“Game fish for sale! Right here, right now! Get ’em while they’re hot! Bluegill crispies on a stick, crappie gumbo, and largemouth sushi — all right here — hurry, hurry, hurry — game fish for sale!”

Sounds ridiculous, right?

Well, the week before Thanksgiving I was asked by Larry Pugh, director of the Fisheries Department for the MDWFP, to attend a meeting at the Natural Sciences Museum in Jackson. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a renewed interest in Game Fish Aquaculture.

Officials from the Agriculture Department and the Fisheries Department of the State of Mississippi were the organizers of this meeting. 

Other smart people in the room included a couple of fish professors from Mississippi State University, a couple of catfish farmers from up in the Delta, some Farm Bureau folks who work closely with the state Legislature and a gentleman from B.A.S.S.

Interestingly, out of the 20 people in the meeting only two of us represented the sports fishing community, and I was told that one purpose of the meeting was to inform the sport fishing community of this renewed effort to start raising game fish as another food crop. 

Hmmmm.

I told the meeting organizer that if he really wanted to speak to a room full of sport fishermen that he needed to let me call the next meeting. I believe I could scare up more than two guys who love to fish for crappie, bass and bream to a meeting where the focus is to promote the merits of selling game fish in Mississippi.

This same issue came up back in the 1990s. Let me tell you what I remember about it.

Back then, I was asked to speak to a subcommittee at the State Capitol that was considering a law to allow the sale of game fish in Mississippi. Seems that an entrepreneur from down on the coast somewhere had raised up thousands and thousands of pounds of largemouth bass — had gotten them to killing size — and then someone told him it was illegal to sell game fish in Mississippi.

Hence, his need to introduce the new legislation was, at the very least, urgent to him.

After the sub-committee heard from me and a bass guy, the proposed law — which specifically labeled largemouth bass, white and black crappie, and bream as the target species to “farm-raise” and market — didn’t make it out of the subcommittee.

Seems it’s baaaack.

This time, the initiative has grown out of the Department of Agriculture, and its poster boys are a handful of catfish farmers from up in the Delta.

They see this as “diversification” and “filling a niche.”

Seems that in neighboring states, some catfish farmers are raising largemouth bass up to 12 to 14 inches long and delivering them live to Asian-based fish markets on the East Coast.

And the yearling bass are fetching a primo price of $10 a piece.

In the meeting, I expressed my concerns that legalizing the sale of game fish could promote overfishing on public lakes and rivers, and that much effort would have to be put into catching and preventing folks from selling hundreds of wild game fish caught on a daily basis.

I am convinced that overfishing several years ago by local fishermen killed Eagle Lake here in Mississippi. I’ve heard and seen local Eagle Lake fishermen load up — catching as many as 350 crappie a day.

Tell me those weren’t headed to market somewhere. 

I’m betting that too much illegal sale of game fish goes on across our state today. I am convinced that we have folks from out of state come in here, load up their freezers that are in the back of their pickups with crappie filets, and then head back up to Illinois or Missouri.

Go to Lake Washington this spring and see which states you see represented on pickup truck tags that have large deep freezers in the back.

Y’all know my first love is crappie fishing, right? Making it legal to sell game fish, including crappie, just seems to open the flood gates — even encourage — some folks to catch as many crappie as they can as fast as they can however they can and rush them to market.

The group I addressed in the November meeting listened and, before the meeting was adjourned, crappie had been removed from the discussion and the proposed aquaculture law.

There is a group of folks from this meeting that will meet again and draw up a plan and rewrite the new law, leaving crappie out of the equation — for now.

I plan to be involved if they’ll let me.

I was not aware that the Department of Agriculture had already permitted some trials to see if catfish farmers could successfully raise game fish. Discussions at the November meeting revealed that, indeed, attempts have been made at mass producing bass and bream here in Mississippi’s catfish ponds.

I didn’t get a clear understanding as to whether crappie had been “tried.”

What I heard regarding the trials was that the hybrid bream that weren’t supposed to reproduce did anyway, resulting in a pond full of little-bitty bream.

And, I learned that bass are difficult to wean off live protein; they’d rather eat each other than eat pelletized food out of a fish feeder. 

Let me say that our MDWFP rep —Mr. Pugh — urged the group charged with drafting the next resolution to exclude crappie. Additionally, Mr. Pugh was adamant that strict permits be given to our aquaculturists (that’s our fish farmers, folks) only, and that limits for total crop size and regulations for the distribution and sale of cultured game fish be established.

“Game fish for sale” will fall under the administration of our Agriculture Department when rolled out. Current commercial fishing licenses administered by the MDWFP — that’s Mr. Pugh’s bailiwick — are not a piece of this puzzle. That is — and I asked — guys with gill nets who currently harvest legal catches of mostly trash fish in our Mississippi waterways will not be allowed to keep and sell game fish.

You and I can’t get a permit to go catch a livewell full of bass, bream or crappie and sell these to the local market, either.

Thank goodness.

Personally, I have no problem with aquaculturists raising fish as a food crop. Certainly the catfish farming/processing industry has benefited the state’s economy greatly with no damage or impact to wild game catfish and catfishermen. 

I do have a major problem —and I’m betting you do too — with a “game fish for sale” law that doesn’t carry some severe limitations and strict enforcement.

I suggest you keep your ear to the rail and listen carefully to how this plays out. Contact your local legislator to express your concerns or opinions — regardless of your take on the matter.

This appears to still be a couple of years away from reality; no legislation is currently planned to be introduced in 2015.

Perhaps the next public meeting will draw a better crowd of folks like you and me. I told them they’re going to need to reserve the auditorium for the next meeting.

Hope to see you there.