Poaching trophy catfish is big business. So big, in fact, desperate catfish poachers are going to mind-blowing and illegal extremes to collect on their bragging rights. These outrageous pursuits cast aside concern for individual safety and the damaging impact on catfish populations.
Wildlife agents across the country say that these extreme catfishing measures go far beyond infractions, like fishing without a license or exceeding bag limits, and involve everything from using household appliances as traps to using explosives.
Many states, including Ohio, Missouri and Oklahoma, have bolstered efforts to crack down on poachers who oftentimes break multiple laws while poaching catfishing.
What's the motivation?
"Some of it is profit, some of it is bragging rights for catching the biggest or the most catfish. That is typically what drives folks that leave their home who are intent on breaking the law," said Dirk Cochran of the Ohio Division of Natural Resources (http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/).
As regulations tighten, poachers get more determined and creative, making it more difficult to catch them. So difficult that in some states, like Oklahoma, game wardens are going undercover as catfish noodlers who are the worst and most destructive offenders based on the kinds of items seized and the number of citations issued.
It has become imperative for fishermen to use anonymous tip lines in order to catch poachers in the act. In Ohio, the Turn In a Poacher (TIP) tipline netted nearly 500 arrests for illegal fishing in the last three years and Operation Game Thief (OGT) in Missouri has netted arrests for illegal wildlife activities that might have otherwise gone undetected.
Game & Fish strongly encourages you to call to your wildlife law enforcement agency if you're aware of any of these extreme poaching methods happening near your favorite fishing hole.
Washing Machine | Photo courtesy of: Cindy Cummings
You might wonder how in the world a washing machine could have to do with poaching catfish. It turns out, the Big Blue River in Kansas has seen its fair share of these large household appliances dropped along the riverbanks.
Poachers lug the large machines to the river and drop them in where they sink to the bottom. The drum becomes a large catfish nesting site.
This cumbersome pursuit enables hand fishermen to know exactly where to go for the fish. Nesting sites harbor some of the largest catfish in the water, so artificial structures like washing machines that have little risk of floating away attract the trophy cats time after time.
'The bigger fish are the breeder fish, they produce the most eggs, they're the most viable, most mature and when they're taken, that has the biggest impact on the catfish population, ' said Carlos Gomez, Game warden with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation
Not only is this method extreme and requires effort to pull off, citations quickly multiply for those who are caught for littering the waterways as well as the poaching violations.
Water Well Pressure Tank | Photo courtesy of: Missouri Department of Conservation
It appears that poachers are not picky when it comes to creating artificial catfish nesting sites for the purposes of hand fishing. Pressure tanks from home water well systems have been used to create deep caves for catfish.
The deep cylindrical shape of the water well pressure tank easily mimics natural nest locations like submerged logs, tree roots or riverbank cavities.
The Missouri Department of Conservation
agents seized this illegal structure that was placed in Truman Lake. Agents found a large flathead catfish nesting inside guarding eggs, which did not survive without a guarding fish.
Wildlife agents in many states say they use sonar technology or helicopter observation helps to spot these kinds of structures in the water.
Tire | Photo courtesy of: Cindy Cummings
Tires are some of the most common illegal devices used to simulate natural catfish nests. Catfish can set up nests quickly once tires are dropped into the water.
They are territorial animals so when they find a comfortable spot; they stay there to protect their eggs. Tires are easy to transport and they are easy for poachers to step away from and deny use because they are commonly littered items anyway.
'They think if they can get in there and act like they're swimming, we won't know, but when they come up out of the water with a catfish and no rod, it's kind of obvious, ' said Matt VanCleve, an Ohio Wildlife Officer.
In states like Ohio and Iowa, where hand fishing is outlawed completely, if poachers are using artificial structures, they will receive several citations. In states like Texas and Oklahoma where hand fishing is legal, it is still illegal to use any trapping device, like a tire.
55-Gallon Drum | Photo courtesy of: Cindy Cummings
The 55-gallon drum has appeared in many illegal seizures across the United States. Poachers like them because they are not difficult to obtain, they are easy to move and they create a perfect nesting spot for catfish.
Typically, poachers cut out one end, and then sink the drum into a stream or canal where fish are looking for shelter. The large cylindrical shape comfortably mimics the natural nests that catfish build into the banks.
When poachers use drums to catch their fish, they are breaking several laws: littering, illegal taking, catching by hand (which is illegal in many states) and in some states, like Ohio, if they are using nets, poachers are also cited for being a public nuisance.
On top of the fines, law enforcement has the right to seize nets, and any other devices used to conduct the illegal activity.
Wooden box | Photo courtesy of: Missouri Department of Conservation
Wooden boxes are more common than household appliances when it comes to poaching. Missouri wildlife agents seized this illegal box full of catfish eggs from Truman Lake. The eggs could not survive once the fish watching over them was removed from the nest. In one summer, agents pulled 142 similar containers from this lake alone.
There is even an underground industry for the production of these boxes, which are specifically designed to illegally fish for catfish. The Missouri Department of Conservation shut down one operation along the Lake of the Ozarks that was building and selling wooden boxes designed to attract large, nesting flathead catfish.
Wildlife agents say that removing catfish from the nests is one of the most destructive activities to the catfish population. Not only are poachers removing large, usually old catfish, but also the eggs have no chance of survival limiting the introduction of new fish into the catfish population.