There was a time when catfishing and catfish anglers rarely got respect. Those days are gone.
“… the catfish is a plenty good enough fish for anybody …”
That was written in 1883 by none other than Mark Twain.
At that time, catfish were at the peak of their popularity in the United States. In fact, before the 1960s largemouth-bass fishing boom, Americans always looked upon catfish as highly desirable sport and food fish.
That changed when bass tournaments became popular across the country and anglers began focusing more attention on trout, walleyes and other fish. Catfish anglers were no longer considered important. Most tackle manufacturers ignored them. The outdoor media snubbed them. Some even tried to shame them.
All the while, however, Americans continued catfishing. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, catfish maintained their position as the country’s third most-popular fish. Only black bass and panfish were more in demand. Such is still the case today.
During the past 15 or 20 years, American anglers, the fishing tackle industry and outdoor media reexamined the admirable qualities of these whiskered pole benders and realized they could no longer ignore the fact that catfish possess all the positive attributes of truly great gamefish.
Catfish are widespread, abundant, grow large (130 pounds plus), eagerly take a variety of baits, fight hard and are delicious. Smart folks started asking: What’s not to like?
Number of Catfish Anglers and Where They Live
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, approximately 6.95 million U.S. anglers age 16 and older fish for catfish. That’s 27.3 percent of our 25.4 million adult freshwater anglers.
More than half of all U.S. catfish anglers (3.99 million) reside in just 10 states:
- Texas — 1.035 million
- Missouri — 448,000
- Georgia — 395,000
- Florida — 389,000
- Illinois — 335,000
- Tennessee — 298,000
- North Carolina — 294,000
- Ohio — 288,000
- Oklahoma — 264,000
- Alabama — 245,000
Catfish also are popular in states with fewer anglers. In Nebraska, for example, no other fish are more sought, with 69,000 catfish anglers statewide. Catfish rank second in popularity behind black bass or panfish in Arkansas (235,000 anglers), Mississippi (218,000), Kansas (216,000), Iowa (214,000) and Louisiana (207,000).
Most catfish anglers reside in the South or Midwest where catfish are most plentiful. The fewest live in the Northeast and West, regions at the periphery of catfish range with fewer fish available.
Ten states report few to no catfish anglers: Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wyoming. Catfish also rank low in popularity in Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
Few angler surveys have been conducted to ascertain the demographics of catfish anglers. One of the most recent is a 2010 survey in Texas, a state where catfish exceed even black bass in popularity. No other state has as many catfish anglers (1,035,000) or a larger percentage of anglers who target catfish (56 percent).
About 51 percent of survey respondents preferred fishing for channel catfish, 35 percent preferred blues, and 12 percent preferred flatheads. Only 2 percent had no preference or preferred bullheads.
On average, respondents had been catfish anglers 29 years and spent 20 days annually catfishing. Approximately 65 percent of trips were spent fishing from a boat and 35 percent from shore. One-third of trips included night fishing. Eighty-one percent used a rod and reel most often; 9 percent used trotlines, 7 percent jug lines and 3 percent limb lines.
A 2001 Missouri survey provided demographics for the nation’s number-two catfishing state (448,000 catfish anglers). Show-Me State catfish anglers are primarily male (79 percent), between ages 36 and 55 (52 percent) and live mostly (73 percent) in rural communities or small towns. Seventy-five percent favored channel catfish, 14 percent flatheads, 9 percent blue catfish and 2 percent bullheads. Over 80 percent preferred fishing with rod and reel.
When asked to choose which scenario (i.e., one 20-pound catfish, two 10-pound catfish, four 5-pound catfish or 10 2-pound catfish) best described the number and size of catfish they preferred to catch and keep, most Missouri anglers preferred four 5-pound catfish or ten 2-pound catfish. However, age influenced responses. Catfish anglers less than 35 years old preferred catching fewer but larger catfish. Anglers over 55 preferred catching more but smaller catfish.
A 2001 survey of catfish anglers throughout the Mississippi River basin, funded by the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association (MICRA), found ﬁshing for fun was the most important reason respondents ﬁshed, but catching bigger ﬁsh enhanced their trip. More than 70 parent took at least one trip annually to pursue trophy catﬁsh. Trophy anglers preferred blue and flathead catfish, whereas non-trophy anglers preferred channel catfish.
Despite many similarities between catfish anglers and other anglers, a 1999 Mississippi survey found fundamental differences. Catfish anglers, as compared with those fishing for largemouth bass, crappie and sunfish, placed more importance on harvest levels and catching large fish, while showing the least support for harvest restrictions. This survey also discovered catfish anglers had more diversity in age, gender and ethnic backgrounds than other anglers.
Changes Through the Years
In 1999 when I wrote Fishing for Catfish, the first of my four books about catfishing, catfishing differed in many ways from today’s sport. For example, several companies made specialty baits for catfishing, but few made catfish-specific tackle. Catfishing tournaments were just becoming popular, but novice anglers had difficulty finding practical start-up advice. Catfishing books, television shows and seminars were rare. Only occasionally did most magazines devote space to the sport. Few retailers catered to catfish fans.
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Fast forward to 2018. Catfishing tournaments are in vogue, with hundreds held annually on waters nationwide, including national events with major sponsors such as Cabela’s King Kat Tournament Trail. Anglers who want in-depth information about catching catfish—the best places to fish, the right equipment to use, the specific rigs and tactics to employ—have no problem gleaning detailed information from books, magazines, websites, blogs, television shows, seminars, social media sites and other sources. The information age has made this “the age of catfishing” as well.
Very noticeable is a major change in availability of catfish-specific products. Exemplifying this is the online catalog of one major retailer, catfishconnection.com, which features a catfishing section with 3,529 items! Included are everything from rods, reels, terminal tackle and bait to lights, DVDs, clothing and novelties—all made specifically for catfish anglers. Add the variety of boats, boating accessories and electronics now marketed directly to catfishing consumers, and the product list becomes extensive.
New companies creating innovative catfishing products pop up frequently, including some like Team Catfish (founded 2006) and Rippin’ Lips (founded 2008) that quickly became well-recognized for top-quality bait and tackle.
Coming up in Part II of “Catfishing in the 21st Century,” we’ll hear from some of the catfish world’s top anglers and experts who will explain how shifting perceptions have brought positive changes to the sport.