When Wisconsin anglers were surveyed a few years ago as to what they most like to catch, 70 percent of them preferred walleye. However, when the same anglers were asked what they catch most often, 70 percent of them said bluegill. I guess this isn’t much different than if you asked my family what food we most like to eat. We would ask for ribs, shrimp or lobster. But if you asked what we eat most often, it would be something that is easier to come by on the household budget, usually chicken or venison in my house. As a DNR fisheries biologist, I spend a lot of time managing for game species that anglers really like to catch, such as walleye, bass, muskies or trout. However, I also need to remember that panfish like bluegill, crappies and perch are by far the most commonly targeted, caught and eaten species. There has recently been more interest by Wisconsin anglers to improve our panfish fisheries. For example, we’ve seen an increase in citizen resolutions targeting panfish at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress spring conservation meetings.
Quality panfish are produced by good habitat, abundant predators and low to moderate harvest levels. The type and quality of habitat determines what species will do well, and the amount of food they will have. Predators like bass choose to eat small bluegill or perch because they are abundant, easy to catch and easier to swallow whole than large fish (most fish don’t chew their food). Thinning of abundant smaller fish by predators provides more food and better growth for the remaining fish. Angler harvest is important because unlike a bass, anglers tend to release small fish and keep the large fish. High angler harvest can remove most of the quality fish and leave a population with smaller overall size.
What is moderate angler harvest? In 2008-2010, 7th and 8th grade students from Rhinelander Environmental Stewardship Academy netted three Rhinelander area lakes with varying levels of bluegill harvest. They found that a lake with angler harvest of about 20 bluegills per acre per year supported good numbers of fish up to about 7.5 inches, but low numbers of 8-inch fish. In contrast, a lake with a lower harvest of 15 bluegills per acre had many more 8-inch but low numbers of 9-inch fish. A third lake with no harvest had good numbers of fish up to 9 1/4 inches and 12 years of age. In lakes with angler harvest, the oldest bluegill I usually see are age 8 or 9. The older fish in the no-harvest lake were surviving long enough to reach their full size potential. We can grow larger panfish or we can harvest high numbers of panfish, but we can’t have both.
As a first step to address these issues, in February and March DNR fisheries management staff are holding public meetings to get angler input on panfish management. Fisheries Biologists at these meetings will give a short presentation about long-term trends in panfish size and numbers. Anglers will be asked to fill out a short survey (also available online) and/or discuss how they view the panfish populations in their area, what they would like to be different and what they might be willing to give up in exchange for improvements in panfish size or numbers. If you believe things are pretty good right now, if you have ideas on how panfish management could change for the better, or if you just want to hear what others have to say, then you should attend one of these meetings.
Panfish meetings are being held by DNR fisheries biologists at 28 locations around Wisconsin. Meetings in this area include:
March 11, 6 p.m., Merrill High School large conference room, 1201 N. Sales St.
March 13, 7 p.m., Rhinelander DNR Service Center, 107 Sutliff Ave.
March 14, 7 p.m., Woodruff Town Hall, 1418 First St. (Hwy 47).
For an electronic survey; go to dnr.wi.gov and search for “panfish plan.”
John Kubisiak is a DNR Fisheries Biologist for the Oneida County area.