TALES FROM A CRAPPIE BIOLOGIST
My first experience with Black Crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatis), a member of the Sunfish Family Centrarchidae, is one I can just barely recall. It was during one or more of our families’ summer trips from Winnipeg to my aunt and uncles’ island cabin getaway, in Clearwater Bay, Lake of the Woods. We would troll silver Canadian Wigglers for hours behind our 17’ homemade fiberglass canoe powered with a 1967, 3.5 hp. Johnson outboard motor, hunting mainly walleye. Okay, hunting only walleye. We’d often hook up with other species like Smallmouth Bass and Northern Pike. But we would also hook up with these crazy looking sunfish which my dad would simply call, ‘crappy’.
My next experience with Black Crappie was during my short stint as a Fisheries Technician based out of Brandon, in the Southwestern Region of Manitoba. Back then we had a Manager that simply said “do this, with this, at this location, at this time”. If it made sense to me, with my mere four summers of lake inventories and two years of Duck Mountain tributary research under my belt, I normally completed the task. When it didn’t make sense, I would usually assess the validity of the job, and you know, ask questions. That was maybe why it was a ‘short stint’ for me in the Southwestern Region.
The task at hand was to hook up with the local Game and Fish organization involved with Lake Minnewasta, right by Morden. We were to collect a few hundred adult Black Crappie via angling and hold them for a Fish Culture truck that was going to take them to a few lakes in and around the Duck Mountains. This project was an attempt to enhance the distribution of Black Crappie in southern Manitoba, and also to study the impacts this stocking had on the ecosystems that they were destined for.
Okay. Flash forward six or so years and I’m back in southern Manitoba, now based out of Roblin and working in the Duck Mountain area. Over the next fifteen years I would learn a lot about the fisheries in Manitoba’s Parkland, including the remnants of the Black Crappie stocking program that I helped ‘facilitate’ back in the early 80’s. To the best of my knowledge, three of the stocked lakes lasted until the 90’s. One was Perse Lake, now an aerated FLIPPR sponsored lake populated with stocked brown and brook trout. Perse Lake lasted until about 1991 or 1992 when it endured a complete winterkill. Previous to that it held very large Black Crappie. Just go check the Conservation Office (uh sorry, Sustainable Development) in Roblin, there should be a sixteen plus incher hanging on one of the walls. Tees Lake, across the road from Perse Lake, suffered the same fate.
The other was Mitchell Lake, sometimes called Jackfish Lake. To this day it produces master angler size Black Crappie. Just check the records.
Black Crappie are native to certain watersheds in Manitoba, namely the Red River/Lake Winnipeg connection, plus the Winnipeg River which drains from Lake of the Woods, a well know Black Crappie powerhouse. Further distribution across southern Manitoba is mainly from legal Provincial stocking programs (as previously mentioned), natural downstream migrations and/or illegal ‘bait bucket biologist’ introductions like Brereton Lake is purported to be.
Certainly either method of introduction has shown that Black Crappie are capable of downstream movement as is evident with the Caddy Lake chain of lakes including South and North Cross, all the way down to Lac du Bonnet via the Whiteshell and Winnipeg Rivers. I personally think Lac du Bonnet will become one of the premier locations for Black Crappie enthusiasts for decades to come as they are slowly but surely gaining a foothold in the aquatic ecosystem provided by this prime Winnipeg River reservoir.
During my first four or five years working as the Fisheries Biologist in the eastern region, my focus on gathering quality fisheries inventory data on most of our drive-to, accessible and more popular lakes (angling pressure wise), was starting to pay off in many ways. One of these ways was how Black Crappie populations were increasing and expanding in the region. This was also evident in the number of anglers focusing on this species. My prediction then was that Black Crappie were going to become a close second to walleye in terms of popularity for both table fare and a trophy catch and release option.
Star Lake, in Whiteshell Provincial Park, was originally stocked with Black Crappie in 1942 or 1943, (as well as Minnewasta Lake and possibly Barren Lake), largely by mistake along with a load of largemouth bass (Kevin Dyck, Whiteshell Hatchery Manager, Pers. Comm.). These Star Lake Black Crappie slowly bled into West Hawk Lake and subsequently into Caddy Lake, through to South Cross and on and on. We noticed Black Crappie distributions with our trap netting and electrofishing surveys previously not documented by older gill net surveys. Further to that, in 2007 we caught our first Black Crappie during our annual index netting program on Lac du Bonnet. Therefore, we immediately began to kick start a comprehensive data base for Black Crappie, a first in Manitoba.
We noticed a number of interesting trends with our new data. On Star Lake we found our Walleye fry stocking success was restricted by peaks in strong year classes and high fall catches of young of the year Black Crappie. Black Crappie populations are known to experience large fluctuations in cohort strength and this was evident in Star Lake in our fall surveys. This was also true for Caddy Lake survey results. On both Caddy and Star Lakes we found many walleye stomachs loaded with young crappie. And around and around it goes. These kinds of trends are not uncommon when you have relatively stable aquatic ecosystems and start adding predators at various levels in the food chain.
Derek Kroeker, Fisheries Manager for the eastern region and dogged angler himself, said it didn’t take long to echo my feelings regarding Black Crappie in the eastern region of Manitoba,“We know that Black Crappie populations are expanding in the Whiteshell and Winnipeg River Systems”, Kroeker explained in a recent conversation, “More anglers are beginning to target Black Crappie – some are looking for a trophy experience and some are more interested in harvesting”.
When regarding the data we have collected over the years and as recently as last summer Kroeker said,” Preliminary age and growth information from samples in the Whiteshell River chain indicated that growth was similar to more southern populations like Minnesota and ages ranged from age 2 to age 7 and age 7 fish were over 14 inches”. Kroeker added that Black Crappie can over populate and stunt if they are not held in check by either natural predation or human harvest. He also stated that Manitoba currently has one of the most restrictive harvest rules of any jurisdiction where Black Crappie exist. In addition, regarding catch and release angling Derek said that Black Crappie are more sensitive to post release mortality then some of our other recreational species. They are particularly sensitive to barotrauma – catch and release should be discouraged in water over 25 feet of depth. Active fish can be found in shallower water if anglers do not want to harvest fish. When we talked about the future he stated,” Fisheries staff in the Eastern Region will continue to collect data from Black Crappie populations to determine if current harvest limits are appropriate. Discussions with other jurisdictions that manage Black Crappie have been taking place and further scientific collaboration with biologists with extensive Black Crappie experience are expected in the future”.
That is good news.
Remember, knowledge is power. When we have the right kind and amount of quality data to make the right management decisions, our fisheries populations should remain sustainable at all levels for decades to come. I just hope Derek gets some help to collect that data because he has been on his own since I retired from the position of Eastern Region Regional Biologist six months ago.
And by the way.
I still have that 1967 Johnson 3.5 hp.
And some of the original silver Canadian Wigglers too. It says $1.44 on the package.
I best hit the water then…