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Building Crappie Cover

When asked their opinion about putting stake beds, brush piles or other man-made cover into their favorite lake, most crappie anglers typically respond with, “It improves the fishing,” or “It increases the crappie population.” However, fisheries managers often express a different opinion on artificial structures.

Stake beds Started Here
Bobby Wilson oversees the fisheries habitat program for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA). Wilson claims that the agency’s initiative more than 30 years ago spurred the building of stake beds for crappie in Tennessee lakes.

“In our older cover-absent reservoirs like Kentucky Lake, we now have an incredible number of artificial structures for crappie and bass,” Wilson says. “Another example is Norris Lake, where local fishing clubs have a massive Christmas tree program. On the other hand, lakes like Reelfoot have so much natural submerged wood that additional man-made cover is not needed.”

However, while structures placed in lakes continue to increase each season, Wilson is quick to point out there are no studies to indicate such man-made artificial habitat actually increases the crappie population.

“Our research tells us that shallow stake beds are most effective for attracting crappie when the fish are in the shallows during spring,” Wilson says. “However, these structures simply concentrate the crappie so anglers can catch them.”

Areas where cover is placed by the TWRA will be marked with buoys so anglers can easily find them. But Wilson says man-made structures can be a double-edged sword. The stakebeds, cribs and brushpiles will attract crappie and, in turn, will increase fishing pressure at these sites of fish concentration. But on lakes where crappie populations are less than robust, the risk of over-harvesting may then become a concern.

In terms of programs that actually increase fish populations, Wilson believes the planting of select aquatic vegetation in the shallows is far more effective.

“And while many states do not do it, here in Tennessee we now stock crappie to help improve the population,” adds Wilson. “I think it is something that other states are starting to look at, too.”

Fish Attractors vs. Habitat Enhancement

Gene Gilliland, a senior fishery biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC), says that anglers who place artificial cover in a lake with the belief that this will improve the overall productivity of crappie are most likely fooling themselves.

“There is no conclusive evidence from studies done on habitat enhancement that shows artificial structures contribute to an increase in the production of any of the bass/crappie/sunfish species,” states Gilliland emphatically. “These devices are primarily fish attractors that draw fish to them. The only instances where a possible hint of increased productivity occurred were studies where small areas were inundated with massive amounts of structures. But these projects are far and few between due to high costs and intensive labor required.”

While some anglers believe that man-introduced brushpiles would provide cover for newly hatched crappie as they appear to do for bass, Gilliland says this is not the case.

“While both black bass and crappie are nest-making species, different paths are pursued after the spawn,” Gilliland explains. “Bass fry come off the nest and look for cover — weeds, rock, gravel or brush. But little crappie tend to be pelagic. They move offshore to open water to feed on plankton. Fish attractors do not serve as nursery habitat for crappie fry.”

Because of this, Gilliland says there is always a concern for crappie fry whenever massive flooding takes place shortly after the spawn.

“Those little ½-inch long crappie sitting in open water of a reservoir are not going to hold their own in the strong currents,” Gilliland says. “They will likely be flushed right out of the reservoir. Fortunately, it’s a numbers game. Enough fry survive to maintain the population.”

Given that artificial habitat only concentrates crappie for anglers to be more successful, Gilliland was asked if this could be a problem

“It can be a negative,” he says. “There are a number of lakes in Oklahoma where crappie are overabundant, bordering on being stunted. Our goal in these waters is to concentrate crappie for anglers to catch more and take them out. On the other hand, if you have lakes with more modest recruitment — lower production — you may not want to concentrate the fish as much. There are some lakes across the South where recruitment is lower than desired, but growth rates are very good — just not a surplus of crappie. These lakes are often regulated with special length limits. In these lakes, you likely do not want to increase harvesting, so putting in fish attractors would not be a good idea.”

While anglers may think these structures would help a low-density crappie lake, just the opposite is likely to happen. ODWC has a state-sponsored fish-habitat program. There is a standard buoy system used all over the state to mark the general area of habitat enhancement regardless of species. However, Gilliland expresses concern about being too specific in all lakes.

“Putting brushpiles out is one thing, but putting visible markers on all structure and giving GPS coordinates is another thing,” he says. “As soon as you tell the world exactly where the structures are located, it can be potentially counterproductive.”

A Cooperative Habitat Model

Dave Houser is chief of the Habitat Improvement Division for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PF&BC). He has a long track record of working with organized anglers on habitat projects within the Keystone State.

