Larry Pugh, director of the Fisheries Bureau for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and his staff of technicians and biologists are charged with protecting, maintaining and ­— in some cases — improving fishing in the state’s freshwater ponds, lakes, streams and rivers.

As we enter into a new year, Pugh agreed to sit down with Mississippi Sportsman to discuss the State of Mississippi’s fishing in a question/answer session.

Here’s what he had to say:

MSS: All wildlife and fisheries management is user-funded in Mississippi, which means that license sales and excise fees on fishing tackle, boats, motors and boat fuel pay the bills, either directly or indirectly (factoring in our share of federal funding).

How are our fishing license numbers doing compared to historical averages?

Pugh: License sales have shown a slight decline over the last 20 years but have remained relatively stable since 2006.

License sales peaked at about 450,000 in 1994, with 350,000 certified license holders in 2013.

The slight decline MDWFP has seen in license sales has also been reported nationally, so it is not just a problem at the state, or even regional level.

MSS: Comparing our $8 annual resident license fee to other states — Alabama’s is $12.50, Florida’s is $17, Louisiana is at $9.50, Tennessee is at $9 (just to fish with worms and crickets in your home county) and up; Arkansas’ fee is $10.50 and $15.50 with trout included, and Texas is $30 and up — it appears it is past time to consider an increase.

How long can you continue to maintain your agency’s hatcheries and other fishing programs without a fee increase?

Pugh: Fortunately, the last several years we have not seen a decline in our (federal) Sport Fish Restoration funding. The program is funded by excise fees on sport fishing equipment, imported boats, and fuel purchased for outboards.

In 2013, about $350 million was available to all states for sport fish management. Our share of those dollars is based on a formula that takes into account two things: The amount of inland and coastal water area in square miles, and the number of certified license holders each year. 

The SFR program funding allows reimbursement up to 7 percent of eligible state expenditures. Our bureau uses these dollars to fund most of our programs, i.e., hatcheries, sport fish management, state fishing lakes and education.

The 25-percent match in the program is provided with state dollars, and in our case that means license dollars. We don’t expect a reduction in the services we provide and the number of fish we stock if we don’t have a license increase.

Our staff has done a tremendous job meeting the objectives of our programs with the funding and budget we have. However, our challenges down the road include funding big-ticket items, like the hatchery expansion and renovations you mention. 

To meet these challenges, I want to focus on recruiting and retaining new anglers who will buy licenses and purchase more tackle and not worry about the cost of a license.

MSS: In respect to the recruitment of young fishermen, your division has a strong educational outreach program. How is it working, and is there anything new in the works?

Pugh: Our youth-fishing rodeos continue to be extremely popular. We hold 50 to 60 events each year, with more than 6,000 participants. We also conduct three fishing camps around the state during the summer months.

Our challenge is to evaluate whether these type of events (rodeos and camps) really are building new anglers. 

We are switching gears slightly with our kid’s camps next year to focus on family camps. A pilot camp last summer was extremely popular and opened our eyes about how little some parents know about fishing.

Not only will we be teaching kids to fish, but also the parent may get interested, or even in some cases, come back to the sport of fishing. 

We also have our North Mississippi Fish Hatchery Visitor Education Center that attracts approximately 5,000 visitors per year. We provide numerous tours and programs for school groups of all ages. The VEC gives us another opportunity to reach numbers of youth that may have never been exposed to fishing and conservation. 

MSS: The North Mississippi Fish Hatchery at Enid was state of the art when it was built in 2006, and new ponds have been added. Its value was proved by raising the fish needed after catastrophic fishery failures following major hurricanes and flooding.

With it and the other hatcheries available, are you secure that we can meet the needs of the future?

Pugh: MDWFP biologists submit annual stocking requests for public waters all around the state and, yes, we have been able to meet those requests. Our hatcheries last fiscal year produced over 2.5 million fish representing 11 different species.

Our long-term plans include completing new pond construction at the NMFH, as well as renovation and expansion of Turcotte Fish Hatchery.

We are also now conducting research in conjunction with Mississippi State University that can potentially provide us with more tools to use in fish production. A good example is out-of-season spawning techniques that will allow us to raise certain species at different times of the year. 

