Catching a trophy-size fish like this monster blue cat is the goal of more and more 21st-century catfish anglers. (Photo by Keith Sutton)
Catfishing in America has come a long way since last century. Knowledge and gear have improved, and even catfish tournaments are being held now.
In Part I of "Catfishing in the 21st Century," we took an in-depth look at the number of catfish anglers in America today, the places they live and their demographics.
We also examined major changes that have occurred in recent decades, bringing this once-ignored group of fishing fans into positions of greater importance with tackle manufacturers, fisheries departments and others.
>> Click here to read Part 1 of this series
But what, exactly, brought us to where we are today?
I posed that question to two key players in the industry: fishing legend Bill Dance, whose obsessive pursuit of big catfish has made him a top tournament competitor and perhaps the world's best-known expert on the sport, and Cory Schmidt, an avid catfish angler who works with Traditions Media, a fishing-focused public relations/marketing group that represents major players in the catfishing market like Frabill and Rippin' Lips.
Both provided insightful answers.
Catfishing has changed a great deal since this photograph was taken in 1911. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)
Catfish Aren't Roughfish
"For decades, catfish got a bum rap as roughfish," said Dance. "But they're not roughfish. They're sportfish, and people now realize that, thanks in part to the increase in big blue cats and flatheads being caught in waters nationwide.
"Progressive states like Tennessee have implemented length limits that allow catfish to grow bigger," Dance continued, "and that's given more people opportunities to catch big fish. In 2012, for example, I caught three of my biggest catfish ever: a 75-pounder, an 83-pounder and a 110-pounder! Catfish are the biggest fish in more bodies of water than any other species. As a result, tournaments are growing in popularity. We're seeing more tackle and boats being designed, more catfishing seminars available and a huge increase in information exchange through books, DVDs, the Internet, television and social websites like Facebook. All this translates into more retail sales of catfish sportfishing equipment and a huge overall growth in the industry."
Schmidt said today's educated catfish anglers know top-quality equipment can help them be better anglers, leading to increased demand and sales.
"The challenge has always been how to best reach these consumers with products they'll buy," said Schmidt. "Historically, catfish anglers were hesitant to purchase premium gear and tackle. That's changing. With the spread of new tactics, tournaments and especially the rise of world-record-class fish in many fisheries [blue cats in particular], anglers are becoming more progressive in their thinking, approach and attitudes toward quality tackle and equipment. For example, just a few years ago, few tournament anglers used sonar. Now, almost all the best rely on it.
"All that said," Schmidt continued, "it's important to remember there are two segments of this market: the diehard tournament or trophy angler and the everyday angler who wants to catch fish for dinner."
More People Chasing The Big Ones
Jeff Williams, owner of Team Catfish Tackle in Grove, Oklahoma, finds that latter fact important as well.
"Folks who want to catch a few cats and take them home to a hot skillet are still the mainstay in catfishing," he said. "Their numbers greatly outweigh trophy anglers, but the availability of high-quality educational information through the internet and other media has created a new breed of trophy-catfish angler. Info on catching big cats was guarded by old timers in the past but now streams across televisions and computer monitors like water through a faucet. The desire to tangle with a true giant, a catfish over 50 pounds, is what this new breed is laser-focused on."
Catfishing tournaments also are changing the way outsiders look at catfishing, as civic groups, resorts and catfish clubs sponsor more competitions on popular waters.
"The public now sees competitive catfishing can be done professionally, with a strict catch-and-release policy that rivals bass or walleye tournaments," said Williams. "Catfish tournament anglers also spread the educational message to new anglers and novices wanting to learn more about targeting monster catfish. The tackle industry has taken notice of the slowly evolving market and tried to give tournament anglers a better selection of better gear to fish with. It's a slow evolution, but it is taking place."
Today's catfish angler is probably more knowledgeable about catfishing techniques thanks to the widespread availability of information on the internet and in books and magazines. (Photo by Keith Sutton)
The growing contingent of catfishing enthusiasts has led to other changes as well. Guided catfishing services are springing up nationwide to meet an ever-growing demand. Tourist bureaus have stepped up efforts to promote catfishing, which injects millions of dollars into some local economies.
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Some state fisheries departments, under pressure to better manage catfish populations, have increased harvest restrictions and trophy management. Indiana, for example, recently increased the size of catfish, and the number of large catfish, that recreational and commercial catfishermen can keep. That move was welcomed by sport fishermen, and similar actions are under consideration in other states.
The MICRA survey mentioned earlier found that about 75 percent of catfish anglers in the Mississippi River basin favor developing trophy catfish fisheries, and 65 percent would favor increasing regulations to improve trophy catfish catch rates. Most (66 percent) feel their state does not place enough emphasis on catfish management.
No doubt, as catfishing continues to grow in popularity, we'll see many more positive changes and growing respect for these hard-fighting, good-eating, widely available sportfish. That's good news for all of us who love battling big whiskerfish on rod and reel and dining on the deep-fried fillets of smaller catfish we caught for the dinner table.