October 10, 2017
Over the past decade, more and more catfish anglers have joined the ranks of catch-and-release anglers.
New regulations such as slot limits and length limits are responsible in some locales. But for the most part, I believe, catfish fans, more conservation minded than ever, have shown voluntary restraint. “Today’s releases are tomorrow’s trophies” has become the motto of many.
There are good reasons for this, reasons you should consider if you’re still among the majority of catfish anglers who keep most of the fish you catch.
First, you’re likely to enjoy better fishing for trophy-class catfish if you and your fellow anglers release larger specimens. Big catfish are especially vulnerable to overharvest, because when trophy-class cats are removed, it takes years to replace them.
Take flatheads, for instance. Ten years are required to grow a 30-pounder, even under the best circumstances. Flatheads exceeding 50 pounds are relatively rare individuals that may be 20 to 30 years old. If you remove a trophy flathead from a river or lake, decades may pass before it is replaced by a fish of comparable size.
Channel and blue catfish populations are similarly affected. Trophy fish are older fish, uncommon fish. Yet many catfish anglers never consider releasing those they catch, especially big ones.
Small cats are much more common than big ones, so if you’re fish hungry, keep some smaller ones to eat. There’s no hard-and-fast rule to follow, but I personally draw the line at 5 pounds. The fillets and steaks I eat come from catfish less than that weight.
Resist the temptation to keep the heavyweights, and encourage others to do likewise. Shoot some photos, then carefully remove the hook and release the fish back into the water.
When you do practice catch and release, be sure to do it right. Catfish are extremely hardy. An individual may live for hours out of the water. But if you expect a cat to survive following release, it’s important to handle it properly. Follow these simple tips, and you can greatly increase the chances the fish you turn back will remain healthy and available for you or some other fisherman to catch again.
- Use circle hooks when catfishing. These tend to hook fish in the corner of the mouth, vastly reducing mortality. Barbless circle hooks are even better. If you prefer other styles of hooks, use barbless models if possible, or crimp the barbs with pliers.
- If a cat does swallow the hook, don’t pull it out. Cut the line as close to the hook as possible, leaving the hook inside the fish.
- Bring the fish to the boat quickly. Don’t play the fish to total exhaustion while attempting to land it.
- Hold the fish in the water as much as possible when handling it, removing the hook and preparing it for release. Want photos? Lift the fish briefly and snap your shots quickly.
- Wet your hands so you don’t remove the protective slime coating the fish.
- Use landing nets made with soft, small mesh. These are easier on the catfish’s smooth skin.
- Don’t squeeze the fish or put your fingers in its gills. Cradle it in the water and move it back and forth to oxygenate the gills. When the fish is properly rested, it will swim from your hands.
The best catfishing I ever enjoyed was on Manitoba’s Red River, one of those rare catfish rivers where barbless hooks are required by law. The daily channel cat limit is four, none of which may exceed 60 centimeters (23.6 inches).
On a three-day fishing trip there, I caught around 50 channel cats, all of which were larger than any channel cat I had previously caught during a lifetime spent pursuing the species. The smallest weighed approximately 17 pounds, the largest approximately 35 pounds.
I have often wondered: if a river in Canada, where the growing season is short, can produce such tremendous numbers of trophy catfish, what might a similar river in the U.S. produce if similar fishing restrictions were placed upon it?
If more catfish anglers practiced voluntary catch and release, if more of us push law-makers to enact reasonable harvest restrictions, perhaps someday we’ll have the answer to that question.