MS: Invasive non-native fish species, especially silver carp from the Mississippi River, appear to be a growing problem after the 2011 flood. How bad is it, and what steps are being taken?

Pugh: The problem we are facing is two-fold. Yes, silver carp populations expanded to waters in the Delta during the 2011 flood. Most people don’t realize that the flood is something we had never seen before: The Mississippi River reached record levels.

Following the flood, we got record lows in 2012. Record highs one year followed by record lows.

The result is we’ve seen what we call “missing year classes” (poor reproduction and/or survival to age 1) during those two years. Throw in potential impacts of expanding silver carp populations and you’ve got a perfect storm.

Silver carp are plankton feeders and compete directly with forage fish (shad) at all life stages, and also compete with other fish that require plankton at early or juvenile stages.

We do have some good news, in that sport-fish populations on the Mississippi River oxbows appear to be stabilizing; our biologists, as well as Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries staff, have reported increased catches of sport fish from several oxbows up and down the river.

We also are encouraged by the ongoing development of a commercial fishery for Asian carp in the Delta. That will certainly be an opportunity to attempt to control invasive carp numbers.

MSS: Invasive non-native vegetation species are also becoming problematic in Mississippi and other Southeast states. Some are scary, while others — although threatening — are welcomed by fishermen.

How well is your agency armed for this battle, and how goes the fight?

Pugh: There is always going to be a conflict between user groups over how much vegetation is too much. Because of expanding coverage of non-native aquatic vegetation, we have started ramping up our control efforts the last two years.

Our focus has primarily been on hydrilla, water hyacinth and alligator weed.

We’ve increased the number of personnel and equipment we have that are dedicated to spraying aquatic weeds. In some instances, we even have to target native aquatic plants when those plants interfere with lake usage or prevent access around ramps, piers or getting to your favorite fishing hole.

A plant that has gotten our attention recently is giant salvinia. This plant has caused tremendous problems in Louisiana, and can be very expensive to control. It spreads very rapidly, and can take over a lake or pond very quickly.

Our only option to treat giant salvinia is spraying aquatic herbicides. We are constantly on the lookout for this invasive plant, and will respond immediately to any areas where it is documented.

MSS: The MDWFP’s state lakes and state park lakes offer a lot of opportunities for all levels of fishermen, yet they appear to be under-utilized.

Is that the case? If so, what promotional steps are being taken?

Pugh: That’s a tough question. Yes, based on historical data, usage (particularly fishing) at state lakes and park lakes has shown a general decline.

We really don’t know of barriers that are keeping anglers from fishing our state lakes. These lakes are typically smaller, provide great access for both bank and boat anglers, and have well-managed fish populations.

We now have weekly fishing reports available on our website at all these lakes. We provide contour maps of each lake that show fish attractor placement.

(The decline in usage) could simply be a function of there are fewer anglers fishing now compared to past years. We will continue to focus on facility improvements, fisheries management and a strong marketing effort.

MSS: On the subject of state lakes, it has been over 15 years since work started on Lake Calling Panther, the newest lake that was completed in 2002. Is there any discussion of adding more new lakes in the future, or is the focus on maintaining the existing lakes, including repair and renovation?

Pugh: We have not had any discussions about building new lakes. We currently have 18 state lakes and 20 state park lakes located all over the state we own and operate.

Our focus will be on improving our existing lakes. This could mean renovation for some lakes, where we drain the lake completely and restock. Renovation is a difficult decision because that usually means the lake is closed to fishing for two years (to allow) the fish population to expand.

However, when you look at the age of some of our lakes (most were built in the late 1950s or early 1960s), draining and restocking may be the best option.

There is certainly a lot of excitement generated when we reopen a lake that has been renovated, as well as some great fishing.

When renovation is not an option, other lakes may get a face lift of sorts, where our staff focuses on improving habitat and access. Adding habitat, whether it is artificial or natural, is a great way to bring fish to the angler.

Improving access may mean a new or improved boat ramp, new fishing pier, or a boat-ramp courtesy pier.

MSS: Which lakes are currently offline, and when will they open?

