A day at work for the fisheries biologist at the MDWFP North Mississippi Fish Hatchery near Enid begins with flipping on the lights. As the sodium bulbs buzz to life, the sound of rushing water percolating through various fixtures and appliances awaken the ears.

Depending on the time of year, holding tanks might be brimming with brood fish and smaller clear rearing tanks could be swarming with newly hatched fry.

Step out the back door, and the rising sun reveals larger one-acre growing ponds, where hatched fish are allowed to gain a little size to make them better equipped for survival in the outside world.

Fisheries managers understand that one of the most-popular gamefish in the state of Mississippi is the crappie. In the wild, crappie are found in two species: black crappie and white crappie.

But here, within the confines of the hatchery, a third crappie species exists.

Thankfully, MDWFP biologists stayed away from the morbidity of naming their creation "Frankencrappie" and opted for a more fitting name for this new species ­- the Magnolia crappie.

Magnolia crappie are a hybrid between the two prevailing species of crappie - a female white crappie and male black crappie. To make the hybrid easier to identify, the black crappie used in this mating is a black stripe crappie.

According to former Hatchery Manager Justin Wilkens, finding black stripes is easier said than done.

"A black stripe crappie is a unique color variation of the black crappie," Wilkens said. "Out of all the black crappie that we catch at Grenada Lake and Sardis Lake, it's estimated that 10 percent or less actually have that mark.

"It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack, so we spend a lot of time out there electrofishing or trap-netting to try to collect these fish."

The goal behind the Magnolia crappie program was not to create a super fish, but to build a fish that could be stocked into smaller bodies of water. The need to stock crappie in larger impoundments is rare, due to the crappie's high capacity for recruitment; it's this capacity that makes it a poor choice for small-pond stockings, as crappie will soon overrun a small body of water and stunt the growth potential of the entire fishery.

What was desired was a crappie that wouldn't reproduce.

"The idea behind this is to make the fish sterile," Wilkens said. "These sterile fish are stocked into our small state park lakes where, before, crappie fishing wasn't available because we didn't want to stock crappie due to their prolific nature.

"Overpopulation results in a bunch of small fish nobody wants to catch."

Fisheries biologists create sterile crappie by inducing the fish to produce a third chromosome at the cellular level, a condition known as triploidy. This is done by placing newly fertilized eggs under pressure for several minutes.

Creating sterile crappie accomplishes two goals.

First, there's no worry of overpopulation. Magnolia crappie represent a controllable put, grow and take fishery in smaller ponds and lakes.

The second goal, at least theoretically, is that energy not expended in spawning is put toward growth. Magnolia crappie have the growth potential to exceed that of either black or white crappie species.

"It all takes about five minutes to produce triploid hybrid crappie once you've got everything in place," Wilkens said. "Once we get that cross of fertilized eggs from the female white crappie and the male black, we transfer the eggs to a pressure chamber. The pressure chamber applies about 7,000 psi to the eggs, and that induces triploidy, which means the fish has three sets of chromosomes instead of a normal fish, which has two sets - diploidy. Triploid fish are sterile.

"Next, they go into an incubation jar where they're tumbled gently, provided with fresh water and oxygen. The eggs will incubate for about three days until they hatch out."

After the eggs are hatched out, the biologists have to get some size on the fry before they will have a chance for survival in the wild, even in a small pond.

"When the fry first hatch out, they're nothing but eyeballs, yoke sac and a tail," Wilkens said. "No mouth parts, yet; no fins to move around; they just lay there.

"Three or four days later they form their mouth parts, they form their fins, they're up swimming around looking for food. From then, they go out to a pond outside. The pond is filled with water and fertilized to produce natural food items.

"We want to grow our fish out to about 4 inches. We hold them there starting about April, and we hold them in that pond all through the spring and summer, and then harvest them in the fall. And in the fall, they're put onto a fish truck and delivered across the state for state lakes and other ponds."

For the past four years, Magnolia crappie have been stocked in a number of state lakes and ponds across the state. MDWFP Fisheries Biologist Larry Bull oversees four of these lakes: Lake Claude Bennett, Prentiss Walker Lake, Simpson County Lake and the lake at Roosevelt State Park.

"Crappie populations were already in those lakes," Bull said. "We've been stocking Magnolia crappie to try to boost the existing crappie populations.

"We're trying to evaluate our stocking, and we haven't had anglers reporting catching many of the hybrids yet. I guess the bottom line is we don't feel like we're stocking enough to make a difference in the populations at this point."

One possible reason for this is anglers might not recognize a Magnolia crappie when they catch one.

"About 60 percent of the stocked Magnolia crappie have the black stripe on the top of their heads," Bull said. "But you can tell the difference if you look at the fish close enough (even without the stripe). It kind of looks like a black crappie with some broken vertical stripes. It's also harder to distinguish during the spawning season when the males get dark and our anglers will call them black ones.

"Generally that black stripe is the best way to tell."

"If you were fishing somewhere else and you happened to catch a black-striped black crappie, that's just what it is," said Tom Holman, Fish Hatcheries Program coordinator for MDWFP. "It's an odd-ball gene.

"If you're fishing in one of our state lakes and you catch a crappie with a black stripe from the dorsal fin down to its nose, it's one of ours."

Bull brings up a good point regarding the Magnolia crappie's behavior during the spring. Crappie species in general are an open-water, cover-loving fish, and generally congregate in and around deeper water for most of the year. The exception is during the spring spawn, when males scatter out in shallow water to prepare nests for the females to lay eggs in and rear their young.

If Magnolia crappie are sterile and don't breed, what do they do during the spring spawning season?

"They are triploid hybrids, so they're functional mules," said Holman. "They're not supposed to spawn, but Magnolia crappie still go through the spawning process. They're just not successful.

"During the spring, they'll still go through all the motions that occur with other species of crappie, so, in theory, you'd expect to find Magnolia crappie scattered about spawning just like any other species of crappie."

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

How to get there

Magnolia crappie have been stocked in 12 of the 19 state lakes in Mississippi since 2007. For a listing of locations, directions, access and usage fees, visit the state lakes page on the MDWFP website at http://home.mdwfp.com/Fisheries/StateLakeDefault.aspx.

Best tactics

Magnolia crappie feed and react similar to white and black crappie. At this time, biologists do not have enough creel data to suggest any specific behavioral patterns to help target Magnolia crappie specifically.

State Lake managers intensively manage these lakes for fishing including building and maintaining fish attractors. Most managers point to these attractors as a starting point for finding and catching any species of crappie.

Since shad populations, the major forage on larger impoundments, are either reduced or absent in state lakes, crappie utilize minnows and young-of-the-year game fish for food. This change in food and feeding habits should be reflected when applying "big lake" tactics such as trolling and spider rigging on smaller waters.

More information

North Mississippi Fish Hatchery, 457 CR 36, Enid, MS 38927, 662-563-0542. Tours of the facility are available.

Maps, fishing reports and GPS coordinates for state lake fish attractors are available on-line at the MDWFP website listed above.

Accomodations

Camp grounds are available at Claude Bennett and Simpson County Lakes as well as a number of other state lakes. Offsite accommodations can be found by contacting the Mississippi Division of Tourism, 1-866-SEEMISS, www.visitmississippi.org

Maps

Delorme Mississippi Atlas & Gazetteer, 1 (800) 561-5105 http://www.delorme.com/

Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, http://home.mdwfp.com