Managing Crappie in Private Waters

Don C Keller

We are very blessed in this country, and especially in the South, to have a tremendous diversity of sport fish and also, access to these fishing opportunities. You can catch trophy bass, bluegill, striped bass, rainbow trout, speckled trout, redfish, snapper, grouper and numerous other species within a day’s drive.

Some fishermen are very passionate about one particular species and gear all of their efforts and equipment in the pursuit of trophies and limits (i.e., largemouth bass). However, I think that as they get older most fishermen, like me, prefer a variety of challenges in regard to species, habitat, equipment, and fish for tablefare. One fish that does not get as much publicity or glamour as some others, but has a very dedicated following is the lowly crappie. Yes, largemouth bass and striped bass will put up a terrific fight, but there is something very addictive about watching a bobber floating next to a stump or treetop twitch a couple of times and then disappear beneath the water.

As co-owner of American Sport Fish, I receive a lot of calls from landowners wanting to add crappie to their ponds that contain largemouth bass and bluegill. In years past we always discouraged this stocking practice. Crappie spawn at cooler temperatures earlier in the year than bluegill and have the potential to produce very large numbers of offspring. A 1-pound female may carry 100,000 eggs or more, and with a moderately successful spawn a very large yearclass is produced. These high numbers of small crappie will feed on the natural food that would normally be available to the bluegill, and the end result is a pond full of stunted bluegill and crappie. Largemouth bass fishing also ends up being very poor due to the small size of the forage base. In years past, the only solution was to drain the pond and start over.

However, after working with thousands of landowners we began to recognize that occasionally some lakes would have good fishing for bass, bluegill and a few slab crappie. The one common denominator in all of these successful lakes was the fact that there was an additional forage species present. Very often this additional species would be a population of golden shiners that were accidentally introduced or came in from a stream above when the pond was filling. Shiners can coexist with bluegill, especially if an automatic feeder is used to supply a supplemental feed. Shiners are predators of recently hatched fish fry, and this feeding habit may help to keep the crappie numbers down so that they do not become stunted.

One other forage species that seems to produce manageable crappie fishing is the threadfin shad. Shad can be added to existing populations in recreational lakes. Although the shad are only 2 to 4 inches when stocked, they will get become established through multiple spawns and provide food for both the crappie and largemouth bass. Fatheads are great in new ponds to give the fish a growth surge the first year but they will eventually be eliminated and do very little if any good when added to an established population. They simply do not produce enough offspring and are easy prey for the existing fish.

In the last few years, we have had a few landowners with several ponds that were producing good bass fishing and who wanted to build a new pond and attempt to produce some quality crappie fishing. In these situations we stocked fathead minnows, golden shiners and threadfin shad. A few months later we added approximately 200 black crappie fingerlings per acre. No bluegill, largemouth bass or catfish were stocked so that there would be no competition for the minnows. So far we have gotten positive reports and the crappie have grown well. The owners are aware of the fact that they may have to add more crappie fingerlings or supplement the bait fish at some point in the future.

Another option we have had success with in new ponds is to stock bluegill, fatheads, golden shiners and threadfin shad in the fall, fingerling bass in May, and add crappie the following fall. This scenario allows the shiner and shad population to become established before the crappie are added.

There are two species of crappie; the black and the white. They are frequently found in the same geographical areas, and often in the same body of water. The white crappie have the black pigment arranged in faint vertical bars, but the black crappie have no distinguishable color patterns. The black crappie also have seven or more dorsal spines and the white have six or fewer dorsal spines. In the spring during spawning season, the male white crappie will be very dark and is often mistaken for a black crappie. There is also a unique strain of black crappie that is native to northern Mississippi and southern Arkansas that is called the black nose. This is a black crappie with a black stripe that runs down its back to the tip of the snout. For private lakes we recommend the black crappie. They seem to handle better, transport better and have good growth rates.

As for tablefare, to me nothing tops crappie for flavor. I have eaten fresh Alaskan salmon, snapper, catfish, speckled trout, you name it, but the sweetest, tastiest white meat is that of a fresh slab crappie dragged through a little cornmeal and delicately fried to a light golden brown.

Finally, if you are considering stocking crappie, contact a fisheries professional to make sure that you have the right habitat and food supply.


Seasonal Tips

Threadfin Shad Winter Kills

Threadfin shad are great supplemental forage for both bass and crappie in fertilized ponds. They spawn multiple times during the spring and summer and the adult shad are always in the size range that bass can eat. Adult shad seldom exceed 5 to 6 inches. Threadfins are sexually mature at a size of 2.5 inches and the offspring of a spring spawn will be mature by the end of the summer and often spawn in late summer or early fall. Almost all lakes that are successfully managed for largemouth bass contain threadfin shad as an additional forage species.

The single drawback to threadfin shad is they are susceptible to winter kills. These kills do not typically occur every year in the southeast. The farther from the Gulf Coast, the more likely you will experience a kill in the threadfin population. Ponds and lakes that have a third of the lake with depths greater than 15 feet are more likely to have survival of some shad even in cold winters. Ponds and lakes that ice-over for several consecutive days are likely to experience a shad kill.

Although water temperatures below 38 F will cause mortality, the number of consecutive cold days plays an important part in mortality. Threadfin can be stressed by low temperatures and the fish will swim slowly, becoming easy prey to bass, crappie and larger catfish. Many of these stressed will be eaten by fish and birds, never showing up on the shoreline. Just because you never see dead fish on the shoreline does not mean you did not have threadfin mortality.

This has been a much colder winter than we have experienced for the past four years. It is always a good idea to re-stock threadfin in the spring or early summer to insure you do not miss a year without shad.

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