Pugh: We currently have two lakes that are closed for renovation.

Lake Lamar Bruce, located near Saltillo and Tupelo, is scheduled to reopen in May. This 300-acre state lake was always one of the Top 5 most-popular lakes in the state, and was renovated to repair the dam. The dam was reclassified as high hazard, and we built a new dam to come into compliance. 

While it was drained, we were able to do some shoreline deepening, cut new channels and ditches, and add offshore humps that will make for great places to fish.

We restocked with Florida largemouth bass, bluegill, redear, channel catfish and hybrid crappie.

I look for Lamar Bruce to be No. 1 on our list of state lakes once it reopens. 

We just completed renovating Lake Monroe, located just north of Aberdeen. We were also able to do some of the same improvements in the lake bottom there that we did at Lamar Bruce.

We stocked bluegill and redear last fall, and will stock Florida largemouth bass in May. Channel catfish and hybrid crappie are also in the works.

This 90-acre lake is often-overlooked as a top destination, but I anticipate it will get a lot of attention when we reopen the lake in May 2017.

MSS: Doesn’t your staff provide a public outreach program to help private pond/lake owners and even communities manage their waters for fishing?

Pugh: Yes, the primary objective of our technical-guidance program is to provide management recommendations to private pond owners.

Our staff conducts 300 to 400 private-water assessments each year and we provide information through phone calls, fax, email and mail.

In addition to talking with individual pond owners, our staff has also started conducting pond management workshops all across the state. These workshops are usually held during the week after work, and include a short presentation by our staff followed by a time for questions and answers.

We post the dates and location of the workshops on our website and also send out press releases announcing each one.

We have also recently expanded our Community Fishing Assistance Program, or CFA for short. There are many small water bodies in Mississippi that are owned by counties and cities; in an effort to provide quality-fishing experiences in these waters, we established the program with the goal to enhance the management and development of lakes and ponds in urban settings so local residents — especially youth — will be able to experience the joys of fishing close to home.

There are currently 17 lakes totaling 112 acres enrolled in the program, and we are always looking to add lakes. A map of the lakes currently enrolled in the program is available on our website.

MSS: We talk a lot about fishing but little about the access to fishing water, but isn’t that an important part of what the Fisheries Bureau does?

Pugh: Yes, an important program in our bureau is boating access. In fact, we are required to spend 15 percent of our sport-fish dollars discussed above each year on boating-access projects.

You need a boat ramp, fishing pier or good bank access if you want to provide fishing opportunities.

Our team builds three to five boat ramps each year on public waters all over the state. A major concern in the future is losing access to public waters.

MDWFP was fortunate to purchase Laney’s Landing in 2011, thereby providing public access forever on the popular Mississippi River oxbows Chotard and Albermarle, and their connected waters.

We want to find and prioritize other areas in the state where that might be feasible.

MSS: Finally, as fisheries director, what is your overall opinion of the state of fishing in Mississippi?

Pugh: Overall, I’m going to give us a A minus. I’m fortunate that I have been able to fish all over our state, and truly believe we have some of the best fishing in the country.

We have some of the best trophy bass opportunities in the Southeast, and our crappie fisheries on the four North Mississippi Corps of Engineers flood control reservoirs are nationally recognized. I don’t know of many places that routinely give up 3-pound crappie.

Don’t forget the great bream fishing found at our state fishing lakes and state park lakes.

The Pascagoula River provides miles and miles of scenic views, with good fishing for a variety of species. And go a little bit farther downstream, especially this time of the year, and you can expect to get into speckled trout and redfish.

Want to fish for catfish? We have many rivers and streams, like the Yazoo, Big Black and Pearl Rivers, that are full of all three species of catfish. Hit the Mississippi River for a true chance for a trophy catfish of a lifetime. 

I can’t fail to mention my personal favorites: the smallmouth and spotted bass fisheries in the northeast part of the state. 

MSS: Sounds more like an A plus, so why not?

Pugh: The reason I didn’t give us an A plus is the oxbow fishing the last three years. I know catches of bass, crappie and bream have been down, but that’s a challenge I believe our staff is up to.