Nothing ‘crappie’ about this fishing favorite

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Despite their name, crappie are among Ohio anglers' favorite fish to catch. While there are no limits on crappie in Lake Erie, the division of wildlife has been studying them in inland lakes and reservoirs to ensure regulations there don't result in "small crappie syndrome," giving anglers better chances to catch big ones. (Tim Daniels, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

It might surprise some that the name “crappie” doesn’t derive from the word meaning “something of extremely poor quality,” or from the slang for poop. It actually comes from the Canadian French word crapet, which refers to the many species in the sunfish family, of which the crappie is a member.

It might also be surprising that a survey of anglers by the Ohio State University School of Environment and Natural Resources found crappie were near the top of the list of their favorite fish to catch. Black bass (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted) came in first, but crappie were tied with bluegills, other sunfish and sanders (walleye, saugeye and sauger) for second place — even ahead of catfish.

Size matters

But making sure those anglers can catch decent-sized crappie is the result of more than 15 years of scientific study and management to prevent “small crappie syndrome.” It’s a thing.

Size also matters when it comes to lakes and reservoirs that are conducive to growing big crappie, said Jeremy Pritt, a fisheries biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, who works in the Inland Fisheries Research Unit.

Larger lakes that are also productive make for faster-growing crappie. “Productive” refers to how many nutrients are available in these bodies of water, he said. Large, shallow lakes where agricultural lands drain, like Buckeye and Grand Lake St. Mary’s, have a lot of phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients that lead to algae growth. That phytoplankton feeds the zooplankton, which in turn feeds the gizzard shad and other small fish that crappie rely on.

Those lakes, along with Indian Lake, are some of the biggest and also the oldest in Ohio, having been dug in the 1800s to feed the canal system, Pritt said. The water in those lakes may look bad to us — murky, full of algae and sediment — but it’s great for growing big crappie.

The other prized fish, like largemouth bass, don’t do as well in those murky lakes. However, the opposite is true in many of the smaller lakes and reservoirs, which often have fewer nutrients.

There, “crappie don’t grow as fast, so bass, bluegill and catfish are the gold standard,” he said.

The division of wildlife manages more than 170 lakes and reservoirs in Ohio, even though most are owned by state and local parks, municipalities and other entities. Some of these bodies of water have a 9-inch size limit and a daily bag limit of 30 crappie per day. Some of the small reservoirs had limits, too.

Smaller lakes

Until, that is, those 15 years of study led biologists to conclude that length and bag limits have the opposite of the desired effect in those smaller, “unproductive” waters. Instead, the regulations result in small crappie syndrome, to use the scientific term. Which doesn’t make sense.

Aren’t length and bag limits designed to produce an abundance of larger fish for anglers to enjoy? Yes, Pritt said. But again, it depends on size.

“In larger lakes, the regulations work just fine,” he said. “Crappie reach the 9-inch limit in about two years, and there are usually plenty to harvest.”

In small reservoirs, not so much.

“For successful fishing, crappie have to grow fast enough to get to a harvestable size before they die,” Pritt explained. “If the fish are slow growing, most die before they reach large sizes.”

Compounding the problem in the smaller lakes “is the increase in the number of small fish, and more fish eating the few resources,” he added. “So the fish are growing even slower than before.”

That is why, in 2019, all regulations for crappie were removed from 13 of the state’s smaller inland waters: Acton, Clendening, Hargus, Highlandtown, Knox, Madison, Nimisila, Rush Creek and Springfield lakes, and C. J. Brown, Clear Fork, Griggs and West Branch reservoirs.

Two species

Scientists say the sunfish family, native to North America, appeared about 35 million years ago, while crappies emerged about 25 million years ago. About 15 million years ago, they split off into two species, black crappie and white crappie.

So as North American freshwater fish go, crappie arrived on the scene fairly recently. Many lakes have both the black and white species, some one or the other. Crappie can be caught in abundance — including big ones — from fall through spring in nearly every bay, harbor and inlet of Lake Erie, especially Sandusky Bay and East Harbor.

White crappie seem to be more plentiful, but black crappie dominate in some spots. However, no one really knows how many black or white crappie there are, or how many crappie there are in Lake Erie, period. That’s because scientists don’t count, survey or study crappie in Ohio’s Great Lake, where there are no fishing regulations for them, either.

Lake-wide surveys “concentrate on walleye, perch and smallmouth bass, the bread-and-butter fish,” Pritt said. “Crappie are less important, so they’ve taken a back seat.”

Crappie were surveyed in inland waters in the 1980s and 1990s, but without a standardized approach. After the Inland Management System was created in the early 2000s, biologists sampled crappie in many places, using the same methods, “so we have good data sets,” he said. “The data allows us to evaluate across a large selection of reservoirs, so we’ve learned where to put and where not to put regulations.”

Gathering data

Getting that data involves netting fish every fall, then weighing, measuring and doing other studies in the lab. But it also includes determining the age of the fish, to see if efforts to maintain fast growth rates are working.

Since the early 2000s, the IMS biologists have been determining the age of crappie by counting rings on the otolith, a calcified structure in the inner ear. Fish grow fast in the summer and slow in the winter, just like trees, and the rings on the otolith form much like the rings in a tree trunk. It’s a tedious process, examining them through a dissecting microscope, but the results are extremely accurate. Using this aging method, the biologists found that crappie are relatively short-lived fish; most don’t make it past five years.

Largemouth bass, on the other hand, can live to 20, while a few catfish have been pegged as 30-somethings.

Aging crappie led to another important discovery: Some small reservoirs had a lot of fish that were older than five years, but remained very small. Remember, in the bigger lakes, it takes crappie only two years to reach the 9-inch limit.

In some of the smaller ones, like Rush Creek in Central Ohio, “you have a lot of 7- and 8-year-olds that are only 8 inches long,” Pritt said. “That’s another reason to do away with the regulations.”

So for those who suspect that crappie were so named because it is a fish of “extremely poor-quality,” remember that OSU survey.

“My interpretation of the results is that crappie make up an important fishery that ranks right up near the top in popularity with Ohio anglers,” Pritt said.

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Barbara Mudrak was a reporter for 25 years, mostly with the Akron Beacon Journal, and recently retired from teaching English and news writing at Alliance High School. She can be reached at editorial+barb@farmanddairy.com.

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