"This is where you're born and bred to be a paylaker," says James Reed, proprieter of Catfishermans Paradise in Camden, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati. "The Cincinnati area is the heart of it all. Add Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana, and you're looking at a concentration of about 400 to 500 pay lakes in this region. It's the capital of the pay lake industry."
For a ticket price, you can introduce kids to fishing in a setting where it's all but guaranteed to catch fish — it might be at some establishments. No matter, the snackbar is always open. Or you can spend a day with friends on the bank of a cat pond sharing a few bottles of suds. Someone might win the jackpot or hit the slot. Soak some crawlers and get away from the daily grind. Harvest a few eatin'-size cats for a fish fry. Don't have a boat to get on a big river, or you want to learn more about catfishing? Lots of reasons folks fish pay lakes.
Years ago, people mostly fished pay lakes to catch catfish for the frying pan. "Today, the face of paylakin' is changing," Reed says, "but there's still a lot of diversity in the industry. But instead of stocking catfish for eating, more pay lakes are moving toward catch-and-release for big fish, and the bigger the better."
Check local outdoor publications and search the Internet and you see pay lake advertisements about great fishing for outsize catfish. Flatheads and blues to 40, 50, 60 pounds and up. One business promises a 100-pounder swimming in their waters. It's common to see promotions about the thousands, even tens of thousands, of big fish stocked. Paylakin' is a competitive business.
Reed's operation has five lakes covering about 25 total acres. Four are trophy lakes stocked with big fish and are catch-and-release. The other is stocked with smaller fish where you can keep what you catch. Like most pay lakes, there's a snack bar, and bait and tackle is available. Catfishing In Pay Lakes
Typical pay lake ticket prices run about $10 to $15 for 12 hours of fishing. Most pay lakes have contests that anglers can buy in to. If you put an additional buck or two into the "jar" you can win the jackpot if you catch the biggest fish over a particular time period, typically a day or week. The payout varies based on the number of entries and payback percentage.
Tagged fish contests also are popular, as are "slots." Put a few bucks in the slot jar. If you're the first to catch a fish in a slot size (slots might be 40 to 45 pounds, 46 to 50 pounds, 70 pounds plus, for example), you win the pot, or a percentage of it. Prize money can range from hundreds to over a thousand dollars. Many pay lakes hold regular weekend tournaments, too. Today, more anglers are considering pay lakes a venue not only to do battle with big fish, but also to make some money.
Pay Lake Payouts
Travis VanHoose has been paylakin' for over 20 years. "I mowed lawns when I was a kid and used the money I earned to fish pay lakes," the 29-year-old from Lancaster, Ohio, says. "My mom would drive me and I'd spend all day there." Now VanHoose is a serious pay-lake tournament angler and founder of Paylake Madness (paylakemadness.com), offering advice and instruction on fishing pay lakes, as well as merchandise, including an instructional DVD devoted to paylakin'. "I'm excited to introduce new people to the sport and help some of the ones already paylakin'. This is a great sport to be involved in."
VanHoose says the tournament scene has been a new twist on paylakin' over the past decade. "It's not an established tournament circuit, but I'd like to see it become one in the next few years," he says. "Pay lakes tend to hold events around holidays and holiday weekends. Pay lakes work together so that their tournaments don't interfere with each other. I fish about four tournaments around big holidays, about 15 events over the course of a year." In addition to regular tournaments, jars, slots, and tagged fish prizes, many pay lakes have a year-end championship with the winner taking home a bigger payout and a trophy.
Reed's Catfishermans Paradise hosts four Big Bang Tournaments each year, with up to $10,000 in payouts if 100 anglers enter the event. Each angler pays $105 — with $100 going to the Big Bang Tournament pool and the remaining $5 going toward the prize money for the annual Big Cat Pay Lake World Championship held each September. The Big Bang tournaments pay each hour of the 10-hour tournament for the biggest and second biggest fish. The 40 hourly winners from each of the Big Bang Tournaments are eligible to fish in the world championship for free. The winner of the Championship takes home $1,400 if each of the Big Bang tournaments has 70 anglers. The payout is $2,000 if 100 anglers fished each Big Bang Tournament. There's also a trophy and prize merchandise.
Some anglers might think pay lake fish are easy to catch. Smaller farm-raised channel cats can be naive, but large fish that have been caught several times are wary. "I've never seen fish that are so smart as they are in pay lakes," VanHoose says. "These fish have been caught many times and when you're fishing from shore with depths to 20, 30, or 40 feet it can be a challenge. You need to locate fish first."
