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 catfishâ€”top predatorsâ€”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 sunfishâ€”highly desired by anglersâ€”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 flatheadâ€™s favor, reports Georgia DNR biologist Bert Deener. Considering the huge size flatheads attain in the Altamaha, little wonder itâ€™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. â€śStarting about two years ago, we began to find that flatheads were booming in the lower Satilla. Weâ€™re also seeing repressed redbreast abundance there,â€ť says Deener.
â€śFlatheads enjoy a love-or-hate relationship in these rivers. Anglers love them in the Altamaha and they hate them in the Satillaâ€”polar opposites in rivers that are only 80 miles apart,â€ť he says, â€śand itâ€™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.
â€śWeâ€™re adding three fulltime staff positionsâ€”a biologist and two techniciansâ€”to work specifically on the Satilla,â€ť he adds. â€ťThis underscores how valuable the redbreast is in this system.â€ť And while management of non-native catfish forges ahead in Georgia, blue catfish have shown up in the Altamaha. â€śWeâ€™ll keep tabs on the blue catfish populationâ€”it will take some time before we see what effects this species might have,â€ť 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. â€śA lone hatchery employee transporting 11 flathead catfish left over from some work decided to release the fish into the Cape Fear,â€ť says Dr. Tom Kwak of the U.S.G.S.â€™s North Carolina Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. â€śAbout 10 years later, flatheads were found to be the dominant predator in the river. Now theyâ€™re a grave concern because of predation on native species, including redbreast sunfish.â€ť
â€śWeâ€™re doing intensive studies to better understand the impact of flatheads on this system,â€ť says Kwak. â€śModeling results show effects on sunfishes as well as on American and hickory shadâ€”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.â€ť
Some counties in North Carolina have legalized recreational electrofishing to combat the flatheads. â€śElectrofishers are using military-style crank generator phones to stun flatheads, and some are using a snuff can equipped with an electronic device thatâ€™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 doesnâ€™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.â€ť
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 debateâ€”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. â€śIt has been legal for the past two years on portions of three rivers,â€ť says Ron Dent, Field Unit Chief for the Missouri Department of Conservation. â€śHandfishers 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. Weâ€™ll continue to evaluate the fishery to determine what effects handfishing might have. Weâ€™re concerned about illegal activity, too, like using artificial boxes to attract catfish and fishing in prohibited zones,â€ť 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: â€śPaylakes 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 arenâ€™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 isnâ€™t required.â€ť
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? â€śWe 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.â€ť
Rister must buy Hesperiaâ€™s catfish from local growers because he says itâ€™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 itâ€™s a great way to get kids into fishing.
Ryan Oster, fishery biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, says: â€śPaylakes are becoming popular with the angling public. Commercial fishermen often target big catfish in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to sell to paylakes.â€ť One paypond website has a live catfish â€śwant-adâ€ť targeted at commercial fishermen who are hauling live fish.