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Crappie - Poll vs. Troll

Crappie are king on Mississippi's northern flood control reservoirs: Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid, and Grenada Lakes.  Enid produced the state and world record white crappie (5 lb 3 oz) in 1957, while Arkabutla's headwaters gave up the state record black crappie (4 lbs 4 oz) in 1991.  MDWFP creel surveys show crappie make up 80% or more of these four lakes' harvests, and anglers take home about a million crappie from them yearly.  These people are serious about their crappie fishing.

Crappie anglers on these lakes usually fish one of two ways.  Some use a single pole to dunk a jig and/or minnow around standing timber, brush tops, or other cover.  Others use multiple poles to drift baits with the wind or to troll them under power.  These "spider rigs" (so called because of the appearance of several poles sticking out of the boat) have been around for many years.  Historically, pole anglers fished in spring and fall.  A few die-hard anglers trolled for schools of crappie suspended in deeper water in the heat of summer.  Neither angler had any problems with the other.

In recent years, competitive crappie fishing has grown like tournament bass fishing did 20 or 30 years ago.  Crappie pros have found that the best way to bring fish to the scales is to troll baits with several poles through productive spots.  Just as professional angling profoundly influenced bass fishing, crappie anglers have taken notice of the pros' tactics, resulting in a proliferation of trolling rigs on these lakes.  They aren't just trolling in summer anymore; you can find someone trolling for crappie about any day of the year.

With tournament results posted on internet sites within hours of the weigh-in and feature articles in numerous outdoor magazines, these lakes have gained national attention.  And for good reason; they have some of the best crappie fishing in the country.  Grenada produced a 7 crappie limit weighing an astounding 20.46 lbs in March, 2005; nearly a 3 pound per fish average.  This would be like a bass tournament won with the average fish over 12.5 pounds!  Tournament catches on Grenada have declined since.

At the same time more folks were trolling, more folks were fishing.  Media exposure resulted in fishing pressure on some lakes more than doubling in a few years, disgruntling local anglers.  To the single pole angler fishing alone or with a buddy in a john boat, a fleet of boats with several poles each may raise his ire.  Phone calls are made, letters are written, and MDWFP is urged to do something.

MDWFP Northwest Regions fisheries biologists Keith Meals and Arthur Dunn have been monitoring the fisheries on these lakes for many years.  When complaints started coming in, Meals and Dunn realized they could answer their own questions about the two fishing methods and tell both anglers and other fisheries managers what they found.

While performing creel surveys in 2004, 2005, and 2006 on Enid, Grenada, and Sardis Lakes, respectively, they recorded whether each crappie fishing party was pole fishing or trolling.  On Sardis, the number of poles fished per boat was counted.  Interviews determined anglers per fishing party, number of crappie caught and kept per hour of fishing, etc.  During these years, regulations on the lakes were the same: a 10 inch minimum size, 30 fish daily limit, and no pole limit.  Patterns emerged that weren't restricted to just one lake.  In 2007, Dr. Steve Miranda at Mississippi State University's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries helped analyze a small mountain of fishing data.

Crappie populations and the number of "short fish" that had to be returned varied from lake to lake and year to year.  For this reason, all fish caught, whether released or not, went into the analysis.  Results were similar but more variable just looking at "keepers".  Because trolling is increasing on crappie lakes around the country, comparing all crappie caught would better benefit fisheries managers on waters with different harvest limits.

Despite complaints of trollers with boatloads of people, we found no difference in fishing party size among methods, lakes, or years.  There were always about 2 people per party.  Again, contrary to many complaints, over 80% of trollers were Mississippi residents.  Pole anglers predominated in spring, but trollers outnumbered them the rest of the year.  Because there are more crappie anglers in spring, the proportions for the year were about 50:50 on Sardis in 2006.

Crappie catch per fishing hour differed by lake, fishing method, month, and party size.  During the survey years, catch rates were higher on Sardis and Enid than Grenada, but those trends can change over time.  Over the 3 lakes, trollers averaged catching 2.2 times as many crappie per hour as single pole anglers.  MDWFP biologists rate crappie fishing from poor to excellent based on angler catch rate and average size.  Trollers' crappie fishing rated 1 to 2 levels higher than pole anglers' fishing because of greater catch rates.  Even though catch rates for both fishing methods varied month to month, the difference in catch rate between the two methods stayed about the same.  It wasn't that one method worked better during a certain time of year, but that trolling worked better all the time.

Lone anglers caught more crappie per hour with either method.  A single angler just concentrates on fishing.  With a buddy along, they compete with each other for fish and distract each other with conversation, etc.  Parties of 3 or more often included inexperienced anglers and fared even more poorly.  However, fishing "efficiency", or crappie catch rate times number in the party (which equals fish in the boat), rose with party size for trollers, but remained stable for pole anglers.

Dividing poles by number of anglers, trollers fished 1.3 to 12.0 poles per person, with an average of 4.5 poles per angler.  Few anglers fished more than 6 poles.  There was a predictable increase in catch rate with the number of poles fished; more poles meant more fish.  On Sardis, trollers kept smaller crappie than pole anglers, but there was no size difference on the other lakes.

So, what does all this mean?  Unlike some anglers' preconceptions, trolling isn't confined to big fishing parties or nonresidents.  Trolling is a better way to catch crappie throughout the year, and more poles mean more fish.  That idea has spread to non-tournament crappie anglers.  With better ways to catch bass, bass fishing became more about catch than harvest, until most bass fishing today is catch-and-release.  That's not likely to happen with crappie fishing.

Even if the number of crappie anglers stayed the same, as more of them switch to trolling, more crappie will be harvested.  Crappie size gets smaller as more efficient anglers keep more fish at younger ages.  In 11 years, a 30 fish limit shrank 5 pounds on Sardis.  Anglers had to keep more fish to fill their freezers: a vicious circle.

Normally, as fishing effort goes up, catch rate goes down as more anglers compete for a finite number of fish.  Fisheries managers adjust regulations, like size or creel limits, to spread out the catch among more anglers and try to maintain catch rates.  However, changing fishing tactics throws a monkey wrench into this relationship.  If anglers find a better way to catch fish, catch rates can remain the same, or even rise, while the population is being depleted.  Managers have to be aware of this possibility.

Because more poles catch more fish, harvest can be regulated with pole limits.  Although some anglers may argue that it doesn't matter how or how fast a daily limit is caught, creel limits are not set so that every angler can catch a limit every day.  If a better method of fishing lets anglers catch fish faster, more fish will be harvested and more pressure put on limited resources.  Also, if it takes only short a time to catch a daily limit, some anglers may be tempted to catch another one.  MDWFP officers get numerous complaints of "double dipping" on these lakes every year, violations that are hard to catch or prove.

In recent years, lower water levels, higher fishing pressure, and a more efficient way to catch fish have put a triple whammy on flood control reservoir crappie.  Fisheries managers have had to respond with larger size limits, lower creel limits, and pole limits to try to maintain the quality of crappie fishing in these lakes that both local and visiting anglers have come to expect.

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