Without a doubt, Mississippi’s crappie fisheries are an important natural resource. They are the backbone of a multi-million-dollar economy that impacts tourism, manufacturing, retail sales and a host of other state businesses.
While it’s a resource that many are familiar with on the surface, much remains unknown — particularly about where and when these fish move within local waters.
Starting in 2008, a cooperative study between the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and the University of Mississippi was begun to target and study the seasonal movements of crappie in two of Mississippi’s major crappie reservoirs.
As part of the project, legal 12-inch fish were caught and tagged with sophisticated homing beacons. Radio transmitters were attached to the fish, and orange identification tags with a contact number were secured to the dorsal fin.
The ongoing study, which has included two of Mississippi’s most-popular crappie reservoirs — Lakes Sardis and Enid — will conclude in the next few weeks.
Dr. Glen Parsons, a professor of biology at Ole Miss heading up the study, said the results will help push crappie management to a new level.
"The things we learn through this project are important for having a better crappie fishery," Parsons said. "We may be able to identify changes in behavior with weather, as well as changes in behavior with season, and we may be able to identify places around our lakes that are particularly important crappie spawning habitat."
Work was focused for three years — 2008, 2009 and 2010 — on Sardis Lake. During that time, Parsons and his staff tracked tagged fish throughout each spring and summer. The GPS locations of the fish were posted on the MDWFP Web site and regularly updated.
In 2011, the research cooperative moved over to Enid Lake, where the Ole Miss crappie research team tagged crappie to collect data for the study. The end of this summer will see the conclusion of the data collection for the study.
Parsons indicated that the easy part was behind them, and the hard part — compiling, cataloging and publishing the results of the study — were still ahead.
"The report isn’t finished yet," Parsons said. "It will go to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the folks that funded the project, and we will also publish the results in the scientific literature.
This coming February we’ll also present the results at our American Fisheries Society meeting."
That said, the first question that comes to mind about a fish that is widely familiar to a large segment of anglers is what did you learn that we didn’t already know?
Parsons and his lead graduate assistant Dylan Williams, said there have been plenty of insights, particularly regarding how far crappie migrate.
"They’re darned mobile," Parsons said. "They move all over the place. If they were less mobile, it would make our job easier because if you found them here last week, you can run to that spot and maybe they’ll be a little bit farther from that spot than they were last week.
"But, no, there’s no telling where that fish is going to be."
To the inexperienced, having a bunch of fish tagged with homing beacons would seem to be a piece of cake to find: Just turn the equipment on and follow the beep. However, Williams spent countless hours several times a week in a boat tracking crappie.
"The antennas have a little bit of directionality to them," he said. "You can kind of tell which direction they are but the range is, at most, a football field depending on how shallow or deep the fish are.
"Think about how many football fields you have in Sardis, right now, or in Enid — that’s a lot of water to cover.
"To find them we have to be close, so we run lines back and forth across the reservoir. We have a plotter so we can see the paths that we ran and stack on course."
The study also targeted the two different species of crappie — white and black —in each reservoir. There were some intriguing discoveries.
"There seems to be some interesting differences between black and white crappie," Parsons said. "Black crappie don’t seem to move as much. That’s not all that earth-shattering, either, because black crappie tend to be more structure-oriented than white crappie.
"But even so, black crappie will hold on structure in one part of the lake one day and be on the other side the next week, holding on structure. So they aren’t staying in one place long.
"But the white crappie are the ones that really move around."
One area of concern to the team was the number of tags that were collected below the spillways of the two reservoirs. This occurred during the winter drawdown when water was being passed through the dam.
"We know there’s a problem with fish going out of the reservoir during the winter, and it was during January when the fish started flooding out and we lost a bunch of our fish," said Williams. "When the spillway is at high outflow and you’ve got a real cold snap that comes down at night, those are conditions where the next day and probably that evening you’re going to see fish flooding out of there."
Parsons suggested the loss of crappie through the spillway may be a two-fold problem, but fortunately one that may have a simple fix.
"It appears the fish drop to the bottom, and they basically go into a stupor like a thermal shock," he said. "Based on the archival tags, which also record depths, crappie in this condition fall down to deeper depths, I guess looking for warmer water, and it appears they’re being drawn across the bottom.
"Gradually they’re drawn toward the outflow and then out through the gates. It doesn’t kill the fish, but they’re lost from the reservoir."
Parsons pointed to the crappie’s tendency to relate to structure as a possible solution to the problem. He suggested that one of the places in need of fish-holding structure was the deep water areas out in front of the spillways.
"Everybody’s putting fish habitat out there for crappie, but they put them in shallow waters," he said "If structure was placed in some of those deeper areas, out a ways from the floodgates, I think what would happen is it might intercept a lot of those fish.
"So instead of just being passively drawn toward that outflow, it would give them something to orient to which, in turn, might hold more fish in the reservoir."
How to Get There
Sardis Lake is located along I-55 and is approximately 10 miles Northwest of Oxford. Enid Lake lies just east of I-55 about 12 miles south of Batesville and approximately 20 miles south of Lake Sardis.
There are a number of public access sites at both Lakes Enid and Sardis. For a comprehensive listing of both lakes, go to www.mdwfp.com/applications/rampspiers/search.aspx.
Holiday Lodge — 218 County Road 517, Como; 662-526-5392
John Kyle State Park — 4235 State Park Road, Sardis
George Cossar State Park — 165 County Road 170, Oakland; 662-623-7356
Mississippi Division of Tourism, 1-866-SEEMISS, www.visitmississippi.org
John Woods, 731-334-9669, www.crappie101.com/crappie/john-woods-guide-service
John Harrison, 662-983-5999, www.crappie101.com/crappie/john-harrison-guide-service
The University of Mississippi Biology Department, P.O. Box 1848, University, MS 38677-1848; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; 662-915-7203
MDWFP, 1505 Eastover Drive, Jackson, MS 39211; 601-432-2400
Delorme Mississippi Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105 www.delorme.com
Fishing Hot Spots, 1-800-ALL-MAPS, www.fishinghotspots.com