Protecting the Future of Crappie Fishing

Crappie fishing

Protecting the Future of Crappie Fishing

Crappie is one of the most sought-after species when it comes to recreational angling. This is especially true east of the Mississippi. They are prolific spawners that provide not only fishable populations, but abundant populations as well. This can keep the less-than-patient angler pursuing crappie and successfully harvesting a few, even on those less-than-great days. Crappie are also delicious which is another reason to protect them for future anglers to enjoy.

There are many ways to help the crappie thrive in your home waters. Understanding how well the crappie is doing and adjusting your harvest accordingly is one way. The fish & game does a great job setting limits that help anglers enjoy a day on the water, while also maintaining healthy populations. Anglers can choose to follow those guidelines and keep the allotted limit set or take it upon themselves to harvest fewer crappie if they feel that their waters need it. I want to share with you a few ways to help crappie flourish and/or maintain during a down cycle. These tips can help crappie no matter where you fish, both immediately and in the future.

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Catch And Release

When you hear “catch and release” most people instantly go to bass fishing and the adoption of this tactic during the early days of tournament fishing. However, the practice of catch and release started long before that. Lee Wulff, while not the first to mention the practice was the one to spur on its popularity for modern fishing. Mr. Wulff was a fly fisherman, writer, and devoted conservationist. Lee wrote a book and inside it outlined the practice of catch and release as a conservation move. Lee has a famous quote that reads “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.” Now, as fishing and conservation move forward, catch and release has made its way into crappie fishing, and we see more and more anglers releasing big crappie to be caught again.

I have often wondered whether to release the keeper-size crappie or the giants as far as spawning goes. Of course, releasing a 2-pound crappie will allow it to be caught again. My question was if you wanted to keep a few crappie for the dinner table would it be best to release the big 2-pounders or the younger 10-11 inchers? Which one has a better chance of helping the overall population?  Some people believe that it’s best to release the big females, so I asked the Kentucky Fisheries Program Coordinator of our Western Fisheries District, Adam Martin, to weigh in on that very question. He responded with a great explanation that is too large for this article, so I will paraphrase.

Adam says that while the big 2-pound crappie has substantially more eggs than smaller crappie the overall contribution to the number of eggs laid during the spawn is minimal. This is due to a couple of factors. One factor is that oftentimes big crappie, 2 pounds plus, are hybrid crappie. Black crappie and white crappie tend to not spawn with hybrids and therefore those extra eggs never hatch. The second factor is one that many crappie anglers can attest to, there are just not that many 2-pound-plus crappie out there, in the grand scheme of things. With the growing popularity of crappie tournaments, catch and release is catching on in the crappie world and when you release a big crappie it will be there to catch again, as Lee Wulff so famously stated.

Adam also says that size limits were implemented not to facilitate more spawning opportunities for crappie. Size limits on crappie was to provide more fillets. Because of the inconsistency in year class strength observed in most water bodies, the research often concludes that environmental variables during or before the spawn are more important than the overall number of spawning adults. The practice of catch and release recently adopted by more and more anglers has yet to be studied and therefore the jury is still out on that.

Here is the email with my questions and the response from Mr. Martin

I am reaching out to you to settle a question that I get as a Facebook group owner and outdoor writer. People always say that you should throw back those 2 plus pounders for them to spawn and keep the 10-12 inch fish. I never really argue this point because I have never confirmed my belief officially. It is my belief that 2 pound plus crappie are nearing the end of their lifespan. I would argue that the 10-12 inch fish are probably going to be the better spawner if for no other reason than they have more spawning years left in them. I would never instruct anyone to throw back 10-12 inch crappie as they are not just within the size limit but also good eating size crappie. So my question is with a 2 pound plus crappie

1) does it lay more eggs than the smaller, younger crappie

2) How many more spawning seasons does a 2 pound plus crappie have on Kentucky Lake

Thank you for your time


RESPONSE to my questions by Mr. Martin

“Those are somewhat simple questions with complicated answers haha.”

(1). “A 2 pound crappie female would likely have between 120,000 and 270,000 eggs. (based on graduate work by paul rister in Kentucky lake). Whereas a 10 inch crappie would be more around the 30,000 egg mark. It’s logical to assume that the 2 pound female would lay more eggs or at least lay eggs in more nests than the 10 inch crappie. However, its complicated by the fact that the largest crappie are often hybrids, and it is believed that both black and white crappie prefer not to spawn with hybrids.  So they may have more eggs, but might contribute less to the overall hatch. This is somewhat common in fish species which can breed, but which aren’t closely related.  (black and white crappie are actually fairly distinct genetically and tend not to hybridize at high rates even in lakes like ours where they coexist).”

