Interest in catfishing — particularly trophy catfish — appears to be growing. 

Angler surveys conducted several decades ago consistently found that catfish anglers were generally harvest-oriented and unreceptive to regulations that restrict harvest to produce trophy-catfish opportunities. 

But more recent queries suggest attitudes may be shifting.

It’s not known if increasing angler interest in catfish triggered media interest in catfish and catfish tournaments, or whether the media or tournaments elevated the visibility of catfish angling. And solid data on trends in numbers of anglers fishing for catfish are lacking, but catfish are now prevalent on the fishing scene. 

Fishing magazines dedicate space, even entire magazines, to catfish, and catfish websites abound. Catfish tournaments occur on many rivers and some reservoirs, and numerous fishing guides now specialize in catching cats. The fishing industry has responded with rods, reels, hooks, lines and other tackle specialized for whiskered fish. It’s obvious to me that catfishing has come of age.

Much of the interest in catfish is that they are among North America’s largest freshwater game fish. Yes, alligator gar and a few species of sturgeon get larger, but how many people fish for gar or sturgeon? Catfish abound in almost all inland waters east of the Rocky Mountains. And catfish as a group — blue, channel and flathead — are ideal candidates for management. The important question is what should the management goals be?

Surveys of catfish anglers in Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri found catfish anglers were highly harvest-oriented, and most were opposed to any regulations that would restrict harvest.

In response to mounting pressure from trophy catfish anglers, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency proposed a length limit that allows only one catfish longer than 34 inches in each angler’s daily creel. 

This seemingly simple regulation also meant that catfish would be classed as sport fish. To minimize opposition to the proposed regulation, no creel limits were imposed on the harvest of catfish smaller than 34 inches, and the regulation was approved by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission in 2003. 

So how did the anglers respond?

Surveys were conducted in 2000 before the regulation change, and in 2005-2006 after the new rules were in place. 

In 2000, catfish anglers were evenly split on support for managing catfish as a sport fish — 44 percent supported the change, 44 percent opposed the change (12 percent had no opinion or were undecided.)

In 2005-2006, 56 percent of catfish anglers supported managing catfish as a sport fish and only 29 percent were opposed to the idea.

In 2000, 59 percent of catfish anglers supported designating specific waters for recreational catfishing only, with no commercial fishing.  In 2005-2006, 74 percent of catfish anglers supported designating certain waters for recreational fishing only.

While catfish anglers attitudes appear to be changing, they are a diverse group and not all think alike. In particular, harvest-oriented anglers — anglers that fish for catfish to eat — differ from those who pursue trophy fish. 

Seventy-one percent of trophy anglers supported the one-over-34-inches catfish harvest regulation, but only 60 percent of harvest anglers supported the measure. 

Seventy-four percent of trophy anglers supported prohibiting commercial harvest of catfish larger than 34 inches, while only 64 percent of harvest anglers supported the idea. 

And 71 percent of trophy anglers supported managing catfish as a sport fish, but only 56 percent of harvest anglers approved. 

I’ll confess that these results stump me a bit. Although trophy anglers appear more concerned about conserving big fish than harvest-oriented anglers, substantial numbers of both harvest and trophy anglers still want to keep the harvest liberal - even though they are allowed unlimited catfish less than 34 inches. 

The surprising result was that a small majority - 51% - of both angler groups supported commercial harvest of catfish less than 34 inches. Recreational anglers commonly perceive that commercial fishers are catching “their fish” and support closure of commercial fishing, but not in this case.

Anglers are often unwilling to change, but maybe that’s because in the past, change too often meant new restrictions. In this case, TWRA managers had to buck the will of the anglers to show them a better way. 

Once the anglers saw the new one-over-34-inches regulation in place and no commercial harvest of catfish over 34 inches, at least some apparently grew to like it. 

Only time will tell if these new regulations are helping anglers score more trophy cats.