VanHoose fishes with a slipbobber rig — a 10- to 12-inch-long float, 1-ounce sinker, and a 5/0 octopus hook by Lazer TroKar or Owner. He fishes with two combos. One is an 11-foot 6-inch St. Croix heavy casting rod matched with a Shimano Calcutta 4000 reel spooled with Sufix 832 superline. The other is a 10-foot medium-heavy Tsunami rod and Abu-Garcia 6500 Pro Rocket reel.
"The way I catfish is like crappie fishing with long rods," he says. "Use the slipbobber to keep your bait riding just off bottom — 4 to 5 inches — working it through holes and around structure. Adjust the float higher or lower to keep the bait just off bottom as you work a bait through a hole with varying depths."
VanHoose fishes with nightcrawlers, leeches, shad, and sunfish. If he's fishing with nightcrawlers he disguises the hook by threading on several, forming a loose gob. He fishes live shad by hooking them through the eyes, and says a shad can live quite a while hooked that way. With small live Israeli carp from baitshops, and sunfish like warmouth, he often hooks them behind the dorsal fin. Cutting off the body and fishing with just the head is another option. In this case, he often likes to thread a leech onto the hook before adding the head.
"I take care of the fish I catch," he says. "Some pay lakes require you to land fish with a net. They want big fish handled with care." At Reed's pay lake, all fish must be landed with a net. Any jackpot fish are disqualified if a net isn't used. Anyone caught dragging fish on the rocks is banned from the lake for the day.
Supply & Demand
If you're a pay lake operator offering catch-and-release fishing for trophy catfish, you want your fish to survive as long as possible. But fish mortality is unavoidable, and pay lakes receiving heavy fishing pressure need to be re-stocked to provide consistent good fishing. The largest and busiest operations might require tens of thousands of pounds of catfish to be stocked annually. According to Reed, he stocks about 15,000 pounds in each of his lakes each year, about 500 to 600 fish per lake. About half the fish are gone from season to season," Reed says.
Reed catches his own fish to stock. In addition to being a pay lake owner, he's also a long-time commercial fisherman. With Ohio not allowing commercial fishing on the Ohio River, Reed purchases a nonresident commercial license from Kentucky to fish the Ohio River. He live-hauls them to his pay lake. The majority of pay lakes offering trophy catfishing opportunities buy their fish from licensed commercial fishermen that work the Ohio River and other waters. According to Reed, the going rate is about $2 per pound.
Among Ohio River border states, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana allow commercial fishing. It isn't allowed in Ohio or West Virginia. Kentucky has the largest section of the river sharing a border with all of those states.
Catching big wild catfish to stock in pay lakes is a concern among a growing number of sportfishermen. Dale Broughton, who guides on the Ohio River for trophy catfish, says, "Blues were making a comeback in the river, and now over the last 4 or 5 years it's been destroyed. You can watch a commercial guy with a trotline pulling in giant fish after giant fish — 300 to 400 pounds. They've wiped out flatheads, too. It can take up to 20 years or more to replace a trophy catfish out here. Guys are mad."
Broughton also points to tournament catches as an indicator. "Every September, the Ohio Valley River Cats holds its open tournament. This past September, the total catch was down by about 1,000 pounds compared to the previous year, even though there were more teams competing. And compared to the previous tournament, fishing conditions were much worse. So that's a sign there are fewer fish out there. Boat weights during the last tournament averaged only about 20 pounds — more like good catches at a walleye tournament rather than a catfish tournament.
"Pay lake guys pay about $15 to catch fish that were in the river — the same fish that sportfisherme
n pay thousands of dollars to fish for, when you consider boats, tournament fees, and all the other equipment and miscellaneous expenses," he says.
Reed, on the other hand, sees trends in the other direction. "In 1980 when I started commercial fishing, catching a 40-pound blue cat was rare in the Ohio River where I fished," he says. "Prior to about 1993, there were hardly any blues. Now fish in the 50- to 60-pound class are common and there have been several state records set in the past few years. This year I've caught numbers of fish over 50 pounds, including a 70-pound flathead." From Reed's perspective, the fishery isn't declining or even holding it's own — it's getting better.
