Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Time for Louisiana to protect our crappie fishery

This Thursday, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission will hear an assessment from LDWF inland biologists about the current status of crappie (sacalait, white perch) and any consideration for regulation changes.  

Here are the current regulations for Louisiana and how they compare to neighboring states.

State creel minimum size
Louisiana 50 none
Texas 25 10"
Alabama 30 9"
Georgia 30 none
Florida 25 10"
Mississippi 30 / 15 none / 12"

Missisippi has a statewide limit of 30 fish, but a 15-fish limit on four popular reservoirs: Enid, Arklabutta, Sardis, Grenada.  These lakes are listed in the top 15 crappie lakes in the nation, and are being managed for trophy fish.  However, most of the state-managed lakes also have a lower creel limit of 15, for the purpose of sustaining an optimal yield fishery (not a trophy fishery).

As you can see, Louisiana is by far the most liberal limits of any state. Our management is based on maximum sustainable yield as opposed to optimum sustainable yield.  Maximum Yield allows a high number of harvest to the point where it doesn't result in recruitment failure.  Our state's argument for such a liberal limit has been based on growth and reproduction. Crappie grow fast, spawn after just one year, and live only about 5 years here in the deep South.  They also produce lots of eggs.  Here is a comparison of fecundity of similiar freshwater species.

Bluegill: 6-inch female, 80,000 eggs per year
Largemouth bass: 12-inch female, 16,000 eggs per year
Black crappie: 10-inch female, 90,000 eggs per year
White crappie: 10-inch female: 130,000 eggs per year

Based on these reproductive rates, it's long been stated - with some evidence in certain situations - that crappie can overtake a pond if not harvested to a significant number. In natural lakes, this is NOT the case.  They have more spawning failures than any other gamefish.  Crappie also have one of the highest natural mortality rates of any gamefish. Young crappie are a prime forage for bass and all species of catfish, gar, and pickerel.

However, if only large crappie are harvested, there is often potential for overpopulation of young fish.  This results in slow growth, and a poor quality fishery.  

While crappie have been very abundant in most lakes, that was due more to fishing patterns than reproduction. Historically, crappie were mostly targeted in early Spring, when they were most active and closer to shore for spawning. With the advancements in electronics, and the meteoric surge in crappie tournaments, crappie fishing has become a year-round enterprise with much higher angler success.

One of the guides I use on Toledo Bend, who also guides Sam Rayburn and other Texas lakes, pointed out the significance of electronics has had on the fishery. Prior to LiveScope, breeder fish could support the pressure by going deep, and you couldn't locate them or catch them. Now, you can locate them year-round... and take out significant numbers.

In a recent podcast, a Texas fisheries biologist explained why the state adopted more conservative regulations. Crappie populations are sustained by fish 10 to 13 inches, which have fewer eggs than older fish but spawn in much larger numbers. That presupposes that those fish are protected from substantial harvest from summer to winter. Such is no longer the case.

Establishing a minimum size limit has only a minimal effect on creating an optimal fishery, except than to create a trophy fishery.  Establishing a lower creel limit is a better option.  However, there's a third option which biologists have implemented on some lakes.  This sets a limit on the number of fish over a certain size. For example, 30 fish creel but with only 10 fish over 12 inches.  This results in a more balanced harvest, and also protects more of those prime spawners.

In the past 20 years, genetic diversity has become a critical factor  in fisheries management. Fish that school - such as crappie - often have similiar genetics. Each school may have different genetics from other schools. You may have one school of crappie that is much more likely to spawn in muddy water than other schools, and another school that is more likely to spawn in low water than other schools, and so on. When anglers use electronics to continously target a school, and with liberal limits, to the point of near decimation of that school, it can possibly create a "gap" in the next spawning cycle and lead to a poor year class.  In states with lower limits, on most lakes there has been less severe cycles in year-class populations.

It's time for Louisiana to take measures to protect our wonderful crappie fishery and implement new regulations to protect our prime spawners.  Please submit your comments to Inland Fisheries Biologist Robbie Maxwell at maxwell@wlf.la.gov .