If you have read the title of this blog post, there are several notions in your head about the theme of these particular ramblings of mine. I am betting what I have to say is not what you think it will be. You all know that I blog about a variety of things, usually related to fish and fishing in Nebraska, always related to the outdoors. On occasion I have to “editorialize” and get some things off of my chest. This will be one of those times. So, my title is meant to catch your attention, and this blog post is meant to make you think. Buckle up.
I love ice-fishing. If I could ice-fish 6 months out of the year I would be perfectly happy. Bring it. But there is one thing I hate about the ice-fishing season, one thing that makes me cringe every winter. That one thing would be the fact that so many anglers tend to be so harvest-oriented while ice-fishing–Fish hogs or “Pigs on Ice”. Do not get me wrong, some will consider me to be some kind of catch & release “Nazi”, and that is fine. If I have to be extreme to fight the fish-hog extemists, then so be it. But, I am not against harvesting fish. I believe we should maintain the tradition of harvesting some of our catch. Fresh fish is darned good on the table and is darned good for you. I am all about “selective harvest”–selectively harvesting those species and sizes of fish that can withstand the harvest.
Many ice anglers target panfish and panfish species absolutely are some of the most prolific fish that can withstand some harvest. Besides that, many of the panfish species are some of the very best on the table, especially when caught through an ice-hole. But, here is where I have a problem: Too many ice anglers standard operating procedure is to get on a hot panfish bite, harvest every panfish they can legally harvest, and then keep going back every chance they get repeating that process as long as they can. And then they wonder where all the big perch/big bluegills/big crappies went?
I have stated before, will say it again here, I have seen more panfish populations in Nebraska suffering from the effects of over-fishing than I have seen larger game fish populations exhibiting the symptoms of over-fishing. I have seen more yellow perch and bluegill populations over-fished than I have seen walleye populations over-fished! As an example, we have estimates already this winter of 9,000 yellow perch being harvested from a Nebraska sandhills lake in one weekend! I am not going to tell you which sandhill lake because it really does not make any difference. Are there any sandhill lakes, or any other water bodies in Nebraska for that matter, that can withstand that level of harvest?
I am not going to tell you that panfish, yellow perch for example, are going to go extinct from any body of water due to sport fishing. Nope, not even a 9,000 perch per weekend harvest rate is going to result in that. But I will tell you what happens. . . . One day a couple of explorers try a lake they have not fished for awhile and do great; they whack a limit of BIG panfish. Those two guys pull out their cell phones or maybe hop on the internet after they get done cleaning fish, and the next day there are a dozen or so anglers on the new hot lake. The next weekend there are 200 anglers. All those anglers take home a bucket-full of 12-inch and larger yellow perch while the bite is hot, and they keep going back and harvesting their limit every chance they get. After awhile the buckets are full of 10-inch perch and only a few 12-inchers, and a few weeks later everyone is sorting through lots of small fish to catch a few that are just big enough to clean. And then there is complaining about all the small perch and claims that they are “stunted” (http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2010/01/stunted/). Then it is on to the next hot bite and it is repeated all over again. Anglers fish down fish populations, panfish in particular, from the top down–they tend to harvest the biggest fish first and then work their way down until there are no fish left that are “big enough to clean”.
Some of you will point out that much of that harvest occurs within legal limits; that the daily bag limit is 15 panfish per day and folks are following those limits. That likely is true, but there are a lot of freezers full of fish that have been caught one limit at a time. In some cases anglers keep going back and harvest their limit every time until they fill their freezers and then start filling the freezers of the neighbors, family members, and little ole ladies from church. None of that may be illegal, but here is what folks need to understand–if the oceans can be over-fished, there is not a body of water in Nebraska that cannot be over-fished. I am all for taking home some panfish for a meal of fresh fish now and then, but I would hope folks begin to understand that with the pressure placed on our fisheries resources now that the days of filling freezers should be over.
You may also be thinking to yourself, “OK, Mr. “Holier-than-thou” Fish Biologist, if harvesting all of those panfish is so bad, why don’t you change regulations?” Believe me, if I could be fish & wildlife dictator there would be a lot of changes that some folks would not like. Maybe that is why we have a fish & wildlife management system that is way better than that? The reality is that all fishing regulations are a blend of fisheries science and the dirty P-word, politics. In recent years we simplified our Nebraska panfish daily bag limits by going to a statwide bag limit of 15 fish. That actually meant that panfish bag limits on some waters actually increased from 10 to 15 fish, but I hear very little complaining about that. On many waters the panfish bag limit dropped from 30 to 15 fish per day, and you better believe that I continue to hear complaints from some folks that tell me it ain’t even worth their driving to the sandhills for an ice-fishing trip if they cannot harvest 30 panfish per day! I consider it a blessing every time I am able to hit the ice somewhere in the sandhills, and I hardly ever harvest any fish, but there are those who think a bag limit of 15 fish per day is excessively restrictive. One guy dropped my jaw to the floor by telling me we needed to liberalize harvest restrictions while at the same time complaining about the out-of-staters coming in and harvesting all of his fish!!!!! I do not know about you, but that sounded to me like nothing more than selfishness and greed.
What chance do you think I would have of implementing even more restrictive panfish regulations? The answer to that would be “slim and none” with “Slim” walking out the door. There would be more than enough complaints from the “catch-all-you-can-and-can-all-you-catch” crowd to put the kibosh on any additional regulations. So, I will continue to crawl up on my soap-box on occasion and rant on this topic. Why? Because angler attitudes have changed a lot in the past 20 or 30 years or so, and I am going to keep trying to change even more. What I am telling you is that fisheries management in Nebraska is not a matter of supplying low-cost protein for our residents and guests. We are all about providing outdoor recreation opportunities, quality fishing opportunities, adventure opportunities. And what I am telling you is many of our fisheries, sandhill lakes in particluar, have a tremendous potential to produce and maintain high-quality fishing, panfishing, even better than what we have now! I want better fishing and I believe most anglers want the same thing. But, to achieve that we need more anlgers who put less emphasis on harvesting a bucket-full of panfish, and more emphasis on putting some of those fish back down an ice hole.
To spell it out even more, here is what I am suggesting: Sure, while ice-fishing take a few panfish home for a meal of fresh fish, but forget about filling the freezer. Select some 8-inch bluegills, 10-inch crappies, and 9-10-inch perch, what you can eat in a meal, and take ‘em home and eat ‘em while they are fresh. If you do not have enough to feed the family, then grab the kids and take them fishing! If you want there to continue to be some quality-size panfish to catch, some big panfish, then those 9 and 10-inch bluegills need to be photographed and then released. Those big crappies? Yep, back down the hole. And yes, I am even suggesting that 12-inch and larger yellow perch should go back too!
Try it, I dare you. “There is no better feeling than watching your trophy swim away”–Musky Hunter Magazine