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Crappie Management Can Be A Gamble

     Crappie top the fish stocking list for everyone with a new pond. They’re favorite tablefare and caught in high numbers. Growing them to healthy eating sizes in small lakes, however, requires something akin to winning a crappie lottery.

Due to crappie’s popularity, lake managers attempt every trick in the book to achieve customer goals. Unfortunately, crappie aren’t adapted to ponds smaller than 15-acres. They don’t reproduce consistently. If spawning conditions are favorable, some years are great. In others, unstable weather patterns chase them back and forth from spawning beds. There may be no reproduction. The most common outcome: they overpopulate, stunt from lack of forage, and never reach eating size. If your experience on small waters is successful, consider yourself lucky. The typical outcome for most crappie projects is feast or frustration.

Here are a few examples we observed in 2016. A customer in Southern Oklahoma purchased property with a chain of three ponds, largest around three-acres. He planned to manage the big lake for bass. The previous owner stocked crappie in a pond above the others. You guessed it, torrential rains last spring flooded the crappie pond and flushed them into the proposed bass lake. Our friend reports catching crappie until his wrists get sore, but they average three to four-inches, hardly big enough to eat. The management plan is thinning crappie numbers with bass and/or hybrid striper predation so remaining populations grow to sporty angling size and favored fillet lengths.

This next story has numerous unintended features that evolved into rare success with fish managing themselves. We were called to survey an East Texas lake that’s seven-acres, when full. There’s minimal fish habitat, especially types preferred by crappie. The food chain is stressed by heavy pressure from crappie and bass. Electrofishing sampled 30 bass averaging 13 to 15-inches, plus 65 cookie-cutter crappie in the 10-inch class. Consider, electrofishing may reveal approximately 10-percent of the fish population. Normally, a lake that size, with that many fish, will have a stunted population in both species. As we began our survey, the owner advised he wanted to harvest as many crappie as possible. He directed us to a lone, inconspicuous, three-foot tree limb sticking-up in the middle of the lake. As we circled the spot, we could hardly believe our eyes. Crappie began popping everywhere. After multiple passes, we filled a cooler, and continued around the lake. When completing the survey, we could not stop discussing the first crappie stop. It was so fascinating, we decided to try again. Results were the same. That spot must have been a big brush pile. Don’t take any sign of cover for granted. It could hold big or numerous fish. Survey analysis concluded both species were thriving from foraging on each other’s spawn. If you can establish a mature brood stock of crappie, bass or other predators, they will keep future reproduction in check and limit overpopulation. You can enjoy quality crappie and bass fishing. Future management strategy includes enhancing habitat, aggressive harvest for both, plus stocking tilapia and threadfin shad to strengthen the food chain. The adjacent photo of Biologist Justin Stane with two coolers was from this experience.

Our most memorable story occurred last Fall while conducting comprehensive surveys at an intensely managed 60-acre lake in Central Oklahoma. This place has every feature necessary for a classic crappie fishery: size, deep water, and good forage base. We hate to do this to the crappie fishermen, but get ready for a fairy-tale story. Sophisticated survey procedures required electrofishing, tagging, and net sampling throughout a continuous 24-hour period. Net sampling involved setting the system, recovering fish every four-hours, then moving the net to a new location. This project was scheduled from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. How would we stay awake between net runs? While organizing gear on the dock, the ranch manager began telling crappie fishing stories. After the second one, we were looking at each other and knew how we would stay awake that night. We set the net and followed ranch manager tips. Within five-minutes, the party began. Four of us were standing at the dock rail. Doubles became common, soon triples, and on slow retrieves, we landed four at a time. The pace never slowed. One of the guys said he never tired of catching fish. By 5 a.m., he was sitting in a chair still reeling them in. Less serious anglers retired earlier. We stopped fishing at daylight to recover the net and complete final chores. At last count, after almost 12-hours uninterrupted action, we landed slightly more than 400 crappie averaging 10-12-inches. No exaggeration!! If you’re a crappie or bass fan, this property offers hunting and fishing excursions. Call us for contact information to book a trip.

Crappie are so popular, an innovative Arkansas fish hatchery has created a hybrid-strain for small lakes that does not reproduce. It’s a work-in-progress encountering above mentioned challenges. Hopefully, it will be refined soon to make this highly-popular species available to everyone. If you stock crappie in a lake less than 15-acres, be prepared for consequences to bass and bluegill. Crappie spawn first each spring. Offspring eat bass and bluegill fry hatched shortly after. Remember crappie have a big mouth and compete with bass. Be prepared to supplement forage for crappie, bass, and bluegill.

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