If you have been following this column, you might remember I discussed catfish growth in October and November. The September column introduced Larry Pugh, the new chief of fisheries for Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
What’s the connection? One of Pugh’s priorities was enhancing catfish management. So, let’s talk catfish management.
Catfish are a popular sport fish in the Magnolia state and rank among the Top 5 most-preferred freshwater sport fish throughout Southeast and in some Midwestern states.
Despite that popularity, catfish have received little active management. Possibly in recognition of their apparently growing popularity, or maybe triggered by two national meetings that brought fisheries biologists and managers together to talk catfish, interest in fish with whiskers is growing.
From a fisheries management perspective, catfish might be the ideal freshwater sport fish. They grow quickly to catchable size and provide excellent table fare. They also live for a long time and grow to huge proportions — blue cats over 100 pounds have almost become common — and are formidable, tackle-busting trophy fish. Catfish are hardy, and grow in almost all waters. Spawning and recruitment are steady, and populations are usually abundant and stable.
While catfish offer tremendous potential as recreational species, altered rivers, aging reservoirs, silted-in oxbow lakes and potentially high fishing pressure dictates the need for management to sustain or achieve quality sport fishing.
I see two hurdles to effective catfish management.
The first is accurate methods for monitoring catfish populations — their abundance, size structure, growth rate and mortality — to know if and when management is in order and to evaluate the effects of management efforts.
The monitoring problem is being solved. Biologists now have several ways to get accurate measures of catfish populations. The problem is that these sampling gears and methods are specific for catfish. You don’t get good estimates of catfish populations by sampling for bass and crappie.
So if you want to monitor catfish, you have to use catfish-specific methods. And that means dedication of resources and personnel. The problem isn’t lack of effective sampling, it’s management’s commitment to do the sampling.
The second problem is more significant, and solutions are lacking. This more-difficult problem is establishing management goals.
Trophy catfish generate a lot of hype these days. Managing for trophy catfish is easily accomplished with a high size limit. But should trophy catfish be a management goal?
Angler surveys conducted about 15 years ago found that 56 percent of Mississippi anglers would rather catch one or two big catfish than a mess of “eaters.” While this implies support for trophy management, it also means 44 percent of the catfish anglers would be dissatisfied if high size limits implemented to provide trophy catfish interfered with their harvest.
And does that freckle-faced 8-year-old really want to tussle with a 40-pound flathead or catch two dozen keepers?
“Designer regulations” like protected slot limits, which protect some intermediate-sized fish from harvest, often work for bass. Will they work for catfish? A protected slot limit probably will raise the average size of catfish in a population while allowing for harvest of “eaters,” but these regulations won’t do much to produce 30-, 40-, or 50-pound cats.
Missouri Department of Conservation was one of the first agencies to actively engage in catfish management. Their first step was to find out what Show-Me State catfish anglers wanted. They found that only 20 percent wanted trophy fish, and the majority of anglers would oppose a reduced creel limit to increase chances of catching a trophy fish.
Missouri cat anglers are a little more polarized than those in Mississippi, but the problem still remains: Management to satisfy one group will tick off others.
But an interesting result was buried in Missouri angler survey data. Anglers were more supportive of harvest restrictions to produce trophy blues and flatheads, and less supportive of harvest restrictions on channel catfish.
Maybe instead of thinking “catfish management” we should be thinking about species-specific management — manage channel cats for high harvest, while managing blues and flatheads for trophies.
In Mississippi, as in many other states, catfish are not game fish and are targeted by commercial fishers. Harvest restrictions will put commercial fishers out of business. Alternatively, waivers of harvest restrictions for commercial fishermen will reduce the effectiveness of any harvest restriction.
The one-over-34-inches regulation in waters shared with Alabama is an effort to allow commercial fishermen to make a living and keep trophy cats in our waters.
The ultimate dilemma to any type of active management that relies on creel or length limits is the diversity of methods used to catch catfish. Length limits, where needed, work only if the released fish survive. Catfish are pretty resilient, and likely have high post-release survival when caught on rod and reel or when hand grabbed.
But what about survival after capture on jug lines, trotlines or limb lines, especially when jugs get towed off by the intended quarry or trotlines and limb lines are not tended?
Catfish present a great management opportunity, but they epitomize the often-repeated reality that fisheries management is as much or more about managing people as it is about managing fish.
Progressive catfish management will happen. Success will not hinge on some biological breakthrough, hatcheries or a multi-million-dollar habitat improvement program. Managers already know how to determine the harvest regulations that will produce the kinds of catfishing opportunities anglers want, including trophy fisheries.
Rather, I think it will come down to good communications and rapport between anglers and managers — the people element of fisheries management.