Story by Jeff Samsel Photos by Doug Markham
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has long been proactive with crappie management strategies, including crappie stocking. The results for anglers are better and more consistent fishing.
Status quo might cut it for some folks, but it has never been good enough for fisheries biologists at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. While TWRA biologists certainly will embrace sound scientific proof of management approaches that will not work, they aren’t content to simply accept a commonly held idea that something won’t work or isn’t necessary, if that something has the potential to improve fisheries and enhance opportunities for Tennessee anglers.
Crappie provide ideal evidence. More specifically, the history of crappie stocking in Tennessee provides that evidence. The long-held belief in the fisheries community was that crappie would reproduce to the level the habitat allowed, and that stocking fish was neither necessary nor likely to improve fishing.
When Tennessee first experimented with crappie stocking, which goes all the way back to 1988, the idea was without precedent.
“Most other state agencies thought it was kind of crazy to stock crappie because at the time most lakes had sustainable populations,” said Bobby Wilson, TWRA Chief of Fisheries. “In Tennessee however, our biologists were becoming concerned about the continued lack of successful recruitment of crappie in some of our reservoirs. So they decided to experimentally stock crappie into a few of them to see if it helped.”
Tennessee biologists believed that while many reservoirs had good habitat and plenty of forage to support good populations of adult crappie, inconsistent spawning conditions and consequently inconsistent recruitment were resulting in highly cyclical or generally struggling fish populations. If fingerling stockings could augment natural spawns and those fish could be recruited into populations, TWRA biologists believed they could substantially lessen those downward dips.
Experimental Stocking Efforts
The very first experimental stockings were into Norris and Watts Bar lakes, with a combined 190,000 crappie fingerlings. Soon after, though, TWRA decided to shift efforts to Center Hill, where spawning success had fallen off, and a once-popular fishery was suffering.
“I can remember when I was in graduate school at Tennessee Tech University back in the late 1970s. We would crappie fish in Center Hill and do pretty well,” Wilson said. “For whatever reason the crappie population declined severely in the 1980s, and so we decided to try and stock them there.”
Biologists decided to use blacknose crappie, a strain of black crappie that has a distinctive black stripe that runs down the center of its head. By stocking only blacknose crappie, biologists could easily distinguished stocked fish from naturally spawned fish when they conducted netting or electroshocking surveys and therefore could assess recruitment of the stocked fish into the population.
The answer was clear and came quickly, and the news was good. Center Hill experienced a crappie revival, beginning a couple of years after that first stocking, and fish that had a black “racing strike” dominated the catch. Stocking clearly worked at Center Hill, and more than two decades later, it still works.
Following the proven success at Center Hill, TWRA began expanding and refining the crappie stocking program. Center Hill needs ongoing stocking because natural reproduction is consistently low. In many reservoirs, the fish are used to augment poor year classes and lessen the severity of cycles that have always just been accepted in crappie populations. More so than with many species, crappie spawning success varies dramatically based on conditions, especially spring water levels.
“In 2014, we stocked almost 2 million fingerlings into 11 major reservoirs and four agency fishing lakes,” Wilson said. “We have come a long way since 1988 with our crappie stocking program. Crappie ranks second in the number of warm-water fish species that we produce in our hatcheries (behind walleye).”
Other states fisheries departments have taken note as well. Stocking continues to increase in popularity as a crappie management tool.
Since those first fish were stocked, TWRA has continually evaluated ways to maximize the benefit of the crappie stocking. For example, biologists have learned that the stocked fingerlings simply don’t recruit well into the populations of some reservoirs, including some of the largest mainstream reservoirs. Therefore, those reservoirs don’t get stocked anymore, which leaves more fish for those places where stocked fish tend to perform best.
Tennessee’s stocking program is also limited to waters where black crappie are the primary crappie species. Although white crappie populations probably could be supplemented in the same manner if fingerling fish were available, they have proven much more difficult to raise in hatcheries than black crappie.
Crappie that have been hatchery spawned during the spring reach a suitable size for stocking late in the fall. That works out well, because just prior to that time is the best time to run trap nets in reservoirs to assess year-class strength from the previous spring’s spawn. By analyzing results from October trap-netting samples, biologists can determine which reservoirs produced the weakest year classes and stock the fish in the reservoirs where they will provide the most benefit that particular year.
Spring electroshocking, creel survey work and casual information from anglers provide an ongoing look at the success of crappie stocking throughout the state, allowing TWRA to continually increase their understanding and refine their stocking strategies. Trap-netting also provides a bit of information about adult crappie populations, but the nets are definitely designed and placed to target first-year fish, and the primary function of those samples is to measure the strength of the new year class.
Beyond stocking, TWRA has been proactive with crappie management through its regulations structure. Many states have no minimum length or a very small minimum length for crappie. Tennessee’s statewide 10-inch minimum length (which has a few exceptions), like the stocking program, was established to create more consistent crappie fishing from year to year. A 10-inch crappie is three years old, on average, in Tennessee. By protecting fish to age three, the regulation allows most fish to spawn at least once. It also helps prevent weaker year classes from being wiped out by angling pressure before new year classes can even reach catchable size.
Nationally, crappie still seem to be seen by fisheries divisions as fish that just naturally occur in large numbers and that require minimal management. Although it’s true that populations generally will continue to exist without special measures and that some will thrive at times, active management can hugely impact opportunities for anglers.
Tennessee Crappie Fishing Now
The TWRA recognizes the importance of crappie, and clearly prioritizes crappie management. According to the agency’s data, crappie fishing ranks second only to bass fishing in popularity in the state’s reservoirs, accounting for 30 percent of all targeted effort. The total value of the statewide fishery, based on annual angler expenditures, is approximately $7 million.