Non-native populations of catfish have been established through stockings by fishery agencies crafting new sportfishing opportunities, but also through illegal transfers by individuals. In some cases, introductions have been successful from an angling standpoint. In others, catfish are regarded as no more than a biological nuisance.
Managers are particularly challenged where angling benefits and harmful impacts collide. One example occurs on the Altamaha River in Georgia, where non-native flathead catfish—top predators—colonized the entire Altamaha drainage in the 1980s after an illegal stocking in the Ocmulgee River about 10 years prior. By the late 1980s, flatheads substantially reduced native redbreast sunfish—highly desired by anglers—and eliminated bullheads.
A survey of anglers in counties adjacent to the Altamaha showed that most supported flathead reduction. But more recently, support for keeping the whiskered invaders in the Altamaha has swayed in the flathead’s favor, reports Georgia DNR biologist Bert Deener. Considering the huge size flatheads attain in the Altamaha, little wonder it’s becoming a popular fishery, one which gave up the state record 83-pounder last June.
The presence of non-native flatheads in the Satilla River in Georgia is another situation where predation on native redbreast sunfish is cause for alarm. “Starting about two years ago, we began to find that flatheads were booming in the lower Satilla. We’re also seeing repressed redbreast abundance there,” says Deener.
“Flatheads enjoy a love-or-hate relationship in these rivers. Anglers love them in the Altamaha and they hate them in the Satilla—polar opposites in rivers that are only 80 miles apart,” he says, “and it’s a dilemma, to say the least. It might have to do with other fishing opportunities each river provides. The Altamaha is larger and has a lot of backwaters; so when redbreasts declined, anglers could target other species like crappies, bluegills, bass, and channel catfish. However, the Satilla is smaller with little backwater, so if the redbreasts disappear, it means the loss of the primary fishery.
“We’re adding three fulltime staff positions—a biologist and two technicians—to work specifically on the Satilla,” he adds. ”This underscores how valuable the redbreast is in this system.” And while management of non-native catfish forges ahead in Georgia, blue catfish have shown up in the Altamaha. “We’ll keep tabs on the blue catfish population—it will take some time before we see what effects this species might have,” he says.
In 1974, before many biologists were enlightened on the impacts of stocking non-native fish, another flathead invasion began in the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. “A lone hatchery employee transporting 11 flathead catfish left over from some work decided to release the fish into the Cape Fear,” says Dr. Tom Kwak of the U.S.G.S.’s North Carolina Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. “About 10 years later, flatheads were found to be the dominant predator in the river. Now they’re a grave concern because of predation on native species, including redbreast sunfish.”
“We’re doing intensive studies to better understand the impact of flatheads on this system,” says Kwak. “Modeling results show effects on sunfishes as well as on American and hickory shad—both important species. Adult shad migrate from the ocean to the river to spawn. The young juveniles remain until about late summer, when they migrate back to the ocean to become adults. The model estimates that flatheads are capable of consuming 25 percent of all juvenile shad before they leave the river. This is an important issue, because the state is trying to restore these shad fisheries.”
Some counties in North Carolina have legalized recreational electrofishing to combat the flatheads. “Electrofishers are using military-style crank generator phones to stun flatheads, and some are using a snuff can equipped with an electronic device that’s lowered into the water on a wire. Powered by a boat battery, it produces a low-voltage electrical field to stun fish. The state doesn’t support the method, though, because of enforcement problems, safety and ethical issues, and effects on non-target species. In addition, a study showed that recreational electrofishing had no impact on reducing flathead biomass.”
What will Catfish Nation look like in 10, 20, 30 years? Current progress suggests an even brighter future.
Handfishing (a.k.a. noodling, grabbling) has an avid following in states like Oklahoma and Mississippi. Handfishers feel their way to catfish in and around logjams, cutbanks, rock crevices, pockets, and holes, with hopes of yanking out a big cat.
Handfishing has stirred debate—often the case where two or more user groups vie for the same resource. Similar controversies ensue from time to time among rod-and-reel anglers, trotliners, juggers, and limbliners. Opponents of handfishing worry that it reduces the quality of the fishery, since big fish are vulnerable. But where participation is low, catches are probably not high enough to substantially affect a fishery overall.
Missouri offered an experimental handfishing season at the request of noodlers and is proceeding with a watchful eye. “It has been legal for the past two years on portions of three rivers,” says Ron Dent, Field Unit Chief for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Handfishers need a special permit and a sportfishing license. In 2005, 108 permits were issued, with 23 flatheads and blues being caught along with 7 channels. Only about 50 permits were issued in 2006. We’ll continue to evaluate the fishery to determine what effects handfishing might have. We’re concerned about illegal activity, too, like using artificial boxes to attract catfish and fishing in prohibited zones,” he says.
Georgia has also seen a low turnout for their handfishing season. Kansas may give noodling a trial run as handfishers forge ahead there.
Come and Get Em’
Dotting states like Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky are commercially operated lakes and ponds that offer catfishing for a fee. Anglers pay admission to tangle with cats in these heavily stocked waters. In California, paylakes are often featured in the media to be among the top spots to wet a line.
Ed Rister, paylake manager for Hesperia Lake in Hesperia, California, says: “Paylakes out here are becoming more and more popular. We stock a lot more fish than do the county-run lakes, and when stocking in public waters stops in summer and fall, we keep stocking. SoCal anglers aren’t hardcore, so when they have 12 minutes to go catch something, they call ahead for a stocking report and head out. And a fishing license isn’t required.”
Rister estimates that on a typical Saturday, 400 to 450 anglers fish the day session at Hesperia. How does a 7-acre lake support such high effort? “We stock blues and channels every two or three days at a rate of about 6,000 to 7,000 pounds a week. We try not to stock anything under 3 pounds, and the biggest was a 58-pound blue. The typical size range is 5 to 10 pounds.”
Rister must buy Hesperia’s catfish from local growers because he says it’s illegal for him to import live catfish into California. But many avid catfish anglers in other states are opposed to paylakes when the source of stockings is wild fish. Others claim paylake fishing is like shooting fish in a barrel. On the flipside are those who like the fast action, saying it’s a great way to get kids into fishing.
Ryan Oster, fishery biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, says: “Paylakes are becoming popular with the angling public. Commercial fishermen often target big catfish in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to sell to paylakes.” One paypond website has a live catfish “want-ad” targeted at commercial fishermen who are hauling live fish.
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