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In Pursuit of Consistent Crappie Fishing

Article By 
Ron Wilson
Weighing Crappie

Brandon Kratz, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist, weighs a crappie netted in spring from Jamestown Reservoir.

While results from a decade-old creel survey on Pipestem Reservoir didn’t immediately change the way fisheries biologists managed the reservoir’s crappie population, it did spur further investigation into how they could produce more reliable fishing opportunities for anglers.

What the 2002-03 winter survey revealed wasn’t surprising: Pipestem Reservoir was an at-times phenomenal crappie fishery that was being heavily utilized by anglers specifically pursuing these fish.

“It was sporadic, however, and as fast as the fishery appeared to come online, it dissipated,” said Brandon Kratz, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist in Jamestown. “The question was why? And how could the Game and Fish Department remove some of the peaks and fill in the valleys to provide longer, more consistent fishing opportunities?”

To answer those questions, Kratz said, Department fisheries biologists needed more consistent data specifically aimed at the species. For the last several years, fisheries biologists have netted crappie from Pipestem Reservoir and Jamestown Reservoir, another on-again, off-again crappie fishery.


Unlike some other game fish species, which are sampled in summer, adult crappie are targeted in spring.

“Other fish species we manage (northern pike, walleye and yellow perch) are assessed or ‘tracked’ from data we collect during adult population surveys,” Kratz said. “These surveys take place annually and occur primarily to monitor population trends, not necessarily to solve mysteries with a particular fishery, or to generate statistically significant data.”

During this spring’s annual crappie assessment, eight trap nets were set in Jamestown Reservoir and six in Pipestem. Nets in both waters were set for two nights.

“Northern pike, walleye and yellow perch are quite susceptible to our sampling gear throughout the summer months, but crappies are not because they are occupying a plethora of different habitat types and depths during that time,” Kratz said. “In spring, they move into shallow water and are relatively predictable, which allows Department fisheries biologists to most effectively sample them.”

Trapping Crappie

The eight trap nets set in Jamestown Reservoir in spring held an above average catch of one of the reservoir’s most popular game fish.

The catch in the six trap nets on Pipestem Reservoir was down slightly this spring from the eight-year average. Kratz said the decline was likely due to an aging population with limited recruitment, combined with less than perfect weather conditions during sampling.

On the flip side, the eight nets in Jamestown Reservoir held an above average catch for a number of reasons.

“Recruitment is the number one reason for the increase. Fish from the 2008 year-class are becoming sexually mature, thus contributing favorably to the catch in our nets,” Kratz said. “The days we had our nets deployed in Jamestown Reservoir also happened to be sunny and relatively calm, which resulted in a sudden warming in the shallows. Since we experienced below normal temperatures most of spring, this condition most certainly amplified our catch.”


Currently, Kratz said, Pipestem has one dominant year-class (2005). “The majority of the crappie in the reservoir measure between 11-12 inches,” he said. “The population is trending downward, but still remains high in terms of historical averages.”

The crappie population in Jamestown Reservoir mainly consists of the 2008 and 2011 year-classes. “Most of the crappie in the reservoir range from about 8-11 inches. Crappies are extremely abundant. In fact 2014 was a record year in terms of numbers caught in our nets,” Kratz said.

Crappie caught in Jamestown Reservoir

Kohl Kratz caught this nice crappie in Jamestown Reservoir. Fishing from boat or shore, there is plenty of public access at both Jamestown and Pipestem reservoirs.

The size structure of a fish population, Kratz said, is important in a balanced fishery. “For example, too many small fish and not many larger fish observed over a period of years may indicate poor growth, or overharvest of that fraction of the population that may have the potential to become larger,” he said. “Sizes of fish in combination with age data reveal growth rates. Growth rates, size structure and mortality are three important factors when developing regulations.”

Regulation changes were made to statewide panfish limits in 2006. Fisheries managers had enough biological information at the time to support a reduction to 20 panfish daily and 80 in possession over much of the state, down from 35 and 175. The crappie limit at Pipestem Reservoir was reduced even more to 10 and 20 fish.

The statewide crappie daily (10) and possession (20) limit, which went into effect April 1, 2014, now mirrors that of Pipestem.

“One of the main purposes of daily limits is to spread the catch out over time for more anglers to have more opportunities,” said Scott Gangl, Department fisheries management section leader. “So, when you do get the occasional strong year-class, the reduced limit helps to prevent that year-class from getting fished down very quickly.”

Crappie assessment netting data prior to 2011 at Pipestem Reservoir indicated that an extremely large year-class of fish was approaching harvestable size. Based on this information, a winter creel survey was initiated to verify what the 2002-03 survey suggested – potential interest in a crappie fishery, and harvest during a peak year.

Crappie from in Jamestown Reservoir

The crappie population in Jamestown Reservoir mainly consists of the 2008 and 2011 year-classes.

“A creel survey took place the winter of 2011-12 and sufficient data was produced not only to continue the experimental reduced crappie limit regulation at Pipestem, but to expand it statewide,” Kratz said. “Data from this creel survey indicated that anglers overwhelmingly supported the reduced bag proposal.”

Gangl said annual crappie assessments will continue on both Pipestem and Jamestown in the future because both reservoirs are important fisheries in North Dakota.

“When there is a good crappie bite, it will draw people from other parts of the state when they hear the fish are abundant and good-sized,” Gangl said.

Kratz said anglers interested in catching crappie from either impoundment this season should have some great days ahead.

“Whether you fish from a boat or shore, plenty of public access is available,” he said. “Boat ramps are numerous and well maintained. Abundant, readily accessible shore-fishing areas open to the public also exist.”

While Jamestown Reservoir may produce slightly higher catch rates for anglers, Kratz said, Pipestem will likely produce a larger average-sized fish. Anglers are also reminded that there are some tagged crappie in Pipestem Reservoir and are asked to report tags either on the Game and Fish Department’s website at or by calling their local Game and Fish Department office.