Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Fly fishing in river. © Don Blegen

Panfish are the most common fish caught by anglers in Wisconsin.
© Don Blegen

June 2013

Sharing a passion for panfish

Wisconsin anglers weigh in on the future of a frying pan favorite.

Sylvia Lim

Most anglers can recall their first fish. For members of the Wisconsin Fishing Team, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student organization, it was panfish that stirred their passion for fishing.

"I started fishing when I was 4 years old," recalls Scott Jorgenson, a zoology and criminal justice major from Superior. "I probably started fishing for sunfish and then learned crappie techniques. My dad and grandpa taught me."

Team member Brenden Johnson, a civil engineer major from Sheboygan, recalls honing his fishing skills at a cabin in northern Wisconsin during summers with his family.

"My first fish was probably a bluegill that I caught right off the pier," he says.

"I’ve been fishing for panfish since I could walk and carry a Fisher Price ™ pole," recalls Hannah Downes, a psychology major from Eau Claire.

Panfish are scrappy fighters and worthy opponents for any age angler. Panfish are the most common fish caught by anglers in Wisconsin. In a 2006-07 statewide survey, Wisconsin anglers reported catching 88 million fish, of which 57.7 million were panfish (bluegills, yellow perch, pumpkinseed, sunfish and crappies). About 25.7 million of those panfish were kept.

Steve Avelallemant, DNR northern region fishery supervisor in Rhinelander, says that for decades, panfish in Wisconsin have been treated like a "forgotten middle child."

But now, the Department of Natural Resources is giving that middle child the attention it deserves. The reason? Public concern regarding panfish is increasing.

Wisconsin Fishing Team members from the University of Wisconsin, Madison © Syliva Lim

Wisconsin Fishing Team members from the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Hannah Downes, Scott Jorgenson and Brenden Johnson. © Syliva Lim

A panfish management plan is in the works. Unlike popular predator fish such as walleye and northern pike, panfish have not had a statewide management plan.

To change that, the Department of Natural Resources reached out to anglers. Panfish public meetings have been held across the state since mid-February.

The goal, according to Joanna Griffin, DNR fisheries specialist and agency panfish team leader, is to listen to anglers and use their feedback to help guide the agency in the direction and prioritization of panfish management goals.

"We want a very creative panfish management plan that includes getting public input of what they think about the panfishery. Are they happy with the fishery? Do they wish for more or bigger fish?" Griffin says.

The agency is asking anglers to share their panfishing experience and to tell the department what changes, if any, they would like to see, Griffin says. Anglers are asked to share their thoughts through a survey.

The agency has been joined in its efforts by the Conservation Congress (a long-standing DNR advisory organization), which for years has proposed reducing the 25-panfish bag limit on select lakes.

Changes could include revising panfish bag limits (currently 25 per day on most lakes). The last change in panfish bag limits came in 1998 when the bag limit was lowered from 50 to 25. On some Wisconsin lakes the limit is 10 fish.

Panfish size is a concern. For years, Griffin says, anglers have been reporting smaller panfish.

Analysis of many years of fisheries surveys is starting to provide insights into the status of panfish in the state.

What we know

Analysis of many years of fisheries surveys is starting to provide insights into the status of panfish in the state.

Panfish surveys taken by the Department of Natural Resources since the 1940s have shown a decline in the size of bluegills, crappies and perch with yellow perch showing the greatest reduction, says DNR research fisheries ecologist Andrew Rypel.

Rypel, like most anglers, grew up fishing for panfish and his passion has followed him into his career.

Rypel says the term “panfish” is sometimes confusing because it consists of a variety of fishes. Typically in Wisconsin, when people talk about panfish, they talk about bluegills, yellow perch and (black) crappies.

"But they are all different," Rypel explains. "They all have different life cycles. They spawn differently. They have different habitat types."

Bluegills for example, spawn in large colonies in the spring. Males come into shallows, sweeping a shallow depression with their tail fins. They circle these nests, displaying in order to attract females. The females come to the nests and deposit their eggs, which the males guard until the fry emerge.

"So if you’re a Wisconsin angler, you probably know about this. A lot of anglers go out in this period and they target bluegills because they are very easy to see. You can find them near their nest. So it's very popular to fish bluegills. However, this life-history also makes them so vulnerable to angling that they can get fished down in terms of numbers and size really fast," Rypel says.

Another difference in panfish is how long it takes them to mature and grow to an adult size.

"Bluegill can mature in two to three years but to grow to a quality size that anglers typically want to harvest can take five to eight years or even several years more," Rypel says.

To better understand angler concerns over panfish size, Rypel has been analyzing size trends in Wisconsin panfish over time. He says his research confirms what anglers have been reporting – a statewide decline in the maximum sizes of panfish over time.

A centerpiece

For many, panfish are at the centerpiece of culture in Wisconsin. The Friday fish fry tradition lives and breathes in Wisconsin supper clubs and taverns. Panfish are a staple in the frying pan when fishing and camping with family and friends.

Kurt Welke, a fisheries biologist in the DNR’s South Central Region office in Fitchburg, agrees with Avelallemant’s assessment of the historical treatment of panfish.

"For very popular fish like walleye, we protect them at certain times of the year," Welke says. “Bass, muskellunge and northern pike are very popular fish. These fishes are protected when they spawn. We leave them alone. We also have very high limits on their size and very low number for personal bag limits. But with panfish, people generally think that they can take as many as they like, whatever size they want and whenever they want them. So, we treat them differently. It’s like comparing apples to oranges."

"But now people are saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. These fish are valuable too. Let’s see if we can do better.’ And the department staff — people like me — said, ‘Tell me what they mean to you. You tell me what better means to panfish.' That’s what we want to get with this survey that we are conducting around the state."

