Across most of the country, harvest regulations for panfish have become increasingly conservative and complex. Daily bag limits remain the primary tool used to regulate harvest of species such as bluegill, crappies, white bass, and yellow perch. Over the last decade, many states have reduced daily limits for panfish, and instances of no bag limit or limits exceeding 50 fish are becoming harder to find. However, these new daily limits that often range from 10 to 30 fish per day are still considered too high to effectively reduce harvest, as few anglers achieve a daily limit and therefore are not required to release any fish.
Experiments with daily bag limits of less than 10 fish per angler have shown promise on some waters, but have not proven universally effective. For many fisheries, daily bag limits of 5 fish or less could realistically reduce harvest, but angler opinion surveys often reveal that reductions of this magnitude are unpopular among a large contingent of anglers.
Minimum-length limits for panfish also are more prevalent now than ten years ago. Initially, most of these regulations were enacted for crappie fisheries on southern waters, but their widespread application has permeated the northern tier of the U.S.. Little published evidence shows that regulating panfish has improved fishing, but the durations of most evaluations have been too short to detect effects in light of the natural ups and downs that occur within panfish populations.
Conversely, many anglers believe these regulations have worked, despite that some improvements can be directly linked to natural fluctuations in year-class strength (i.e., a new cohort of fish reaching desirable sizes shortly after the regulation was enacted). In some instances minimum-length limits have done their job, but anglers are unhappy that they can't keep as many fish. In at least one case, this has resulted in removal of a minimum-length limit to placate angler desires.
Managing panfish remains one of the most difficult problems facing biologists today. On a positive note, angler harvest rarely threatens the existence of panfish populations as sufficient numbers of fish remain to produce new cohorts of young fish. Panfish anglers are, however, largely harvest-oriented and size-selective, removing relatively large fish from the population, resulting in a dearth of larger fish that are desirable for harvest. Biologists refer to this as quality overfishing.
Panfish populations also are inherently haphazard, producing pulses of larger fish at unpredictable intervals due to the vagaries of Mother Nature. Furthermore, natural mortality rates often exceed 40 percent or more, making it difficult to "save" fish. Reducing harvest may only result in more fish lost to natural causes and provide no net gain in the numbers of large fish available to anglers.
Probably the biggest hurdle to improved fishing quality is the mantra of the modern angler who is infinitely mobile and overwhelmed with electronic information revealing the next best destination for larger panfish. Anglers are quick to exploit these new opportunities and can rapidly reduce a fishery to ho-hum status before moving on to the next hotspot.
More stringent regulation of angler harvest won't improve panfish populations in all situations. Yet, harvest regulations can work if they are applied to fisheries where fish longevity and growth are sufficient to provide increases in numbers of large fish. Identifying these situations has become an increasingly important component of panfish management.
In many cases, to be effective, harvest regulations need to be stringent, making them potentially unpopular among harvest-oriented anglers. Conversely, some angler surveys reveal that a small but growing number of anglers are interested in catching larger fish, even if that means fewer fish in the livewell. Conflicting angler interests, however, will be an unlikely problem for fisheries where stricter harvest regulations provide exceptional opportunities to catch truly large panfish — a bankable commodity that has become increasingly rare in many waters across North America.
Daniel Isermann is a fisheries professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. He has conducted several studies examining effects of harvest regulations on panfish populations.
