They’re popular, they’re plentiful and they deserve their own management plan.
That’s the message the state Department of Natural Resources is spreading throughout Wisconsin regarding the state’s panfish population.
About 20 people showed up at the Waupaca Area Public Library March 14 for one of nearly 30 public meetings held around the state in February and March. Meetings began Feb. 12 in Stevens Point and wrapped up March 18 in Balsam Lake and Crivitz.
Al Niebur, a DNR fisheries biologist for Waupaca and Shawano counties, said the public will have plenty of opportunity to have input into the plan.
“We’re trying to get some feedback from the public on their panfish experience,” he said. “There’s a lot of interest in panfish management. It’s a fish that people like to harvest.”
Besides bluegill and related species, Wisconsin’s panfish population also includes black and white crappie and yellow perch.
Wisconsin anglers harvest 57 million panfish in 2006, according to Niebur.
Although the DNR does considerable research on panfish, they do not have their own specific management plan, as other species such as musky and walleye.
“The DNR does a lot of different surveys on different lakes,” Niebur said. “The surveys give us good information on various species of fish. We gather information on length and abundance and that goes into a database.”
Panfish trends in recent years include a smaller average length of bluegill since 1940.
“That’s a good question,” Niebur said when asked for a cause. “We think it’s a combination of factors. A big thing might be harvest rates. Habitat’s a big issue, too. Predators have a huge impact on panfish populations. Walleyes are very effective predators on bluegill.”
Wisconsin’s daily bag limit for panfish dropped from 50 to 25 in 1993 and whether that limit drops in the future statewide or on specific bodies of water remains to be seen.
Part of Niebur’s presentation focused on the results of the DNR’s 2012 survey of Waupaca County’s Bear Lake. Bluegill in the 200-acre lake just south of Manawa have an average to fast growth rate and 44 of the fish surveyed were over 7 inches long.
“The thing you can take away from this survey is that Bear Lake has a pretty nice bluegill population,” Niebur said.
Waupaca County lakes scheduled to be surveyed this year include the Marion millpond and Clintonville’s Pigeon Lake, as well as several smaller lakes.
Other popular bluegill fisheries in the county haven’t fared as well, however. Weyauwega Lake, Lake Iola and the Ogdensburg millpond have been drained recently because of dam concerns or problems related to plants.
“You look at Eurasian water-milfoil, it’s kind of hit a peak,” Niebur said. “Landowners are frustrated and a drawdown is pretty effective. Dredging is so expensive. The cost for Weyauwega that rolls around in my mind is $3 million or $5 million. They’re impoundments and they’re going to need constant management.”
Harvest rates can’t be ignored and reducing bag limits will be considered Niebur said, as well as establishing slot size limits on some waters.
“We have tossed these ideas around,” Niebur said. “Minnesota’s just starting to get some results back now. There have been some studies, but it’s new stuff. Right now, we’re looking at it, but how do we go about this? The challenges with panfish management are pretty obvious. They’re found everywhere. Their spawning activity is quite different (among species).
“Regulations are one component of this process, another is habitat,” he added. “We’re seeing some tremendous changes in habitat. Lake associations are spending millions of dollars to control exotics. Water-milfoil is a real problem that’s having a huge impact on panfish. Look at Silver Lake by Scandinavia. That’s Eurasian water-milfoil. It’s one giant mat.”
Down the road, the DNR’s panfish team will review information, identify the public’s issues and concerns, develop a draft management plan and form a stakeholder group. The public will have an opportunity to review the draft plan and tentative plans call for the DNR to submit a final management plan to the state Natural Resources Board at its June 2014 meeting.
The DNR’s timeline for a management plan includes potential rule adoption in 2016.
“We’re hoping to get a plan together by this coming winter,” Niebur said. “It’s a really long process.”