same habitat, their divergent spawning habits, growth patterns, and responses to angler harvest often require specific management strategies. Dave Weitzel, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) Fisheries Supervisor in Grand Rapids, explains the idiosyncrasies between bluegill and crappie biology.
“Bluegill populations can be radically altered by the targeted harvest of top-end-size breeding males,” says Weitzel, who is currently leading Minnesota’s Quality Bluegill Initiative. “As the size of remaining male bluegills decreases, bluegills respond by maturing and spawning earlier. This means much of their energy goes toward reproductive success rather than growth during the early stages of their lives. Eventually, because of increased competition for limited food sources, small, stunted fish overtake the population—a circumstance that can take decades to reverse.
“In a healthy bluegill fishery, however, young males dedicate all their energy toward growth until they mature at age-4 to age-7. At that point, these big brood males begin to focus on reproduction at the slight cost of growth. But big bluegills are fit enough at this point to claim optimal spawning locations and successfully fend off smaller egg thieves. In a nutshell, releasing big bluegills gives the remaining population incentive to grow big.”
Weitzel says crappies, by contrast, aren’t so vulnerable to dramatic shifts in fish size. Crappies, he says, grow relatively fast, even in cool North Country lakes. This enables them to outgrow bass predation, even while same-age sunfish still fall prey to small and medium-sized largemouths—a critical bluegill and crappie predator.
“Crappies tend to focus more on what’s best for individual fish, as opposed to what’s the best way to benefit the colony,” he says. “You can have fantastic crappie fishing in a lake with just three to five year-classes, where a successful spawn might occur just once every three or four years. Gaps in year-classes create space for individual fish growth via reduced competition.
“As such, crappie populations aren’t so likely to become stunted as bluegills. So long as quality spawning habitat exists, most crappie lakes can eventually rebound, even after a single year-class is wiped out by harvest.”
This isn’t to suggest it’s cool to go out and fillet every crappie that bites. Egregious overharvest can and does, in certain lakes, beat down crappie populations to the point that it may take a decade or more to rebound—and then only if the fishery is left alone.
But for at least the past 50 years, it’s bluegill populations—particularly those in the northern half of the U.S.—that have suffered relentlessly at the hands of insatiable anglers. Geographically, however, this notion comes with a caveat: While populations in the northern half of the country can easily be whittled and reshaped, the species’ southern counterparts rarely experience such dramatic breakdowns. As one Florida biologist previously remarked: “Overharvest of big bluegills? Rarely.”
It all boils down to growing seasons, growth rates, and spawning cycles. A male bluegill in a Mississippi lake or Texas farm pond might spawn twice annually and can already measure 9 inches in its third year. Contrast that with a New York, Minnesota, or Canadian bluegill that spawns once a year and might not reach 8 inches until age-8, 9, or 10. Extreme examples have been observed by cutting-edge bluegill researcher Dr. Andrew Rypel, Associate Professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology at University of California, Davis. “In a few remote northern waters, we’ve found some shockingly old fish—male bluegills up to age-17 that measured just 8 inches long,” says Rypel, who spearheaded some of the initial reduced-bag regulations for bluegill during his tenure with the Wisconsin DNR.
When Weitzel began looking at ways to reverse the trend in his home state, he dug into MNDNR archives to examine the history of bluegill management in Minnesota. His research revealed that regulations may have actually been more protective between the 1920s to the late 1940s than they are now. “In 1920, the daily bluegill limit was 25 fish with a 5-inch minimum size,” he says. “In 1930, the state was split into southern and northern zones, each with slightly different closed seasons meant to protect spawning fish. The statewide daily limit was 15 fish at that time. Then in 1945, we went to a statewide bluegill season that opened May 15 and closed February 15. In 1951, the bag limit increased to 30 fish daily and in 1954, perhaps in response to folks enjoying paid vacations for the first time, the season was opened year-round. Numerous lake resorts began opening at about the same period.”
The first clear signs of the decline of top-end-size sunfish appeared in the 1980s. “Fuller’s Hardware in Park Rapids ran a big fish contest every year between 1930 and 1987,” he says. “Until 1953, the average weight of bluegills entered in the contest ran right around 1.3 pounds. After 1953, average weight and contest entries started to decline. By 1987, average weight of bluegills entered in the contest had dropped to just about .75 pound. Almost certainly, the declines reflected the availability of acceptable-sized bluegills.”
Which raises a question about the 30-year gap in regulatory response: Why didn’t we act sooner? Weitzel says that in 2003, Minnesota reduced its daily bag limit from 30 to 20 sunfish in response to angler concerns over size quality. Citing the sometimes unfortunate role social acceptance plays in fishery management, he says the MNDNR has attempted to scale back to a statewide 10-fish bag limit, but the proposal has been “shot down by angler-stakeholders each time.”
“Fishery managers don’t manage lakes for the benefit of the lakes or the fish,” he says. “We manage for the benefit of the angler. Sometimes the two are at cross purposes, and without public support, a good idea might never see the light of day.”
Fortunately, attitudes among anglers appear to be shifting. A 2017 MNDNR study found that catching large sunfish was slightly more important to respondents than catching or keeping fish. While anglers felt statewide bag limits were “about right,” they would reportedly accept reduced bag limits if they produced higher quality sunfish.
Quality Bluegill Initiative
Composed of expert anglers, resort owners, and fishery pros, the MNDNR Panfish Technical Committee recently reviewed data from 20 lakes where daily limits of 5 or 10 bluegills had been in effect for at least 10 years. Nine lakes with a 10-fish limit generally maintained size quality, while 11 lakes with a 5-fish limit saw an average increase in typical bluegill length of 0.7 inches. Average age in these lakes also increased by about one year. In general, the Minnesota findings mirror previous studies, particularly those of Rypel in Wisconsin—all good news.
