The Wide World Of Catfish & Catfish Conservation
May 21, 2012
As always with these species, there's so much more to write about, so many important matters transcending regional boundaries. Here we continue with a selection of things happening in the wide world of catfish, from far-reaching catfish conservation topics down to the goings-on at a tiny seven-acre pond.
Until now, few restrictions have been imposed on catfish anglers. Creel limits in years past were liberal or unlimited, length limits almost unheard of, and gear restrictions were few. This hasn't changed much in some areas. Some ask why it should, considering that many fisheries continue to pump out headliner fish. But in some states, catfish are receiving more attention from the research and management side.
An angler survey of In-Fisherman Catfish In-Sider subscribers residing in the Mississippi River basin showed that they favored more direct attention to catfish, supporting stricter regulations and the development of trophy fisheries. The problem facing agencies was lack of information, because catfish sampling is often difficult and time-consuming and cats haven't been a management priority. Without good data on population characteristics and exploitation rates, justifying the biological value of harvest regulations is difficult. Biologists, however, considered restrictive regulations important for promoting trophy catfish from a sociological standpoint.
Research is helping to identify where stricter regulations aren't necessary and where they might do some good. The Kansas River in Kansas is a case in point. Craig Paukert of the U.S.G.S. Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit measured exploitation of flathead catfish, and says, "Of the 572 catfish that were tagged, only 2 tags were returned by anglers. Even when you correct the harvest for tag loss and non-reporting, exploitation is still likely low. Modeling showed that high minimum length limits weren't needed to maintain good size structure, so we didn't need to jump on the regulations bandwagon just yet."
But in a stretch of the Missouri River in Missouri, where stock assessments show that most flatheads are being harvested before reaching their growth potential, a tighter regulation could help improve numbers of big fish, says Vince Travnichek, Missouri Department of Conservation fishery biologist. "We're considering a trophy regulation in an 80-mile stretch of the Missouri that would limit harvest to one over and one under 30 inches. We're currently gauging interest through public meetings."
Missouri's efforts stem from their statewide catfish management plan, approved in 2004. "Among the first actions was a reduction in creel limits of blue catfish to 5 per day. Before, anglers could keep 10 blues and channels in aggregate. The 5-fish-per-day limit is a step towards reducing harvest and also requires anglers to differentiate between blues and channels, a necessary step in species-specific management," says Travnichek.
Tennessee was one of the first to adopt trophy regulations for catfish by limiting the harvest to one over 34 inches per day, with no creel limit on catfish under 34 inches. Ohio introduced similar regs in 2006, with a one-fish-per-day limit on channels over 28 inches and flatheads over 35 inches. There's no creel limit under these lengths, except on specific waters.
In Virginia, a one-fish-per-day limit for blue cats over 32 inches (unlimited harvest under 32 inches) was introduced in 2006, affecting top fisheries like the James River. "Guides and other avid anglers saw too many fishermen coming in with stringers of trophies — they wanted something done to protect the fishery," says Bob Greenlee, district fishery biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "Data also showed signs of overharvest once blues reached about 20 pounds."
Greenlee says that blue catfish were stocked in the James in the 1970s and really took off in the 1990s. "Blues were putting on 10-pound increments each year. Fifty-pounders were unheard of in the 1990s, now 70s are common and a handful of 80s are caught each year. The state record 95-pound 11-ounce blue was caught in the James last June," he says. "There's an unbelievable biomass of blues out there. We see electrofishing catch rates up to 2,000 fish per hour."
According to Greenlee, the commercial harvest of blue cats is about a million pounds per year. Commercial fishers also are required to follow the new regulation. "At first, commercial guys seemed okay with it because harvest was primarily directed at smaller fish," he says. "This probably helps reduce the high biomass, lessening competition and improving growth. Now commercial fishermen see a market for big fish and are starting to want the big-fish restriction removed."
Numerous catfish derbies occur nationwide each year. While most draw local participation, some have grown into regional or national events. Each year, for example, 150 two-person catfishing teams descend on the Red River of the North in East Grand Forks, North Dakota, to fish the Cats Incredible tournament, an annual event that began in 1987. In 2006, over 6,800 pounds of channel cats were weighed in over the three-day event, with the first-place team taking home $4,000.
Several clubs and associations offer tournaments at the regional level. The North Carolina Catfish Association Tournament Series events cover the Carolinas; the Southern Catfishermen Association has events in Tennessee and Alabama; and the American Catfish Anglers Tournament Series Federation has most events in the southcentral region, primarily Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The DuraCats tournaments cover the Ohio River and other Indiana waterways.
The United States Catfish Anglers Tournament Series (USCATS) entered the scene in 1999, and in 2006, venues included the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and Kentucky Lake, with the championship on the Ohio River. Anglers pay $110 for regular tournaments and $210 for pro-trail events, with an 80 percent payback on entry fees.
In 2001, Cabela's teamed with Outdoor Promotions of Benton, Kentucky, to design and promote a national tournament series that would help the growing catfish market. "Cabela's liked the design and became the headline sponsor," says Outdoor Promotions CEO Darrel Van Vactor. The Cabela's King Kat tournaments kicked off in 2001, culminating that year in the first-ever National Championship Classic of competitive catfish angling.
"We set out to design a tournament trail that was different from the others," says Van Vactor. "We work with catfish clubs and organizations where, through affiliation, the top two teams from each club are invited to fish in the Classic. This gives club anglers an avenue where they can compete with other top anglers for a $70,000 purse."
Anglers can also qualify for the Classic through 12 preliminary tournaments, which in 2006 were held at top fisheries like Milford Lake in Kansas, Santee-Cooper in South Carolina, and Lake Erie at Monroe, Michigan. "These tournaments, with purses around $5,000, are designed to bring more attention to the good catfishing in those areas and to give regional anglers the chance to fish the Classic. There's also a points division, where anglers fish multiple tournaments in pursuit of the points championship. The tournaments are family-oriented, and anglers span a broad age group from youngsters to seniors," says Van Vactor.
Ken Freeman of Ken Freeman Outdoor Promotions in Selmer, Tennessee, fulfilled his longtime dream of creating a national catfish tournament series in 2005, when his Big Cat Quest entered the scene with Bass Pro Shops as the title sponsor. The 2006 tournament series included 13 events, with stopovers at top catfisheries on the Mississippi River, Lake Texoma, the Tennessee River system and elsewhere. Anglers can qualify for the championship by participating in a previous Big Cat Quest event, or through other tournament circuits.
The Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest offers team events and popular hourly payback tournaments, in addition to a points division. "Anglers really like the hourly payback formula," says Freeman. "Each hour, the top four catfish bring cash awards, as do the biggest fish weighed in over the course of the day. Anglers listen to tournament broadcasts on their radios for announcements, which makes the event interactive and fun. That way, they know that if they have a potential winning catfish, they can bring it to the hourly weigh-in."
Hourly payback tournaments have purses of $10,000 or more, with the overall winner taking home a new boat, motor, and trailer. First place in team events is $5,000, and the Championship has a purse of over $60,000 in cash and prizes.
Freeman now owns and promotes the National Championship of Catfishing (the National Catfish Derby) out of Pickwick, Tennessee, as a Big Cat Quest event. "The Derby started in the 1930s and is the oldest-running and most highly promoted catfish tournament out there," says Freeman. "It's traditionally held in the summer, but in 2007, we're going to start off the Big Cat Quest year with a bang by having it on March 3. It's going to be like starting the year with the Daytona 500 of catfishing."
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.