Our small wooden pier creaked as I shuffled around in anticipation. Tense and excited, I focused intently on the Snoopy-shaped bobber drifting near the lily pads. I awkwardly held the butt of the rod, which was embossed with more Peanuts cartoon characters, and awaited instruction. While my dad described how to set the hook, the Snoopy bobber started to “swim” away. As the “snout” of the bobber dipped below the surface, I started cranking on the spincast reel. With preschool motor skills and no understanding of physics, the rod jerked back and forth, up and down, as I choppily reeled in the fish. Miraculously, after an intense 30-second battle, a 4-inch bluegill hung suspended from my hook. My dad tried to grab the fish as I giddily hopped around in joy. The pier creaked more. My voice creaked too. This was the first fish I caught all on my own.

Panfish beginnings
Circa 1990, that experience was also my first lesson in fisheries conservation and management. My dad explained why we released small bluegills to grow and mature. As it turns out, the next fish I reeled in was an 8-inch bluegill.

“See, this bluegill was once the size of your last fish,” he explained. “And now this one is big enough to keep. Do you want to have fish for dinner?”

“YES!” I exclaimed without hesitation.

Similar scenes play out annually as youngsters are introduced to fishing. Chances are your first fish was a panfish—a ubiquitous group of fishes including bluegill, yellow perch, crappie, pumpkinseed, and more. They’re plentiful, easy to catch, and perfect for the fry pan. Aside from opportunities to teach new anglers, targeting panfish is a great way to take home enough fillets for a meal or the freezer. And historically, panfish regulations have been minimal and bag limits liberal.

The problem is that hours of excitement over catching little panfish is usually reserved for kids. Grown-ups seriously fishing for a meal want those hand-sized bluegills and “slab” crappies. And when they stop catching them, rumors and rumblings of the “S-word” start to circulate everywhere from internet forums to the boat launch: “The panfish out in Lake [XYZ] are stunted!”

Are panfish sizes declining?
Many anglers believe that frequent harvest helps a body of water maintain a healthy population of panfish. Recent research suggests the opposite. Too much angler harvest contributes to over-abundant and stunted panfish populations. Further, by reducing harvest, anglers may take home fewer fish, but end up with thicker, meatier fillets.

Of course, seeing is believing, right? In recent years, fisheries managers have fielded frequent complaints from anglers about how the they no longer catch any big panfish.

Dr. Andrew Rypel, fisheries professor at the University of California-Davis and former research biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, is a self-proclaimed defender of panfish. When Wisconsin anglers started to get vocal about how panfish were seemingly getting smaller across the state, Rypel investigated the issue further.

“We assembled all fish data collected by the Wisconsin DNR for all lakes and rivers going back to the 1930s,” Rypel explained. “We looked to see if and how fish size has changed over time. Lo and behold, average size had declined significantly for almost all panfish species. We saw a 20 to 35% decrease in size of these species.”

How might panfish populations become ‘stunted’?
Over the same period, Dr. Rypel noted important distinctions among other species. “Since the ’80s there was an amazing rebound for muskies. Now it’s not uncommon to catch 40-inch muskies, and we saw a similar pattern for northern pike.”

This statewide increase in average muskie size almost certainly corresponds to increased catch-and-release practices among anglers targeting trophy sport fishes. Rypel saw no change in size for species that aren’t fished, such as white sucker. He postulated that bigger panfish may actually get harvested too much and decided to dig deeper.

“We looked at bluegill populations across a gradient of exploitation or fishing pressure. In unexploited systems, you had really large parental male bluegills. As you move through the gradient you’d get more abundant stunted populations.” Accordingly, the Wisconsin DNR experimentally reduced daily bag limits from 25 to 10 fish in seven lakes. Over the next several years, bluegill size increased by an average of 20.3 mm (nearly one inch). In one lake, on average, bluegill were 63.5 mm or almost 2.5 inches larger. That’s a huge difference for a fish that is desirable to harvest by about 7 inches in length and considered a trophy at 10 inches. Those are much bigger fillets.

