DNR fisheries managers held meetings in Rhinelander and Woodruff last week to discuss what could be on the horizon for Wisconsin panfish management.
About 50 people taking part in the process packed a meeting room at the Rhinelander DNR Service Center March 13. Those present filled out surveys, watched a presentation about trends in panfish size and numbers over the years and took part in a discussion.
Rhinelander DNR fishery biologist John Kubisiak made the presentation and hosted the discussion along with north district fisheries supervisor Mike Vogelsang.
Kubisiak shared years of information the DNR has gathered through fyke net and creel surveys. Fyke net data presented went back as far as the 1940s.
One thing that stands out from the fyke net surveys is a steady overall decline in panfish size over the years. Kubisiak discussed bluegills as an example.
“They looked at the size of the fish and they calculated average size of bluegill across the state that we saw in the net ... they put those all together and came up with a statewide average,” he explained.
The largest bluegill in each netting survey was also recorded. Kubisiak said the degree of the downward trend was a little surprising.
“Average size of bluegill in ‘44 was somewhere in the 6-1⁄2-inch range, maybe ... 6-3⁄4 inches ... by 2012 we were way down in the more like 5-inch range,” he said.
The biggest fish recorded in each survey has generally gotten smaller as well.
“Just a long-term decline in the quality of our bluegill over time,” Kubisiak said.
Crappies and perch showed similar declines over the same time period, Kubisiak said, while also noting a bit of a trend upward in the last 6-8 years for crappie. But average crappie size has fallen from about 9 inches on the 1940s to about 7-1⁄2 inches now.
Perch dropped from about an 8-inch range on average to about 6 inches, but have also trended slightly upward in size recently.
“It doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of fish out there. But the size has declined over time,” Kubisiak said.
Creel surveys are mostly done in the northern part of the state, Kubisiak said. These give fisheries managers a look at what anglers are keeping.
He showed data that revealed what was happening according to those surveys. About 70 percent of angler harvest on bluegills were fish in the 6-8 inch range, and about 70 percent of perch kept were between 7 and 10 inches. Crappies tended to run between 8 and 11 inches.
“The size we’re seeing here is bigger than we see in our nets, because anglers are selecting for the bigger fish,” Kubisiak said.
Kubisiak noted liberal bag limits of 25 panfish with no minimum size, saying the closest water body to Rhinelander with more restrictive rules is the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in Iron County, which has a bag limit of 10 crappies and a minimum size limit of 10 inches.
Kubisiak said management would be a challenge with different needs in different regions or water bodies. Growth and population rates vary.
“In the north here, we have a pretty short growing season compared to what they have down by Madison and it does make a difference in how fast our fish grow,” he said.
Kubisiak discussed the spawn, noting that bluegills and crappies are nest builders and capable, prolific breeders. But they’re quite visible at those times.
“That also makes them real susceptible to anglers,” he said. “It’s easy to go out in the lake, when they’re spawning, and find the biggest fish in the lake. And that especially rings true for bluegill.”
Building a quality fishery takes time, he said.
“There’s also the biological end of things. It takes some time to build a decent panfish,” Kubisiak said, comparing panfish to deer – which mature and age fairly quickly.
“At an age when a whitetail buck is dying, a bluegill is just turning into a fish,” he said.
A four-year-old bluegill averages about 6 inches in length, Kubisiak said. It takes two to three more years for that bluegill to become an 8-incher.
He added that smaller than average fish can mean slow growth rate due to biological factors or fishing pressure.
“But habitat is the major driver of panfish growth and abundance,” Kubisiak said. He indicated that predators are key to good panfish populations.
“You think about the bass or walleye, and how it chooses a bluegill that it’s going to make a meal out of, it’s probably going to pass up the big fish ... and it’s going find something a little smaller,” he said.
There are bigger fish and more food to go around for those that survive as an ideal result, he explained.
“You look at an angler, on the other hand, and an angler typically looks for the biggest fish and lets little ones go.”
Kubisiak said biological knowledge to this effect is nothing new and indicated that social factors are the reason changes weren’t made in response.
He did note, though, that as far back as 70 years, there were closed seasons on panfish. There were even size limits and a south zone with a bag limit of 15 bluegills.
“Basically, what we’re doing tonight is getting some input on this whole panfish thing,” Kubisiak said.
The plan is to develop management strategies over the next several years, not immediately, he explained.
Ben Loma, Oneida County Wisconsin Conservation Congress vice chairman wondered about the effects of the size limits that have been in place on the Turtle-Flambeau.
“It’s probably actually still a little too early to even tell,” Kubisiak explained. “You generally want regulations in place at least a decade before you even go in and take a peak at them.”
He did note data could be available soon. As far as public support for the stricter limits, Vogelsang said there seemed to be support at the beginning, at least from the lake association and some of the locals.
“That’s why we’re trying to engage you folks at the beginning, see what you think about the status of things,” Vogelsang said.
Loma noted many would like to see a “more quality” fishery for panfish – namely bigger fish. A number of others in attendance agreed.
Jim Heffner, a WCC member, noted that a willingness to take and clean a number of smaller panfish might be beneficial to a fishery.
“I think there’s some lakes where you probably can’t take too many,” Vogelsang said. “You could probably have the bag limit at a hundred.”
Heffner also brought up something that would come up other times – greed. He recalled a situation in which only a few anglers kept hundreds of crappies over the course of a week, to the detriment of a once-productive lake.
“They come back next year, ‘Where’s the crappies?’ You took all your spawn. Thats where your crappies are,” he said.
The topic of bass came up. Bass can be effective panfish population controllers, and some wondered if a proposal to end the early catch and release only season that currently protects bass about three weeks into June was a good idea.
Kubisiak explained that bass, and particularily largemouths, which are the subject of the proposal, have become quite abundant in some fisheries. Kubisiak thinks the 14-inch size limit is actually more protective of the bass than the catch and release, and that it is more key to managing panfish populations.
“I don’t know if I’d want to pull that 14-inch minimum off, because the bluegills are doing great, with the larger predators,” he said.
Kubisiak noted it’s not easy to manage fisheries for an ideal balance of all species, saying it’s often a “trade-off.”
That tought was underscored when he was asked what he thinks anglers want in out of panfish populations.
“Everybody says, well, bigger fish and more of them, and you can’t have both. And, so, you’ve got to give something up,” he said.
He noted regulations wouldn’t have to be the same on every water, comparing it to walleye management, where there are several different management strategies.
Kubisiak touched on many fishery-related subjects during the discussion, from concerns over the toxicity of lead fishing tackle, to catch-and-release survival rates, to fish parasites – yellow and black flukes that are visible in and on fish fillets.
Kubisiak said the flukes don’t affect people and recommended black pepper, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Woodruff DNR fisheries biologist Steve Gilbert said 27 attended a March 14 meeting at the Woodruff Town Hall. A couple of them had attended the Rhinelander meeting as well.
As was the case in Rhinelander, there was support for larger fish, even if it meant keeping fewer.
“By and large they seemed in favor of some sort of quality panfish management,” Gilbert said. “So, they’d like to see some bigger fish. They were willing to – for the most part – see some reduction in the bag limit or whatever it might be to get at that.”
Gilbert said this seems to be the case throughout the area.
“When we were getting the word out to folks and stopping at bait shops and dropping off some of the fliers that we had for the event ... People [it seemed] would sacrifice numbers for quality.”
The panfish questionnaire and background materials presented are available online by going to the DNR home page, dnr.wi.gov, and doing a keyword search for “panfish plan.”
Craig Turk may be reached at email@example.com.