Phase one of the Quality Bluegill Initiative involves tagging individual lakes with one of the aforementioned reduced-bag options. By 2023, the plan is to increase from 60 to up to 250 Minnesota lakes. Initially, candidate lakes are selected by area fishery managers, who pick waters with histories of producing large bluegills or those with quality fish already present. To maintain an existing quality fishery, Weitzel and his committee typically enact the 10-fish-bag model.
Weitzel says that previous studies by Pete Jacobson and Rypel indicate that to significantly improve bluegill size, a 40-percent reduction in harvest is necessary. “A 5-fish possession limit would be expected to reduce overall harvest by approximately 50 percent,” Weitzel says. “We’re using the 5-fish model to re-establish quality bluegill populations in places they’ve been excessively exploited and where harvest has suppressed a greater size structure. Most of these are low-density populations with a history of producing 9-inch-plus bluegills.”
In Wisconsin, where statewide limits for sunfish, yellow perch, and crappies is 25, special regulations on around 100 lakes restrict total panfish harvest to 10 fish in aggregate, Rypel says. Michigan offers similar regulations, but allows 25 crappies and/or sunfish in any combination, as well as 25 yellow perch.
By and large, harvest limits in southern states are much more liberal, often allowing anglers to literally fill buckets with fillets. Georgia allows daily limits of 50 sunfish and 30 crappies. Texas allows infinite sunfish harvest and a 25-fish limit on black or white crappies, with possession limits twice the statewide daily bag limit. Some Texas lakes, such as Texoma, Sam Rayburn, Palestine, and others, have a 10-inch minimum length limit on crappies.
Measuring Sticks and Closed Seasons
Phase two of the Minnesota plan, Weitzel says, is to restore quality bluegill populations in lakes with poor size structure. Among the tools at the ready include an experimental size-based restriction, such as a 20-fish daily bag limit with only 5 bluegills over 8 inches allowed in possession. Or, even more restrictive length-limit options, such as allowing only one bluegill over 8 or 9 inches daily.
Beyond Texas and other southern states with crappie length limits, several states currently offer various length restrictions. Statewide, Illinois does not limit the size nor the number of crappies or sunfish anglers may harvest. Many of its larger lakes, however, feature special length and harvest limitations. At Rend Lake, you can harvest 20 crappies, but no more than 10 can be under 10 inches or over 10 inches. At other Illinois lakes, sunfish harvest is limited to 15 fish in total, and some of these lakes allow the harvest of no more than 5 sunfish longer than 8 inches.
Gronaw notes that Pennsylvania’s “panfish enhancement” regulations were originally enacted to increase the number, quality, and size of sunfish, crappies, and yellow perch. Minimum size limits on 19 specific waterbodies include 7 inches for sunfish and 9 inches for crappies and perch. Anglers may harvest up to 20 of any panfish species and no more than 50 panfish combined. On several other Pennsylvania lakes, anglers are allowed no more than 10 panfish, combined.
While other states seek to restrict excessive harvest of larger fish, Pennsylvania’s program encourages the harvest of the largest specimens. “Although this does allow some growth for young fish, the regulation does nothing to protect older, trophy-class bluegills,” Gronaw says. “I’m not aware of any lake in Pennsylvania that has seen an increase in larger bluegills based on this regulation.” Indeed, in every case I’ve seen this type of regulation in force, regardless of species, the result is predictably a cropped-off population, where fish numbers increase but where you rarely see individual fish exceeding the minimum size mark.
In Wisconsin, Rypel has previously proposed regulations such as one fish over 8 inches daily and a 5- to 8-inch slot limit with zero harvest above a certain length. “Ultimately, we had too much push-back from the conservation law enforcement community, who said it would create problems having to measure numerous fish already in possession,” he says. “I still believe something like a maximum size of 8 or 9 inches, to keep all the big males in the system, would probably be more effective than reduced bag limits. It’s equally reasonable to assume we could allow 25-fish daily up to a certain size, say 7 inches, and restrict harvest of larger fish and generate favorable returns in big bluegills.”
Relative to closed seasons and their potential to reduce harvest of large spawning males, Weitzel says even in northern states with relatively short spawning seasons, specific reproductive phases vary greatly by latitude. “In Minnesota, we’ve looked at returning to breaking zones down by geography, and then staggering seasonal closing dates. But it just gets too confusing for the public, who would rather see reduced limits.”
Weitzel also suggests that the heaviest bluegill harvest now may occur not during the spring spawn, but during the ice-fishing season. “Historically, most of the harvest occurred during the spring-early summer spawning period. We think this has now changed. Summer fishing is down because we have so many other activities to divert our attention. And winter fishing pressure is as heavy as we’ve ever seen it. For the first time, we’re initiating winter-specific creel surveys to finally learn what’s happening.”
Over the next 5 to 10 years, as results from experimental regulations come to light, we’ll learn more about the efficacy of reduced bag limits, as well as the potential of length-based guidelines. In the meantime, there’s no reason we can’t personally adopt our own self-imposed limits. Harvest a dozen healthy sunfish—those often-abundant 6- and 7-inchers and the occasional 8-incher that work perfectly for fish tacos or nice crispy fillets. Consume all bigger ‘gills with your eyes only, and who knows what the future might hold.
*Cory Schmidt is an exceptional angler and longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor, often writing on fishery conservation and management topics.