6 Arc of Slabs, Northeast Mississippi
Like the Bordeaux region grows world-class wine grapes, the Arc of Slabs is famous for producing giant crappies. Grenada, Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla — it's a tossup which of these reservoirs might be best for giant white crappies during March and April. Jigging in brush and spider-rigging are the best bets. Wading, too, at times. Contact: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
2 Lake Erie, Ohio
The best opportunities are between Port Clinton and Vermilion, says Ohio fishery biologist Travis Hartman. Many marinas and backwaters have excellent crappie fishing in the spring, peaking in late April to early May, and occasionally in the fall. Good open-water spots are East and West harbors and Sandusky Bay. Check connected rivers, too. Lots of fish to 12 inches, with 14-inchers not uncommon, Hartman says. Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters says Lake Erie is a surprisingly overlooked crappie fishery, considering the numbers of fish caught, up to 18 inches, as big as any in the state. Contact: Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934; Ohio DNR, dnr.state.oh.us
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Guide Billy Blakley says the crappie forecast for the 'Earthquake Lake ' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11„4 pounds and catches up to 23„4 pounds. The lake contains both black and white crappies. From March through May, spider-rig and jig around underwater wood, and jig around exposed cypress stumps. The bite picks up again in the fall. Top-notch lodging and food at Blue Bank Resort. Contact: Guide Billy Blakley at Blue Bank Resort 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
7 Weiss Lake, Alabama
The crappie outlook is very good for 2013, reports Alabama district fisheries supervisor Dan Catchings. Samples indicate one, and possibly two, strong year-classes of crappies in 2010 and 2011. Expect good numbers of harvestable-size fish from the 2010 spawn this spring, with the 2011 year-class contributing to the fishing in mid- to late 2013. Fishing picks up in February as crappies move shallow. March through early May is best, with April being the peak. Contact: Guide Richard Green, 859/983-0673, or book through Little River Marina and Lodge (256/779-6461); Guide Mark Collins, markcollinsguideservice.com
8 Kentucky Lake, Kentucky / Tennessee
Anglers look forward to the 'Crappie Capital ' living up to its name in 2013, says guide Steve McCadams. Expect numbers of quality fish with a shot at slabs over 2 pounds. While action during the spawn in late March into April is outstanding, don't overlook May and June, when stable lake levels and weather patterns find crappies concentrating around fish attractors at midrange depths, he says. Contact: Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
9 Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir, Virginia/North Carolina
Numbers of crappies from 1 to 13„4 pounds with a chance for 2- to 3-pounders. Once the spider-rigging bite wanes in shallower creek channels by April, action turns to jigging deeper brushpiles. Contact: Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381.
3 Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma
This shallow reservoir boasts numbers of crappies in the 2- to 3-pound range, with 37-fish limits common. In spring, the action is shallow, doodlesocking flooded buckbrush in high water, or working rocky banks and brush cover in low water, says guide Todd Huckabee. Crappies move to deeper brush later in spring. Contact: Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net
; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com
; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528.
5 Lake Fork, Texas
Numbers of slabs from 11„4 to 21„2 pounds tend to get overlooked in this lake famous for lunker bass. Mid-May through June is guide Terri Moon's favorite time for crappies, when the fish head to brushpiles and bridge abutments in 20 to 24 feet of water. Pitching Fork Tackle's Live Baby Shads on 1/16-ounce jigs is a top option. Ivan Martin and Rick Loomis also guide clients to Fork's crappies in November and December, when fish are on points and in deeper brush. Contact: Guide Terri Moon, 903/383-7773; Guide Ivan Martin, 918/260-7743; Guide Rick Loomis, rickloomis.com
; Lake Fork Marina for lodging, food, and tackle, lakeforkmarina.com
1 Lake of the Woods, Ontario
The Woods is top-notch for black crappies to 16 inches, says In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Gustafson. Many crappies on this massive water have never seen lures, so once you find them, the numbers and quality are second to none, he says. Action starts in mid-May, with fish moving to shallow areas with cover. After spawning in early June, target them on weedflats in 6 to 10 feet of water. Float-and-jig combinations excel. Also try small suspending jerkbaits and swimming marabou jigs. Contact: Guide Dave Bennett, davebennettoutdoors.com
, 807/466-2140; Guide Jamie Bruce, brucescanadianangling.com
10 St. Johns River, Florida
The stretch of the St. Johns River south of Lake George offers outstanding fishing. Crappies from 2 to 3 pounds are caught regularly, with average catches well over a pound. This was the scene of an In-Fisherman television episode that airs this spring. Weedflats hold fish that can't resist tubes fished under a float. Or troll channel edges using jigs or minnows. Contact: Lodging at Castaways on the River, 352/759-4522, castawaysontheriver.com
; Guide Steve Niemoeller, 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com