The 2020 season saw high fishing numbers at both Smithville and Mozingo lakes. There still is a question as to what that high volume will have on the crappie populations at both lakes, but the belief is that both locations will yield a high amount of them in 2021.
The Missouri Department of Conservation said there has been an increase in the number of anglers throughout the state. Conservationist Tory Mason is assigned to the Andrew, Atchison, Holt and Nodaway counties.
“Last spring, we had really high angler use everywhere, and so we had a lot of crappie removal and exploitation,” Mason said. “A lot of times that is going to help, because in a lot of lakes up here, I wouldn’t say we have an overpopulation in the lakes up here, but you can change the size structure and a lot of big fish are taken out.
“Usually, crappie are very resilient and they’ll have big-year classes the next year and it may take a couple years for the size structure to be good again,” Mason said.
Mason said that Mozingo saw a drop in angler pressure in previous years because the crappie population went down, forcing the conservation department to change regulations on the size and number of fish taken out. Officials believe that could change in 2021 as they have seen the fish population rebound.
“I expect it to be a really good spring at Mozingo,” Mason said. “You’ll have a really good chance at catching a really memorable-sized fish. We’re seeing a lot of 12- to 15-inch fish that we didn’t see two years ago. Plus, a lot of the little ones give you some action as well as a chance at catching really big fish.”
Smithville Lake anglers spent a majority of their time last season at the door of Gary Burton, or as some call him, “the crappie whisperer.” Burton is the former owner of Burton’s Bait and Tackle and he said that despite the difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the line outside stretched all the way down the sidewalk from the time the store opened to when it closed.
“We had people coming in last year that didn’t know which end of the rod was which,” Burton said. “I’d have some people come back later with five-gallon buckets of crappie.”
Burton plays a major role in maintaining the crappie population at Smithville Lake. The former bait store owner and biologist helps the conservation department track the brush piles added to the lake for the crappie by sharing the GPS coordinates of what’s added.
“They manage the lake, and with their help we put habitat in the lake, which makes fishing way better,” Burton said. “Then they do fall surveys that kind of gives them an idea of the fish population. They may track 100 of them with 27 of them over 9 inches, 16 of them over 10 inches, and when you get enough of those you get an approximate number of keeper fish in the lake.”
Burton also provides guided trips on Smithville Lake, helping anglers find the best corners and spots for fishing. While Burton has earned his nickname throughout the years, he said a lot of his information comes from just listening to local anglers and where they are finding the fish each day.
There are numerous ways to catch the attention of crappie, including worms, lures and insects. For Burton, the best crappie bait is the simplest.
“When I do my guide tours, all my clients are given minnows to fish with,” Burton said. “They’re real, fish put it in their mouth and swallow it. The most difficult part is getting the hook out. We’ll sell 10,000 minnows in two days when it’s busy. Minnows are the number one bait and the best because fish always eat minnows. You can put them under a bobber, it’s easy to do and you probably won’t get hung up as much.”
Mozingo and Smithville both share the same regulations for crappie fishing. Anglers are allowed to catch as many as 30 per day, but no more than 15 over 9 inches.
“If there’s really high exploitation, we want to try and protect those bigger fish,” Mason said. “If anyone wants to catch 30 8-inch crappie and take them out, that leaves the ones 9 (inches) and over that didn’t get harvested that day. So in essence, you’re kind of promoting the harvest of the smaller fish and protecting the chances for everybody to get a big one.”