(2). “Your second question is a matter of statistics. A 2 pound crappie is just as likely to survive another year as an individual 10 inch crappie. This is because a large percentage (approximately 45%) of each year class die each year.  It works kind of like compound interest. This is why there are so few 2 pound crappie compared to 10 inch crappie.  Depending on whether it’s a hybrid or not. It takes around 8 years for a crappie to reach 2 pounds. This means it has been through 8 years of 45% mortality rates. There is a limit to how long a crappie can live. It is likely influenced by individual genetic factors and environmental conditions just as it is in humans. However, it is unlikely that most fish in Kentucky lake are at their genetic maximum.  The basic relationship observed in fish is that the fastest growing fish die the quickest, even within a species. For instance, crappie in Minnesota often grow slowly and live to 15 or more years.  Crappie in Kentucky lake grow faster and rarely live beyond 8 years old.”

“The real unanswered question is whether the number of eggs is even important to the overall year class. Most studies show that there is no relationship between the number of adults and the year class strength which those adults produce.  On Kentucky lake, we know that the year class strength is determined by the number of larval crappie produced each year. However, we do not know specifically which factors determine how many larvae are produced. Because of the inconsistency in year class strength observed in most water bodies, the research often concludes that environmental variables during or before the spawn are more important than the overall number of spawning adults.  This is why most crappie regulations are not designed to protect spawning fish. they are designed rather to maximize growth and the yield of fish filets. In other words, the reason we have a 10 inch limit, is not to allow them to spawn a few times first, its to allow them to grow to a good size before they are harvested.  It’s the same reason chicken farms don’t harvest chickens as chicks. They wait for them to get through their fast growth phase and then harvest.”

“Across the southeast, many anglers have taken it upon themselves to start voluntarily releasing large crappie.  However, there’s almost no research on the effects of that kind of selective harvest. This is because the goal for most crappie managers has always been pounds of filets in the freezer.  This is further complicated by crappie tournaments where the goal is often to catch 7 trophy size crappie instead of 20 keepers. This new movement by anglers will require more research into its potential effects, but we simply aren’t there yet.”

“In conclusion, 2-pound crappie do have many more eggs. However, they are so rare that they probably don’t contribute meaningful amounts of eggs to the spawn. Additionally, there is a higher chance that they won’t find a suitable mate, if that 2 pound fish happens to be a hybrid (which is likely).    There is also very little evidence which shows that the number of breeding adults is important to the year class.  Crappie have very high numbers of eggs. It’s thought that it takes very few breeding fish to produce a good year class. However, if anglers would like to catch trophy crappie, and are ok with catch and release, then releasing that 2 pounder will allow for the possibility of it being caught again.   At the end of the day there should be no shame for those who keep or release that 2 pounder.  Future evidence may show that protecting some crappie can help the spawn. However, most studies have concluded that moderate levels of harvest cause no harm to the spawn.”

“I wish the answer was simpler, but you’re asking the right questions.”



Building Habitat For Crappie

 Lately, you might have noticed the increase in people sinking brush to add new habitat to a fishery. Whether you sink tree limbs and Christmas trees, or make homemade stake beds, has caught on like wildfire. I can personally vouch for the growing popularity. I have a Facebook group, and someone published a post about their homemade habitat with a photo. That post, last time I checked, had more than 400,000 views and still going strong.

Sinking fish habitat is a great way to help not just crappie but all fish to flourish. With the aging lakes we have now much of the cover that was once available has rotted away leaving less protection for both adult crappie as well as their fry. This habitat also provides cover for minnows that crappie eat and helps the entire food chain.

While I see that there’s plenty of habitat being sunk for future crappie fishing fun, there’s one thing I would like to communicate with my fellow crappie anglers. I notice that most habitat is being sunk in deep water. This is great and provides cover for wintertime and summer. However, there is one place that is being overlooked. The spawning depths where crappie go each spring to spawn.

I was just out sinking a Mossback Crappie Trophy Tree in a secret cove. I have caught some nice crappie there over the years. The water was low, and I happened to notice that all along the shoreline were concrete blocks. Upon closer inspection, I saw that there were tree limbs tied to some of the blocks. I quickly realized that someone, evidently many years ago, took the time to sink cover along the gravel shoreline to help give the crappie a place to spawn.

I decided to tie up my boat and add some tree limbs to these blocks to help improve shallow cover in my secret cove. This cover provides overhead protection from osprey and now the many eagles that reside on my home waters here on Kentucky Lake. It doesn’t take much cover for crappie to feel safe when in shallow water. This added shoreline wood can help to add a few more crappie to the area in years to come.

It takes a little effort to create fish habitat. Here in Kentucky and Tennessee the fish and wildlife agencies are doing a great job with adding more fish habitat to our waters. They even have maps with the locations marked for you to find and fish. There is no better feeling than knowing that you are not only helping to protect crappie for future generations but that you can see the results of your efforts, sometimes within days. Take the time and sink a Christmas tree or fish habitat to add to your area. Then enjoy the improved fishing. Also feel good about our fishing future.

Hooked on the Outdoors

About Ken McBroom 307 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.

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