If you have been reading my blog for any time you know that “occasionally” I let my opinions flow. Ha. I have a few things I want to put down in writing here on the eve of our 2011-2012 ice fishing season. I do not expect everyone to agree with my opinions, but I do believe that angler attitudes have changed dramatically in the past 30 years and I hope those attitudes continue to change! In fact, I hope some of the things I say and write will make some folks stop and think, and if I “ruffle some feathers”, that is good too. This is one of those times (I warned you, keep reading at your own risk).
I love to ice-fish; have for years. I realize that much of the ice-fishing “game” involves panfish; it does for me and most other Nebraska ice anglers every winter. I also realize that many of those panfish can withstand some harvest and are the very fish and species that we should choose to selectively harvest. I also realize that a lot of the reason folks love to ice-fish is because those panfish caught through the ice are darned tasty back home on the table (keeping your catch fresh by placing it on ice has a lot to do with that). My mouth begins to water as soon as I pull a yellow perch through an ice hole!
But . . . I wish many ice anglers were a lot less harvest-oriented.
Go ahead, roll your eyes, here goes the ole “catch & release Nazi” again. . . .
In the middle of last year’s ice season, we celebrated the beginning of 2011. Along with the new year came some new fishing regulations, and many of the new regulations that were implemented were an attempt to simplify fishing regulations where it was practical. For example, we had a variety of panfish bag limits around the state prior to 2011 and we combined, compromised, and simplified by implementing a daily bag limit of 15 panfish with few exceptions. That meant that starting in 2011 some waters in the state went from a daily bag limit of 30 panfish to a daily bag limit of 15. It also meant there were a few waters where the panfish daily bag limit went from 10 to 15! We publicized all of our proposed fishing regulation changes during the summer of 2010 and solicited public comment. The majority of comments on the proposed change in panfish bag limits were favorable and in fact some suggested that the bag limit should be even less than 15 per day!
And then, when Jan. 1, 2011 rolled around, I started fielding complaints about the reduction in panfish bag limits. That is natural, many folks do not see news releases or other published reports of proposed fishing regulation changes and most do not comment until they have something to complain about. Many of the complaints I heard, roughly paraphrased, were “it ain’t worth me driving to the sandhills for 15 panfish per day”.
Many times I cannot say what I would really like to say; upon hearing those complaints I would be thinking to myself “Are you kidding me?” I live in Lincoln and take every opportunity to drive to Nebraska’s beautiful sandhills to ice-fish, and most times I harvest not a single fish when I am there. Just the opportunity to fish those special lakes in the middle of some of the best of Nebraska to catch and release some of the biggest bluegills, yellow perch and black crappies that can be caught anywhere is enough for me! Every trip is worth every penny spent whether I bring a single fish home or not!
Seems to me if you cannot justify an ice-fishing trip to Nebraska’s sandhill lakes for 15 panfish, then you should be getting your fish from the frozen seafood aisle at your local supermarket. There, I said it. We are talking about RECREATIONAL fisheries NOT subsistence or commercial fisheries! A bucket-full of panfish should NOT be the measure of a successful ice-fishing trip. Even if a person is out there to harvest a meal of fresh fish, 15 panfish is a plenty; if a person needs more than that, they should take a friend with them!
What difference does it make? Don’t those panfish need to be harvested? I will not re-hash my reply to that misguided belief because you can read it here, http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2010/01/stunted/ .
If populations of fish in the oceans can be over-fished, there is not a body of water in Nebraska that is immune to over-fishing. Understand that I am NOT talking about over-fishing to the point where fish populations cease to exist or are no longer able to maintain themselves (i.e. recruitment over-fishing). Recruitment over-fishing can happen in regulated sport-fisheries, but not often. On the other hand, sport-fisheries are regularly over-fished to the point where fish are not given the opportunity to reach their growth potential (i.e. growth over-fishing). On many Nebraska fisheries the harvest of panfish through the ice is a significant portion of the annual harvest and over-fishing can result.
We have data from sandhill lakes that have not been fished for years, if at all. In fact one lake that shall remain nameless had populations of yellow perch, common carp, and a few other small fish species that had not been fished for as long as anyone could remember. Even though most pointy-headed fisheries biologists would consider that to be a less than ideal fish community, this un-fished sandhill lake had yellow perch much larger and older than what we typically see in sandhill lakes that are fished. I wonder why that was? Can panfish populations be over-fished? You better believe they can, and in fact I will tell you in my pointy-headed experience I have seen more panfish populations suffering the effects of over-fishing than I have large predator fish populations!
With water levels in the sandhills the way they have been for the past few years, we have seen rebounding panfish populations. Given good ice conditions I expect this year to be one of the best years we have seen in some time for catching yellow perch, bluegills and black crappie through the ice on numerous sandhill lakes. I am telling you, this should be a GREAT ice season; it is my job to share that with you. But in doing that let me share a quote with you that I saved from an on-line article written by In-Fisherman‘s Matt Straw (http://archives.in-fisherman.com/print/3862) .
This is a game that puts big fish on the ice. So put them back under it. Let the big ones go or you’ll go directly to hell. No more kid gloves with some of you. We teach you how to catch panfish, and how are we repaid? Every year we have to hunt for new bluegill holes because somebody discovers the old ones and hauls everything out but the trash littering the shorelines.
Harvest fewer fish, get more kids involved, and guarantee us all a worthwhile future for panfishing.
Take a few of those panfish for a meal of fresh fish this winter. Even consider harvesting your daily bag limit from time to time. But, if you are out there to fill the freezer or feed the neighborhood, stop and think about what you are doing. Absolutely take some of those 8-inch bluegills and 10-inch crappies and yellow perch (by all means fry up some 10-inch perch!), but there will be a darned lot of panfish caught from sandhill lakes this winter that are even bigger than that! There will be plenty of big panfish caught; 9- and 10-inch and larger bluegills, 12- and 13-inch and larger yellow perch, 13- and 14-inch and larger crappies. When you pull one of those trophy panfish through the ice, get excited! I still do! I cannot take my eyes off of them. Admire them, appreciate them, please snap some quick photos to share with me. And then. . . slip ‘em back in the hole! You will feel great about it, and the fishing for all of us will be better because of it.
Big fish of any species are hard to catch not because they are so smart, but because they are so rare!
Let me finish with the Daryl Bauer version of a quote by legendary angler Lee Wulff–“Big panfish are too valuable to be caught only once”.