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Spring crappie fishing at Chautauqua Lake has become complex.

Once considered the area's official starting point of warm-water fishing after ice out, Chautauqua's crappie count has steadily dropped in recent springs for a variety of reasons -- none serving as a complete answer to the problem.

Merle Miller of Olean, a Chautauqua crappie regular, has watched the numbers decline for at least a decade. After the Department of Environmental Conservation set a 25-crappie limit per angler in 1990, Miller received criticism for a letter he wrote that was quoted in this newspaper: "I've said all along that if you can get 20 crappie, that's enough."

To further manage catches and protect young breeders, the DEC then set a 9-inch length minimum in 1993.

"Yet there are a lot of things over which we don't have control. Restrictive regulations only affect angler harvest," says Paul McKeown, DEC senior aquatic biologist at Olean. "But right now we don't have large numbers of smaller fish."

Larger predators have been considered a cause for fewer crappies, "but we don't know for sure predator reduction or any other management moves would improve numbers of crappie," McKeown said. "Our muskellunge stocking program in 1998 will feature larger but fewer fingerlings, but this move may not reduce the predator-prey relationship for young crappie."

Competition with increasing numbers of white perch is considered another cause. DEC trawl surveys indicated white perch numbers were dropping in 1995 and 1996, but the 1997 results show their numbers are still strong, McKeown reports.

As an alternative, anglers should consider the abundance of yellow perch and walleye. Good sizes of both species have steadily increased since the 1993 spawning season. Bigger perch can be found along weed edges lake wide. McKeown notes, "All south-basin '93-year class walleye have reached the legal length limit and most north basin 'eyes will be above the 15-inch mark by May 2, the season opener."

The more optimistic crappie fans merely see them in a down cycle. For crappie anglers unwilling to go for perch or walleye, the approach this season will have to be -- hurry up and watch.

Pistol packin' problem

Applicants for pistol permits in Erie County are experiencing what Shakespeare's Hamlet calls "the law's delay."

Reader responses to last week's Outdoors Page column on gun ownership were more numerous than to any outdoor article printed this past year. Most writers and callers favored the commentary, but one area of concern voiced by many is the issuance of pistol permits in Erie County.

Under a federal law known as the Brady Bill, buyers must wait at least five days from time of application before purchasing a hand gun. In New York State, that wait is much longer. Marshall Brown, Shooters Committee on Political Education public relations director, wrote, "Boy would we love pistol permit delays of (only) 60 days."

Judges do have six months to act on a permit application or submit a written explanation for its rejection, according to Section 400 of New York State penal law.

Bud Schroeder, SCOPE first vice president, has taken exception to Erie County's interpretation that the six-month period starts when the application reaches the licensing judge. Schroeder and other SCOPE members believe the period should begin when the permit is filed with a local police agency for a background check.

"In New York State and several other states, gun rights have eroded down to a privilege with the requirement of a license," Schroeder said. "Now, judges have eroded the privilege further to a whim. Judges do not have to issue a license or may exercise judicial discretion, such as limiting the gun to target/hunting only."

On self-defense, he said, "Many judges do not consider the carrying of a firearm for self-defense as a valid reason to own a hand gun. This decision amounts to a whim. To challenge this decision is a costly and time-consuming process, beyond the financial means of the honest gun owner."

On permit issuance, Erie County Clerk David Swartz said, "It (permit delays) is in the whole process itself, moving them along through police agencies and eventually through the courts." Once a permit arrives at county hall, "we generally process them in about four months."

When asked about assigning additional judges, Swartz said, "Tradition has been assigning one judge to pistol permits."

Mike Filozof of Alden writes, "Erie County's system is an impediment because of its slowness and inefficiency. It took me 10 1/2 months to get a restricted permit."

Brown and Schroeder cite cases which have taken applications more than a year to complete. For pistol permit applicants, the approach has to be -- hurry up and wait.

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