Woods and Waters: Sayers Lake crappie population soars to new heights

“Let me show you something,” said fisherman Bill Smith, last Saturday. Smith, who lives in Howard, popped open the lid of a grey bucket and proudly dumped its contents — water and his limit of 20 legal-sized crappies — into a large landing net.

Twenty or even 10 legal-sized crappies have been hard to come by on Sayers Lake during a typical year, but maybe not this year. According to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission fisheries biologist Dave Christine, anglers all over this Centre County lake have been reporting impressive catches of crappies — both in numbers and length.

Sayers Lake is one of 18 Commonwealth lakes that is under special panfish enhancement regulations, whereby black and white crappies need to measure 9 inches or longer in order to be creeled. Public meetings and casual surveys have shown anglers to be pretty well split as to whether they favor these special regulations or not, but it is a safe bet that Smith is a fan of the rules.

With this as a backdrop, PFBC biologists Jason Detar and Christine were anxious to get on Sayers Lake last week to survey the fish population. Trapping began on May 20 and ended when their five nets were pulled up for the last time on May 23, for a total of 15 trap-net days.

I joined them this past Wednesday morning as they, along with Lock Haven University intern Nate Walters, checked a trap net set just off of the overlook along Route 150, north of Howard. We met at the summer/winter launch — about halfway between the swimming beach and the Nature Inn.

“Just look at this,” Christine commented as he peered in the shallow water near the boat launch. Small crappies and sunfish were everywhere.

Coming off a record-breaking survey catch the previous day, one could easily say that he PFBC crew was on a “fish-survey high,” which made them even more eager than usual to check the traps that they had set the day before.

“We measured over 1,900 crappies yesterday, which is more than we caught in three days of trap-netting in 2011,” Detar noted. Those traps had all been set above the causeway on Monday and checked Tuesday, May 21.

The surveying process is used to evaluate the many types of fish inhabiting Pennsylvania rivers and lakes. At Sayers Lake, particular attention is paid to panfish species because of the special regulations.

Those rules are designed to improve fishing by increasing the number, quality and size of panfish by setting lower creel limits and minimum lengths. The panfish inhabiting Sayers Lake include both black and white crappies, rock bass, bluegills and other members of the sunfish family. The special regulations at Sayers Lake set a 9-inch minimum on crappies and a 7-inch minimum length on sunfish.

We passed several fishermen as we slowly motored southwest on the calm lake. We cleared a peninsula of trees jutting out into the lake and the bright morning sunlight illuminated an angler of a different type — a common loon — no doubt also enjoying the lake’s abundant fish population.

As we neared the trap site, Detar explained that the trap net is just a giant version of the minnow traps that are used by some fishermen to collect bait. A 100-foot-long lead net is set perpendicular to the shore, extending from the surface to the bottom. The bottom is weighted and the top is held up by floats. Fish swimming parallel to the shore are led toward the 15-foot-long wings, which funnel the fish into the trap. The trap is a large net basket with a funnel on the end.

“Most fish swim into the trap and can’t find the small opening to swim back out,” explained Detar.

The trap was hauled in — filling a large tub with wriggling fish ranging from a 24-inch carp to a five-inch pumpkinseed sunfish, includlng a 20-inch largemouth bass, several perch and small catfish. Black and white crappies made up the vast majority of the catch. Detar and Walters quickly measured, and Christine recorded each fish that was captured.

About 100 crappies were processed — 37 measured seven inches, 44 measured eight inches and 9 measured over the 9-inch minimum creel size. The longest was a white crappie measuring 13 inches.

The trap net was then moved to a new location closer to the breast of the dam and was checked the following morning.

Christine reported on the survey totals. “A total of 2,956 crappies were captured during the three-day lake survey. That averaged out to approximately 200 crappies per set, with 16 of the 200 being legal-sized. This is the highest number of crappies ever recorded since we started sampling Sayers Lake in 1988.”

Detar remarked that the largest crappie measured over the three days was 14 inches long and that the captured channel catfish showed a nice size distribution.

“Channel catfish measured from 29 to 5 inches in length,” Detar said. “The channel catfish population has really come on and has developed into an important night fishery at the lake.”

The PFBC stocks fingerling catfish each year, and it is believed that the population at Sayers Lake is also supported by natural reproduction.

The bluegill population is also excellent, with nets averaging 30 legal-sized — seven inches or larger — bluegills per set.

“Our survey shows the panfish population to be at an all-time high at Sayers, and the fishing should be excellent for the next several week, because many fish are close to shore. It would be a great time to introduce youths to fishing,” Christine commented.

“I don’t like to make predictions because of the cyclic nature of panfish populations,” added Detar. “However, I think that, based on the large numbers of seven and eight-inch crappies, the great crappie fishing will continue at least through 2014.”

Fish for Free

I would like to reiterate what Dave Christine said — this is a perfect time to take a youngster fishing. You are almost guaranteed to catch fish. The crappies and sunfish are close to shore — particularly in the rocky areas such as near the summer/winter launch. Panfish hit mealworms, small earthworms, twister jigs, poppers, flies and other lures. There have even been reports of crappies striking bare hooks.

I would suggest a 4-pound-test line or leader coupled with size 8 or 10 hooks. It is hard to go wrong with small earthworms as bait. Almost any rod and reel will do. Bobbers and weights are optional, but might help youngsters cast. Smith shared that he used a chartreuse twister jig to catch his 20 legal-sized crappies.

Children under 16 can always fish for free. Thanks to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, adults — even non-residents — can fish Sayers Lake and Pennsylvania’s other popular outdoor spots and enjoy a day of free fishing on Monday.

A second Fish-for-Free Day is scheduled for July 4.

“Fish-for-Free days are an easy way to introduce friends and family to the sport of fishing,” said PFBC executive director John Arway. “Many families spend the day at lakes and parks throughout the state. Now they can try fishing at no cost. We know that once people try it, particularly kids, they will see that fishing is a great recreational activity and they will want to do it more.”

If you are totally new to fishing, I suggest that you consider attending the Family Fishing Festival, which will be held at Bald Eagle State Park on June 8, from 4 to 8 p.m., at Pavilion 7, near the swimming beach. There you will learn basic fishing skills, such as knot tying, casting, baiting the hook, and taking a fish off the hook. You and your family will have the opportunity to fish – no fishing license required. All equipment provided.

The “catch”? Adults must bring a child and children must bring an adult. You will be learning and fishing together. Participants must register in advance. Visit www.TakeMeFishingPa.com to register or learn more about the event.

Cabela’s Fish for Millions

Sayers Lake is also one of the waters involved with Cabela’s Fish for Millions contest. On May 18, a lucky State College fisherman, Seth Baker, caught one of the tagged fish — an 18-inch largemouth bass at Sayers Lake. Baker has yet to learn what his prize is. The contest ends July 7 — you must be registered to win.