Panfish get spotlight at DNR meetings

Dodgeville, Wis. — The status of Wisconsin’s diminutive and often overlooked panfish – bluegills, crappies, and yellow perch – is about to change. Unlike the mighty muskellunge or scrappy largemouth, there is no wild imagination about what might be at the other end of a nibble when panfishing. But a day’s catch of crappies or bluegills promises a great meal and fond memories of a fun time in the outdoors, especially in midwinter on the vast frozen waters of the state.

And the numbers are there to prove the immense popularity of the sport. According to DNR data, panfish are the most common fish caught by anglers in Wisconsin. In a 2006-07 survey, more than 57 million were caught out of a total of 88 million fish harvested.

Now, in a series of 26 listening sessions around the state, anglers are weighing in on a DNR initiative to create a panfish management plan. More than 30 interested panfish enthusiasts recently attended one of these gatherings at the DNR office in Dodgeville in Iowa County.

“To my knowledge, this is the first comprehensive effort to engage the public to develop and implement a statewide panfish management plan in Wisconsin,” DNR Fisheries Service Section Chief Ron Bruch told the audience. “Most of us likely had our first fishing experience with panfish and have had many very enjoyable experiences with friends and family fishing for (them).”

Bruch notes several major challenges to developing, protecting, and sustaining quality panfish populations statewide. Loss of habitat occurs, he said, when shoreline property owners fail to protect, or, in some cases, eliminate critical shoreline habitat.

Wayne Stietz, of Argyle in Lafayette County, agrees.

“The thing we need is habitat,” Stietz said. “People want to clean up the shorelines, take out the trees. They mow down to the lake, then they fertilize, which is the worst thing they can do. “

Opportunities to harvest panfish in the southwestern part of the state include several small lakes such as Yellowstone in Lafayette County and Cox Hollow, Twin Valley, and Blackhawk lakes in Iowa County. With the exception of Twin Valley, all have bag limits designed to limit the harvest.

Stietz spends a considerable amount of time each year ice fishing for panfish on Yellowstone, which, according to him, harbors large numbers of 10- and 11-inch crappies and a sizeable population of bluegills. “The last time I was out I had 10 nice ones within about an hour,” he said.

These lakes would not draw this kind of action without the help of local sportsmen’s clubs and other volunteers, however. Projects to remove unwanted species and stunted fish, the installation of handicap-accessible piers, and habitat-improvement projects have proved successful.

Stietz is one of the first to pitch in when area fish biologists and sportsmen’s clubs adopt an improvement project. He helped with the installation of more than 50 underwater structures (cribs) on Yellowstone Lake, a project that is now being replicated on Blackhawk Lake in west-central Iowa County. These structures are now resting atop the ice on Blackhawk, waiting for the spring thaw to escort them to the bottom.

DNR fish managers assist by procuring permits and helping organize individual projects. It’s important, they say, that cribs are installed in large enough numbers to accommodate heavy pressure.

“You need lots of them,” Stietz said. “Sometimes people put their ice shanties right over the top of them so other people don’t get a chance to use them.” 

Vern Ott, of Dodgeville, has been fishing Twin Valley and Cox Hollow lakes for more than 25 years. Most of his time is spent on Cox Hollow, however.

“I only fished Twin Valley a couple of times last year,” he said. “The fish are small,” confirming the observation that the panfish there are stunted and in need of management.

Ott visits Cox Hollow at least twice a week during the summer, but no longer does any ice fishing.

“We get some really nice crappies, 7 to 8 inches, and with nice body mass,” he said. “Bluegills are nice-sized, too.” Cox Hollow is one of the few lakes with a bag limit of 10 panfish total. The limit was reduced from 25 total several years ago, Ott added. 

Concerns about the future of panfish also have caught the attention of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. A member of the Conservation Congress Warm Water Study Committee for the past 10 years, Mike Dreischmeier has seen a rise in citizen resolutions regarding panfish issues.

“The main concerns are overharvest on particular lakes, mostly focusing on winter ice-fishing harvest,” he said.

Dreischmeier suggests the statewide panfish meetings should determine if the concerns are localized or if it’s more of a statewide concern.

“Many of the resolutions we get are lake-specific and many are from northern counties,” he said.

Dreischmeier believes separating the various species of panfish might be a viable option.

“I think separating species may allow for protecting a species of concern without necessarily restricting the harvest of other panfish,” he said. “Typically when we see questions, they are bluegill- or crappie-specific.”

Bruch noted the potential for greater cooperation between the DNR’s fisheries management program and the Conservation Congress. He referred to the organization’s recently completed strategic plan that contains a number of goals complementary to those of the DNR, such as improved outreach to the public, streamlining rule-making procedures, and making recommendations for needed updates or improvements.

Other challenges to panfish management, according to Bruch, include exploitation in some areas that prevents populations from living up to their size and potential as a fishery, as well as insufficient data on age and growth dynamics.

For Stietz, it all comes down to habitat. “If you want to do something, put brush piles under your dock.”

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