Thirteen yeas ago, the Missouri Department of Conservation instituted a 9-inch minimum length limit on crappies at Wappapello Lake after public outcry over increasingly poor fishing.
At the time, Fisheries Management Biologist Mark Boone, who oversaw the lake back then, said a length limit would not prove to be successful in the long run, but still, anglers and local business owners pressed for the regulation, and it was adopted in 2006.
During the first few years, things seemed to improve at Wappapello, with anglers taking home better numbers of larger crappies than they had in the recent past — and then it all came crumbling down.
Within a few years, the large crappies became harder to find. No doubt, it was easy to go catch a boatload of crappies, but keepers became increasingly rare.
In the years since, fishermen have been hard pressed to catch even a few keepers, except on a few occasions when all the stars aligned.
Sure, there were a few decent years when crappie reproduction was good and growth was strong too. But in other years, large fluctuations in springtime water levels not only hampered successful crappie spawning, but also resulted in large declines in shad numbers, the No. 1 food source for crappies in the lake.
In a nutshell, Wappapello is a flood-control reservoir, and as such, recreation, like fishing, will always be secondary to its primary mission. It’s just the way it is.
None of this went unnoticed by biologist Dave Knuth, who took over the reins at Wappapello eight and a half years ago. Since then, he’s worked diligently to understand what was happening with the fishery, while at the same time serving as the department’s punching bag on the crappie issue.
Last summer, Knuth pitched a new idea to Wappapello’s crappie anglers, and support was generally strong. That idea ultimately turned into a new crappie fishing regulation on the lake, which will go into effect Friday.
Instead of 30 fish at least 9 inches long, now anglers will be able to keep 30 fish, something they’ve long demanded, but only 15 will be allowed above 9 inches.
The new regulation, Knuth said, will increase opportunities for anglers, since the majority of the fish in the lake, currently, are small. At the same time, removing numbers of small fish, especially the slow-growing black crappies which rarely reach 9 inches long, will take some pressure off larger fish and allow them to stay in the lake longer, continuing to grow.
Given that the majority of anglers interviewed during creel surveys said they just want to take some fish home to eat, it’s likely they’ll be happy with a few small crappies in their livewells.
Knuth admits the new regulation won’t be a “magic bullet” because the shallow lake has so many variables, but the potential for a big improvement is there.
Will the regulation work? Time will tell, but anglers should at least give it a chance, while understanding officials from MDC and the Corps of Engineers are working hard to make fishing at Wappapello better again.
Let’s face it, as much as some locals want it to happen, Wappapello will never be comparable to Sardis or Grenada. The systems are just too different in so many ways. But, it can be good again.