There is a lot of buzz lately about trophy catfish management. Is it time for catfish and catfishermen to get the attention that some say they deserve in Mississippi, or are things better left alone?

Catfish - blues, channels, and flatheads - are tailor-made for trophy fish management. They are long-lived, have relatively fast growth in Mississippi waters and grow to sizes that rank them among the largest freshwater fish in North America.

The fish-management business is just like any other business - it's a lot easier to sell something that people want than to convince them that what you have is what they need. But it's bad business to assume that a few forceful voices represent the wants and wishes of all, or even a majority, of the anglers.

Cattitudes

Ten years ago, we surveyed Mississippi anglers statewide. Sixteen percent preferred to fish for catfish. Forty-two percent of catfish anglers preferred to fish in rivers and streams, and 35 percent preferred reservoirs. Fifty-six percent would rather catch one or two big cats than 10 smaller fish.

In other words, a slim majority of catfish anglers would be in favor of trophy catfish management, but a large number - 44 percent - of catfish anglers would be opposed.

Mississippi catfish anglers told us "keeper" catfish were 12-15 inches long, and catching 10 fish would be a "good day."

How big is a trophy catfish? According to Magnolia state cat anglers, 17 pounds for a blue, 14 pounds for a channel and 20 pounds for a flathead. One trophy catfish is enough for a satisfying day.

We learned that catfish anglers recognize the importance of harvest regulations - 90 percent think regulations are necessary to prevent depletion of sport fishes, 68 percent think that sport anglers can overharvest a catfish population and 70 percent support daily bag limits. Fifty-five percent think catfish should be protected during the spawning season. They supported water-specific regulations where needed.

Problems, solutions

Although catfish grow well in Mississippi waters, it still takes them 15-20 years to grow to trophy size. With the possible exception of the Mississippi River, harvest restrictions probably will be needed to ensure sufficient survival to produce trophy fish. At present, fishery biologists lack the information about growth and mortality needed to determine exactly what regulations would be most effective. That information can be obtained, but it will take assessment efforts specifically designed to collect catfish. This is a small obstacle.

The bigger obstacle is the diversity of catfish anglers. About half would like to catch trophy fish, the other half would rather catch a bunch of smaller fish. Catfish anglers generally appreciate and support harvest regulations, but their support may quickly fade if highly restrictive harvest regulations needed to produce trophy cats were imposed on a lake frequented by anglers who like to fish to catch a mess of keepers for a fine meal.

There are at least two potential solutions to provide harvest and trophy catfishing opportunities in the same water at the same time. A modified protected slot limit, as is common in many bass fisheries, may work.

For example, anglers could harvest catfish up to 18 inches, fish from 18 inches to 34 inches would be released immediately and anglers could retain one fish over 34 inches.

An 18-inch catfish is 5-7 years old. The exact sizes for the protected slot should be fine-tuned from catfish population assessments. Protected slot-limit lakes and rivers make for exciting fishing because fish in the protected slot are abundant. Although the fish must be released, catch rates tend to be high. A protected slot would probably hurt commercial fishers.

The catfish themselves may offer a second solution to the trophy vs. harvest dilemma. Almost every public river and reservoir in Mississippi has at least two species of catfish - for example, channels and blues, or blues and flatheads. Manage one species for harvest, the other for trophy-size fish with a high minimum or protected-slot length limit. The trophy species would be abundant, and catch rates would be high.

Catfish anglers are also diverse in how they fish. The controversy between crappie trollers versus polers is small change compared to the many ways people fish for catfish - rod and reel, jugs, limb lines, trotlines, hand-grabbing, etc. And that's with a recreational license. For $30 more, you can buy a commercial license and fish with hoop nets. And for another $30 apiece, you can fish slat traps.

These diverse fishing methods are not a problem at present because catfish are not a game fish - there are no harvest or size limits. But as soon as any type of harvest restriction is imposed, hooking and handling mortality becomes an issue.

Harvest regulations, particularly size limits, are only effective if anglers and commercial fishers comply with the regulations and the fish survive after release. Research will be needed to determine the survival rate of catfish caught by commonly used methods.

Are we ready for trophy catfish management in Mississippi? Fishery managers have fine-tuned the procedures for the effective use of harvest regulations to build quality fisheries, but catfish population data are needed to use these tools effectively. We need to know about hooking mortality of catfish for the various gears catfishers use. Most importantly, we need to determine if anglers really want trophy cats.