Welke notes that panfish are an affordable, high quality food source – high in protein and low in fat — that is readily accessible. They play an important role in the fisheries food chain. Bluegills even help control undesirable fish like carp by eating their eggs.

Wisconsin has many lakes, which reates an additional challenge in building a panfish management plan.

"One size does not fit all," says Welke. “You can’t wear my shoe. Will a statewide rule work in every lake? Maybe not. Maybe that lake does not have the population of fish. Maybe that one does not have water quality and fertility. It might not have the habitat."

Another challenge is taking into account Wisconsin’s changing climate and the growing season when people can get to the fish.

"There are many places in Wisconsin that once we get ice, the fish are safe. People cannot find them or the ice conditions are poor and dangerous. The Mississippi River is a great example. There are many, many bluegills out there but anglers can’t get to them because of flow and current conditions and the fact that ice doesn’t form well or reliably in riverine situations."

Another important consideration as Wisconsin moves ahead with developing a panfish management plan is that fishing for panfish has become more effective as anglers have opened their wallets to state-of-the-art fish finders and even cell phones on the water. Avelallemant points to a phenomenon known as “pulse fishery” where anglers use social media to share where the fish are biting.

"They pull out their cellphones, text their fishing buddies and soon there are 50 people out there," Avelallemant says. Welke contends that one of the biggest challenges may be moving away from a historical mindset of our fathers and grandfathers.

"I think maybe we’ve matured a little bit. Maybe we are a little smarter. And the economy has changed. Fewer people fish consumptively. Fewer people have gardens. Fewer people are responsible for their own food. More people now go to a grocery store. So we still have people who want to eat fish but I think they eat it less than they did 30 years ago."

In Wisconsin, many immigrants were Catholic and grew up eating fish on Friday.

"And many of those fish came from the local lakes," Welke says. "Not as many people observe that tradition anymore. So that’s also part of it."

In a video message to the public, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp recognizes the importance of panfish in Wisconsin in the past and into the future.

"Whether you’re seeking a tasty meal, introducing your kids to the fun of fishing, or just looking for some great action, Wisconsin panfish deliver," Stepp says. "We want to make sure they keep delivering food and fishing fun into the future."

What next?

Any potential changes to managing panfish or changing regulations are at least three years away. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Congress are working with the public to identify their issues and concerns related to panfish.

The next step is to form a stakeholder group that will help develop a draft management plan and management objectives. The plan will define the current status of the Wisconsin panfish populations and make recommendations.

After that the public will be invited to review the draft plan and share comments at public meetings, and through online and mail surveys.

The goal is to finalize a management plan at the June 2014 Natural Resources Board Meeting with potential regulation changes in April 2015 and rule adoption in 2016.

In the meantime, 10-year-old Michael Powley says he intends to continue to hone his fishing skills fishing for bluegills with his dad, Justin Pawley of Sun Prairie, and his grandpa, Gary Pawley, of East Bristol.

"Panfish are the only fish to start kids fishing on,” says Gary. “They are good eating and kids can catch them."

“Yeah,” confirms Michael. “And I’d tell any other kid who wants to get started fishing that they [panfish] are fun to catch and good little fighters.”

FREE FISHING WEEKEND - June 1-2

No need to buy a license or trout stamp to fish on any inland lake, or the Wisconsin side of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River for this annual event. You'll need to abide by all other fishing rules, so grab a Fishing Regulations pamphlet at a DNR office or license outlet, or check them out online at DNR Wisconsin Fishing

Not sure how to get started? Many places plan special events that include hands-on demonstrations of fishing basics and techniques. Check out dnr.wi.gov/topic/Fishing/ AnglerEducation/FreeFishingWeekend.html or plan one of these events in your area. Many of these are for kids, but keep in mind when you plan your event that many adults missed the fishing boat as kids and make them feel welcome, too.

  • Annual Kids “R” 1st Fishing Contest – Milltown (Polk County). Prizes are given for the biggest northern, sunfish, crappie, bass, rock bass and perch. June 1, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Contact (715) 646-2230.
  • Fishing Has No Boundaries – Wild Eagle Lodge, Eagle River. This event opens the great outdoors for people with disabilities through the world of fishing. May 31 and June 1, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; June 2, 7 a.m. to noon. There is a $50 participation fee, but scholarships and sponsorships are available. Contact Wil Campbell (715) 479-9309, or email.
  • Free Fishing & Outdoor Activity Day – River Park Lagoon, Sheboygan Falls. Hands-on demonstrations in fishing technique, fly tying, archery, tomahawk throwing, canoeing and more. June 1. Contact (920) 893-5210.
  • Kids Fish N Fun Day – Edgewater Drive, Beaver Dam. Open to kids 4-12. Event is free but advance registration is required. Each participant gets a rod and reel, other fishing related gifts and a free lunch of brats and hot dogs. June 1, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Contact (920) 386-2531.
  • Kids Fishing Day – 29270 County Hwy G, Ashland. Experienced anglers and fish biologists teach kids where fish live, how to catch them, all about equipment and casting techniques. June 1. Contact (715) 685-9983, or visit Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center .
  • Willow River State Park Kids Fishing Contest – 1034 County Road A, Hudson. Entry fee of $1 for kids up to age 12. Each entrant gets a fishing goodie bag and the chance to win a prize for most fish, largest fish or smallest fish. Some equipment is available and bait is provided (no artificial lures, please). June 2, 8:30 a.m. State parks admission is free June 2. Contact (715) 386-5931, or email.

Compiled by Kathryn A. Kahler.

Sylvia Lim is a journalism student from Indonesis studying in Wisconsin and interning with the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.