“We have a cooperative fish-habitat program that designs, constructs and places artificial fish habitat in lakes, ponds and reservoirs,” says Houser, who coordinates the efforts statewide with interested fishing clubs. “Much of this artificial cover is used by panfish. Most of Pennsylvania-designed artificial habitats are complex rather than simple cover. Although difficult to prove, all Fish Commission-approved habitat projects are designed to enhance fish populations rather than just attract fish to the cover for anglers to hook. Crustaceans, aquatic insects, plankton, panfish and game fish — the entire spectrum of aquatic life — will benefit from these structures.”

However, Houser stresses that the PF&BC chooses not to mark the exact location of habitat structures with buoys. Given that the attempt in Pennsylvania is to enhance fish populations and that these structures do attract fish, it makes little sense to focus harvest at the exact sites where fish may be concentrated at specific times.

Structure Shapes And Material

With decades of projects behind him, Houser is convinced that natural material (i.e. wood and rock rubble) is superior to plastic and rubber.

“The greatest benefit of wood over plastic and rubber is the ability to degrade,” he says. “We want to provide positive fish habitat that lasts just long enough, rather than forever.” His work has demonstrated that during the pre-spawn and post-spawn period, adult panfish prefer more open cover. On the other hand, juvenile crappie desire something that is very dense and bushy.

Houser points to upright Christmas trees as one of the best man-introduced covers for crappie. They start out with bushy cover for juveniles, but as the tree degrades, it leaves a vertical pole structure that adult crappie like. And it does not last forever.

In Oklahoma, Gilliland says his agency has also studied habitat materials. In the 1980s, a staff researcher looked at preferences of bass and crappie to different brush. He found that crappie preferred cedars, while bass preferred oaks. The researcher theorized that spacing between the branches was the key. Crappie like the tighter spaces of the cedar, while bass like the more open architecture of the oak.

In the 1990s, a graduate student working with the ODWC did a thesis on the relative merits of brushpiles made from cedars, oaks and plastic material called Geo-Web. He found that crappie preferred the cedars, while bass liked the oaks, and that both fish preferred wood over plastic structures.

Gilliland stresses that it’s not that plastic structures are ineffective, but they just do not work as well as wood.

“In barren areas of a lake where you do not have any kind of cover, anything you put in will attract fish, and that includes plastic structures like PVC pipe, Geo-Web or even orange snow fence,” he says. “But they will not attract the number of fish that natural brush will.”

Research done in the 1980s found that crappie also preferred vertical structure to horizontal structures. Height off the bottom was more attractive than the area of bottom-hugging coverage.

“Our agency uses the abundant eastern red cedar and sinks hundreds of brushpiles each year as crappie attractors,” explains Gilliland. “They last six to seven years compared to Christmas trees that last about one season.”

The Web Of Regulations

Pennsylvania, like many Northern states, has very strict regulations about putting any type of device in the state’s public waters. Besides a permit from the PF&BC, the water facility manager (i.e. Army Corps, state parks, etc.) must grant permission as well. Usually only organized groups working through the PF&BC habitat-enhancement division are approved for structure projects.

In the South, anglers tend to believe anything goes. However, that is not correct. In Tennessee, Wilson says while his state agency does not require a permit of anglers to place structures in a lake, permission must be given by the governing water authority, such as the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) or Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

According to Gilliland, anyone who puts anything in navigable waters in the United States must get a Section 404 permit from the corps of engineers.

“Our agency has a blanket 404 permit for our habitat program, so we are covered,” Gilliland says. “When anglers work with us on local projects, they are covered, too. If a bass club or individual goes it alone without a permit, they are subject to a fine.”

Chuck Burdowsky, a ranger biologist with the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, explains the concerns lake managers have with angler-placed fish attractors. “First, it’s a matter of public safety,” he says. “Any improperly positioned fish structure has the potential of being an obstruction to boating. As water levels rise and fall, boaters may hit the object. Or parts of the structure may break loose and either become floating litter or eventually become jammed in dam gates. Furthermore, placing certain structures in productive fish areas may alter the species using the area. The best advice is to first obtain permission from the local Corps office and to work with a fishery biologist so the proper structure is used and placed correctly.”

While fisheries and lake managers in every state realize clandestine structure placement will likely continue, they caution that anglers placing objects without proper authorization run the risk of fines as well as possibly doing something that will be counterproductive to strengthening the fishery.