Is it time for selective harvest of crappie?

Outdoor writer and photographer and savvy crappie angler Bernard Williams asserts that crappies smaller than 2 pounds are the best eaters. (Photo courtesy T.J. Stallings)

Three truths about crappies: they are darn good eating, every crappie angler delights in catching big ones, and Mississippi has the best crappie fishing in the country. But some anglers and guides are fearing — and witnessing — declines in some of Mississippi’s best crappie fisheries, places like the flood control reservoirs and Lake Washington.

The concerns are not unique to Mississippi. Lake Fork, Texas, is also a popular crappie destination. I asked Lake Fork crappie guide Gary Paris if the crappie fishery is still strong. “So far, but I fear that added pressure and livescoping is about to change that,” he said.

Crappie at a crossroads?

There is another “truth” about crappie fisheries: crappie angler effort and efficiency have increased. And it’s not just the buzz about livescoping. Long before Livescope and other forward-looking sonar allowed anglers to spy on fish, anglers were seining the water with spider rigs.

John Harrison, crappie tournament angler and veteran guide on Mississippi’s flood control reservoirs (facebook.com/jhguideservice/), maintains that it’s harder to catch crappies over 12 inches. Harrison also suggests the crappies are getting smarter and catchability is declining, a likely factor in the observed decline.

Crappie guide Patrick Stone (facebook.com/patrickstonefishing) spends most of his time on the flood control reservoirs. He contends Grenada still has a lot of large crappies from strong year classes produced during recent high-water years, but notes that crappies are getting smaller in Arkabutla and Enid.

Jason Golding has been fishing Grenada since he was a kid; he now owns and operates Grenada Lake Charters (grenadalakecharters.com). Golding asserts that Grenada presently has big fish, but the numbers of keeper crappies are down.

All three guides agree that fishing effort has increased. And it’s not just the number of anglers seeking crappies, but also that a lot of anglers are fishing year-round. And all call attention to the high harvest in the winter when the crappies are crowded into the small area of water in front of the dam. Something about shooting fish in a barrel.

Ross Barnett and Lake Washington crappie guide Brad Chappell (bradchappellguideservice.com) also asserted that crappie fishing effort is going up, especially on Washington. Although crappie catch seems stable on Barnett, Chappell reported that his average daily catch at Washington is about half of what it was 4 or 5 years ago, and he is seeing fewer crappies on his electronics.

Biological assessments

Crappies will grow to 3 or 4 pounds in Mississippi’s productive fisheries if anglers release bigger fish.

What say the biologists? “Mississippi’s crappie fisheries are healthy, and the present regulations are effective,” said MDWFP Fisheries Chief Jerry Brown. MDWFP fisheries biologist Keith Meals, who oversees Mississippi’s renowned flood control reservoirs concurs: “We will continue to monitor the population by biological sampling and the angler catch by creel surveys. We will recommend a change when deemed necessary.” Meals is well aware of the increased winter fishing effort and harvest.

While biological assessments of crappie populations indicate they remain robust, the biologists acknowledge that crappie fishing effort, efficiency, and harvest are changing. And the situation is not unique to Mississippi. Biologists in Arkansas, Louisiana, and elsewhere share similar concerns.

What to do about it?

The crappie guides’ livelihood — today and into the future — depends on fish. Sure, the clients provide the guides’ incomes and ample revenue to Mississippi’s economy. But without abundant, quality crappie, there will be no clients. The guides may differ on their thoughts on regulatory changes, but all are in agreement about harvesting fewer fish and releasing big fish.

Chappell encourages release of all larger crappies and encourages anglers to only keep the “cleaners” they need. Harrison makes videos of his clients releasing big crappies as an incentive. Stone has an active tagging program with a well-maintained data base that he uses to encourage live release. Golding reduces his daily guide fee $50 when all clients in the boat agree to release all crappies. Despite encouragement and incentives, few clients are willing to curb their harvest habit.

If and when the biological assessments indicate declining crappie fisheries that are attributed to increased harvest, biologists will recommend harvest restrictions. Of course, any regulation changes, if needed, must be approved by the MDWFP Commission, and that partly depends on attitudes of the anglers.

Going forward, Mississippi crappie anglers who want to continue to enjoy the best crappie fishing in the country right here at home can ask themselves two simple questions next time they’re on the water: how many crappie do I really need to harvest; and do I need to harvest a 14- or 15-inch crappie that I or someone else may enjoy catching when it weighs 4 pounds?

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About Hal Schramm 180 Articles
Hal Schramm is an avid angler and veteran fisheries biologist.

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