So which way is the needle pointing? "This issue is coming to a head in Kentucky this year," says Ron Brooks, Fisheries Director for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "The Ohio River is known for quality catfish in the 20- to 40-pound range with larger fish, too, and tournament anglers and other trophy catfishermen want to protect the 70-, 80-, 90-pounders. They see commercial fishermen harvesting big fish for pay lakes and are frustrated because those fish won't have the opportunity to grow to record sizes."
Ohio and West Virginia passed regulations allowing the harvest of only one blue or flathead catfish 35 inches and longer daily, while Kentucky has no limit. "Those regulations passed without strong data on catfish populations in the river," Brooks says. "Those states don't have commercial fishing, so it wasn't an issue."
"The regulations in Ohio were developed in response to two fisheries management interests," says Scott Hale, Inland Fisheries Program Administrator for the Ohio DNR. "One was to promote trophy fisheries for large catfish; the second to prevent illegal sale of large, sport-caught catfish to pay lakes. It's not legal to sell sport-caught fish in Ohio."
Brooks says that in Kentucky, tightening the regulations as in Ohio and West Virginia would affect the livelihood of commercial fishermen there. "There are 279 commercial fishermen in Kentucky, of which about 10 are big players, harvesting about 10,000 pounds or more per year. Some fish go to pay lakes. Other fish go an expanding export market of big fish to make bullion.
"The process for new regulations in Kentucky starts with approval by an appointed commission," he says. "Once approved, the rules are voted on by the legislature after public hearings and other input. So unless you can prove a biological problem, there's no impetus to push for a regulation on the fishery. Based on everything we have so far, nothing really indicates a biological problem with the catfish populations."
Brooks met with anglers and commercial fishermen to discuss the issue and the consensus was to give Kentucky Fish and Wildlife a year to gather as much information as possible on the fishery. "Data collection will involve creel surveys and fish sampling, with the primary focus on the status of big fish," he says. "We'll start in the fall of 2012 and wrap up in fall of 2013.
"The fishery might be more complex than we think, and there are other variables that may affect these populations that we need to consider. One is understanding the amount of movement that occurs between pools. We know there can be substantial movement through lock chambers, but catfish also can pass through gates when water is low. Understanding movement can help us evaluate the data we collect."
Broughton says he'd like to see Kentucky develop special regulations for catfish on hard-fished pools of the Ohio River, as well as better law enforcement on the river. He's also concerned about commercial fishermen targeting blue cats in cold water with trotlines and hoop nets, as catfish form winter concentrations and are more vulnerable then.
Reed says: "If the pay lake industry had done so much damage, then how come we still get good catches of big fish? We still see good catches of flatheads to 50 pounds. I think the Internet where opinions dominate has created a lot of negative imagery toward pay lake stocking and commercial fishing. Commercial fishing isn't something new, and most folks that are posting opinions on the Internet sites and forums haven't had an inside look. Unfortunately, this has created enemies on both sides. This whole thing's been going on for 50 years."
Broughton says he doesn't have a problem with pay lakes, but rather with taking big fish from wild populations to stock pay lakes. But the pay lake industry relies on those big fish, and Reed contends there are vibrant catfish populations in the river.
As Brooks says, the issue is coming to a head in Kentucky. Hopefully the new sampling initiatives this year will offer a clearer picture of the status of the catfish populations. A year might seem like a long way out for those with a vested interest in the resource who want quick answers. But in the fishery management world with a lot of sampling and biological variability, that's a lot to ask for in a year.
One State's Pay Lake Profile
Catfish pay lakes exist in a number of states in the Ohio River valley region and southeastern and southern areas of the U.S. How substantial are pay lakes as a component of a state's overall fisheries? Ohio DNR Inland Fisheries Program Administrator Scott Hale: "Ohio has nearly 100 pay lakes in operation, with the majority of them in Southwest Ohio (49 percent), and the balance in the northwestern (3 percent), central (13 percent), southeastern (14 percent), and northeastern (20 percent) regions of the state.
"Because anglers aren't required to purchase a fishing license to fish in pay lakes, it's difficult to determine their importance to Ohio sport fisheries. However, in 2011 we conducted a mail survey of licensed anglers and the results suggested that less than 1 percent of trips by these anglers were to pay lakes during 2010. Numerically, pay lakes represent only a small portion of Ohio waters available to anglers. Ohio has about 2.3 million acres of Lake Erie, 451 miles of Ohio River shoreline, over 170 public reservoirs ranging from 25 to 15,000 acres providing over 120,000 acres of water and about 60,000 mile of streams."