A tale of two bluegills
Specifically for bluegill, large parental males are key to establish and maintain healthy size structures. Male bluegills exhibit alternate life histories—they can be parentals, which grow large to fertilize and guard nests, or they can be “sneakers.” A “sneaker” is a stunted male that puts more energy into gonad development than growing physically larger. Parental males’ increased size make them more desirable mates for female bluegills “Sneakers,” on the other hand, wait on the periphery during the spawn and try to “sneak” into nests and fertilize eggs when they get the chance.

For many species, anglers often release larger females recognizing they contain more eggs and are important for future generations. But for bluegills, to specifically preserve desirable size structures, “the key is protecting large parental males,” Dr. Rypel reiterated. During the spawn, large (say, bigger than 8 or 8.5 inches) parental males will guard nests.

Overall, “it’s about the size differential between parentals and sneakers,” Rypel explained. “With a big size differential, more males adopt the ‘sneaker’ life history.” That is, more maturing males realize they cannot compete with large parental males. But if large parental males are frequently harvested, maturing males will “see they’re not all big and tough and more adopt a parental life history. This creates a high population of smaller or stunted parentals,” Rypel said.

Think of it this way, if an average Joe basketball player from the Tuesday men’s league (a la “sneaker” bluegill) competes in an NBA game, no matter how hard he tries, he is still an average men’s league player. Practice is not going to turn him into an NBA All-Star (a parental bluegill). He should focus on trying to win the local men’s league championship. His only chance to “score” in the NBA is if most of the NBA players are on the bench.

Should panfish regulations be more restrictive?
Just like NBA fans wouldn’t pay big bucks to watch Tuesday men’s league basketball, anglers don’t want to catch stunted panfish after stunted panfish. Herein lies a conundrum when considering panfish regulations and regional population nuances. Reduction of the number of fish that can be legally harvested is a bitter pill for anglers to swallow. And across the South, fish grow faster, and studies show panfish bag limit reductions aren’t as effective there as they are in Great Plains, upper Midwest, and Northeast.

In a 1990s Minnesota study, where the daily limit for bluegill was 30 fish, 53% of anglers thought that limit was “about right.” That said, 61% of the anglers surveyed would have supported a reduction to 20 bluegills per day. However, only 4% of anglers would support a reduction to 10, and no anglers would support a daily bag limit of 5 bluegills. More recently, however, as panfish size declines have become more apparent, anglers are more open to limit reductions.

Using an innovative approach that focuses on the actual fillet yield anglers could take home under different scenarios, Dr. Rypel and his colleagues suggest there should be less fuss over reducing daily bag limits.

Can lower panfish bag limits result in greater take-home yield?
For panfish size structures to respond to bag limit changes, regulations need to be reduced enough to actually reduce harvest. By the same token, keeping less than a limit but harvesting only the largest fish caught on consecutive trips can have a greater impact than you might think. Dr. Rypel calculated anglers harvested an average of five bluegills on any given fishing trip, but only 16% kept more than 10 bluegills, and less than 1% of anglers kept a limit of 25 bluegills. As Rypel’s previous study indicated, bluegill size increased when bag limits were reduced to 10 fish.

“A lot of people are raised with the more fish you catch, the more meat you get.” Rypel said. In a subsequent study, the researchers established relationships between harvested fish length and fillet weight and determined “the amount of meat you get off big fish more than makes up for the drop in numbers.” For example, the combined fillets from a limit of 10 fish in a healthy bluegill population are likely to weigh more than the fillets from a limit of 25 fish in an average lake.

Dr. Rypel’s take-home message: “Anglers can have their cake and eat it too, if you selectively release large parental males. Focus your harvest on bluegill that are 6 to 8 inches.” While “sneakers” aren’t prevalent in other panfish species like yellow perch or crappies, the same harvest principles apply, especially during the spawn. A livewell consisting of 8- or 9-inch fish rather than exclusively 10-inch or larger crappies and perch will help maintain population size structures.

As a rule of thumb, half of the annual panfish harvest occurs during the spawn in late spring and early summer. With ice augers set to collect dust until next winter and boats coming out of storage, be cognizant of selective harvest practices for panfish. Eventually, you’re likely to have bigger fish to fry, and I don’t think anyone can complain about that.

Feature image by Tosh Brown.