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Bluegills, Perch and Crappies are Tops for Catching, Digesting

My chest swelled with childish pride the other day when stumbling across the results of a statewide survey of Wisconsin anglers from nearly 20 years ago.


Care to guess our three most commonly caught fish species?


Hint: It’s not the walleye, muskie or bass, be they largemouth or smallmouth.


Nope. Sitting alone at the top was the regal bluegill with an estimated catch of 25.8 million fish in 2001. Not only that, but bluegills held a nearly 3-1 advantage over the second- and third-place finishers, the yellow perch (8.7 million caught) and crappies (7.9 million caught).


Of course, those results aren’t that startling. Wisconsin has thousands of small lakes and ponds that hold bluegills, perch and crappies, which puts these fine-eating fish within reach of many fishermen. Those little waterways also don’t hold as many walleyes and muskies as bigger waterways, but largemouth bass are often present.


And just for the enlightenment of nonfishing readers, let’s get one thing straight: Crappie is pronounced “croppy.” Don’t embarrass yourself by saying “crappy” in mixed company. Not in this state, anyway. People might think you’re a Bears fan, and forever wonder about you.

And for the record, walleyes finished fourth in the above survey (7.6 million caught); largemouth bass were fifth (4.5 million); northern pike, sixth (3.7 million); smallmouth bass, seventh (3.3 million); and muskies, 11th (296,289).


Granted, the survey was conducted during the 2000-01 fishing season by Dee McClanahan, then a UW-Stevens Point graduate student. McClanahan sent a questionnaire to 53,312 people that year, and asked how long they fished, how many fish they kept, which fish they preferred to pursue, and where they fished during each previous two-week period.


Despite the passage of 18 years, I’d guess the results McClanahan gathered would differ little today. Anglers who responded to her survey said they most preferred to fish for walleyes (4,537 anglers, or 22.8% of responses), but bluegills ranked second (2,491, or 12.5%). No matter the angler’s preferred fish, they caught far more bluegills, crappies and perch.


When analyzing the harvest rates, however, something subtle occurred: The crappies and bluegills switched spots. Anglers kept 68% of crappies they caught, 59% of the perch, 56% of the bluegills and 29% of the walleyes. The next highest caught/kept rates were catfish, 38%, and brown trout, 26.7%. Not surprisingly, anglers kept only 9% of smallmouths they caught, 11% of largemouths and 12.5% of muskies.


Meanwhile, I’m unsure what it means, but when I checked Wisconsin’s record books, I found that our most popular and most-kept fish have done little in recent decades to set new big-fish standards. The state’s record bluegill, a 2-pound, 9.8-ounce bull from Green Bay, was caught in 1995. And our record white crappie, a 3-pound, 13.1-ounce slab, was caught in 2003.


Most of Wisconsin’s fish records, however, were set long before. The 4-pound, 8-ounce record black crappie is from 1967; the 3-pound, 4-ounce record yellow perch is from 1954; the 11-pound, 3-ounce largemouth is from 1940; the 9-pound, 1-ounce smallmouth is from 1950; the 69-pound, 11-ounce muskie is from 1949; the 38-pound northern pike is from 1952; and the 18-pound walleye is from 1933.


If you want a better chance at setting a record, look up Wisconsin’s “live-release” record book at the DNR’s website. It’s virtually empty. It has no entries for largemouth, smallmouth, black or white crappies, northern pike or yellow perch. The largest released bluegill, however, is 11 inches long, and the record released walleye is 30 inches.


No doubt walleyes, bass and muskies provide great challenges — as well as major boat, engine and/or specialized tackle sales for manufacturers — but panfish usually provide the first spark that ignites a youngster’s fishing passion. In many cases, panfish sustain the obsession for a lifetime.


That’s no small accomplishment when you consider recreational fishing is slowly declining among Americans. Nationally, about 14% of adults fished in 2016, according to the most recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When McClanahan conducted her survey in 2001, 16 percent of U.S. adults fished. The total numer of U.S. anglers fell 3% from 1996 to 2001, from 35.2 million to 34.1 million.


According to F&WS data, Wisconsin had 719,110 individual licensed anglers in 2016; 717,381 in 2011; and 722,803 in 2006. Unfortunately, its license sales in 2018 dipped to 706,400, a 1.7% drop from 2016. Still, fishing is standing fairly stout in Wisconsin compared to national trends.


Now, we can’t use panfish to explain that success, but I’m sure these tasty fish figure in someplace. Besides their widespread presence in our lakes and ponds, they also play a big role in our culture. Maine might have lobsters but we have perch and bluegills, which are popular in our Friday night fish fries, even though those fillets were commercially caught or raised.


Still, I think it’s safe to say we’ll never pay a restaurant to put a bass or muskie on our plates. OK, I might pay to eat a muskie, but something tells me I’d be eating alone.

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Wisconsin Fishing Catch/Harvest, 2000-01

Species Catch Harvest Harvest Rate

Bluegill 25.8 million 14.4 million 56%

Y. Perch 8.7 million 5.1 million 59%

Crappie 7.9 million 5.4 million 68%

Walleye 7.6 million 2.2 million 29%

LM Bass 4.5 million 504,522 11.2%

N. Pike 3.7 million 840,307 22.6%

SM Bass 3.3 million 292,682 9%

Catfish 1.1 million 419,248 38%

Brook Trout 1 million 243,317 23%

Brown Trout 951,442 254,418 26.7%

Muskie 296,289 37,010 12.5%

Total: 69.4 million 31.3 million 45% ave.

Anglers in Wisconsin caught nearly 26 million bluegills in 2001, according to a recent survey, and kept 14.4 million of them, making bluegills the state's most popular fish. — Patrick Durkin photo

Wisconsin anglers caught 8.7 million yellow perch and kept 5.1 million, making it the state's second most popular fish in 2001. — Patrick Durkin photo

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