The Biggest Kentucky Conservation Issue
That You Haven’t Heard About
Catfishing, when it’s right, flat out rocks. I’ve caught my fair share of trophy size catfish over the years and am thankful for every experience. It’s also great to see folks catch their first monster cat.
Starting with the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers in the western part of the state, to the Ohio on our northern border, we have world class potential on Kentucky’s major waterways.
So, what is the draw to catfishing? To an ever increasing number of fishermen across the Bluegrass, it’s watching saltwater grade equipment get tested to its breaking point by trophy blue and flathead catfish pushing 50 pounds or more, much more in some cases. If you didn’t know, these fish can grow to triple digit weights with the world record blue cat currently being 143 pounds. This isn’t your grandpa’s chicken liver and lawn chair catfishing. There are growing numbers of anglers all over the state sporting rigs that while not as pretty as a fancy bass rig, utilize much of the same technology used at the highest levels of bass fishing. GPS, side and down imaging sonar, superlines, specialized livewells and multiple techniques based on seasonal patterns all have their place in catfishing now. Serious catfishing has really come a long way in short period of time.
Just like bass fishermen in the early days of the sport learned that bass were not an infinite resource, catfishermen in the Bluegrass are learning this lesson too. Most folks that target big fish on a sport fishing basis are solely catch and release. However, trophy catfish have the deck stacked against them in a way few other fish in modern times have. In 2012, even with a loyal sportfishing following all across the state, a relatively inexpensive Kentucky commercial fishing license gives in state or out of state fishermen a blank check for catfish. You can keep as many catfish as you want, at any size you want. You can keep a few for supper, keep 100 for a fish fry, or you can set commercial gear and keep 7,000 pounds of trophy size cats only to sell to the pay ponds, all the while being perfectly legal. There is growing tension between the sport fishing community and the commercial fishing community on this issue. Commercial catfishing is an institution, and time has proven that on productive systems such as what we have in Kentucky, is sustainable. The change that has catfishermen concerned is that “new age” commercial fishermen are targeting only the large sized specimens for a very specific purpose. This purpose is for release into private pay ponds, where the fish are caught in the wild, live transported to a pay pond, released where they are caught over and over again, until they ultimately die from not being in natural habitat.
Private pay ponds are a growing, if not booming, business that keeps the demand for large fish increasing year after year. The center of the pay pond universe seems to be centered in southern Ohio, with convenient access to a supply of big fish to stock their ponds with. The ironic thing is that the states of Ohio and West Virginia don’t allow commercial fishing in their waters. Also, Tennessee and neighboring Alabama have world class blue cat fisheries that are protected in that only one fish over 34 inches is allowed per person, per day. All this has led to a perfect storm of sorts for Ohio River catfishermen, as commercial fisherman all across the region looking to satisfy the demand for big fish logistically close to their customer, have focused most of their efforts on the Kentucky portion of the Ohio River, west of Cincinnati. Commercial pressure that was once spread out over several states has now been focused on less water, and sport fisherman across the state are worried this increased pressure is making large fish harder to come by. Local fisherman Rob Benningfield of Bowling Green commented, “I made KDFWR aware of this issue back in 2007 when I noticed increased activity on the section of the Ohio I mainly fished. While the commercial guys claim there’s more fish in the river than ever, I actually ran into a commercial guy while fishing that admitted that he keeps moving farther and farther down river as they ‘fish out’ resources further upstream. You won’t see this commentary publicly from the commercial fishing crowd. There’s just no way you can remove so many top end fish from the system and the fishery not suffer.”
There’s always been a sort of rift between commercial catfishermen and rod and reel guys, and I suppose that’s natural. We’ve historically co-existed because we’ve both historically had good fishing. However, in recent years fishermen on the Ohio, as well as tournament results, indicate that the quality of fishing is on a fast decline. Hang around a weigh in line at one of the major tournaments and the sentiment is rising that something just isn’t right on the Ohio these days. Five fish limits weighing 100 pounds or more were common at one point in time, even in small tournaments without a lot of boats. Now it’s more common to hear talk of run-ins with commercial gear and long days with less quality fish. Used to be, it was no problem in an average day of fishing on the Ohio to plan on getting at least a couple of fish over 30 pounds to bite, and 50-60 pound fish were relatively common. We’re just seeing less good fish weighed in and caught, regardless of the conditions.
Dale Kerns of Norris City, IL, one of the best known and most successful tournament fishermen on the Ohio notes, “I’ve fished this river for nearly 30 years. What was one of the best fisheries is now becoming one of the worst. Fishing all day without one hard, quality fish bite is now becoming common.” Veteran Tennessee River Guide and nationally known tournament angler Phil King also weighed in on this issue. “I don’t think people really appreciate how long it takes for a catfish to reach trophy sizes of 50-60 pounds in a system like the Ohio River. My tournament experiences on the Ohio over recent years backs up what I’m hearing from the local fishermen. My first few trips to the Ohio were very successful, with multiple fish in the 40-60 pound class, but in recent years even 30 pound fish are hard to come by.” What makes this even more troubling is that catfishing, in terms of techniques and learning, is still relatively young. In short, with all the advances in electronics and equipment, folks should be and are getting better at catching better stringers of fish. In fact, if you’ll study tournament results from other areas of the country with good catfish populations, you’ll see this is the case. It just takes more much more weight to win a tournament on the Tennessee, Cumberland, or Mississippi Rivers now than it did ten years ago. This just isn’t the case on the Ohio, where weights seem to be going in the opposite direction. In light of all of the advances fishermen are making elsewhere, stringers are on the decline on the Ohio.
Two recent events on the Ohio from this fall make this point abundantly clear. The city of Rising Sun, IN puts on a two day event each year on the Markland pool of the Ohio. This year the tournament had its biggest turnout ever with 140+ boats. Over two days of fishing it took only 84 pounds to get in the top 10. What’s even more telling about this result is that interviews with the top finishers confirmed that of the top 7 teams, all except one boat were fishing either below a dam or discharge, otherwise known as community holes. If the fishery was as healthy as it should be, it should be putting out more fish than this in the main stretches of river. Another big event, held in what is generally considered a prime time of the year for good fishing, was the Monsters on the Ohio tournament. Held out of Owensboro, KY on the Newburg pool of the Ohio, the same pool that gave up the state record blue cat over 10 years ago, this tournament had over 60 teams competing. A paltry 85 pounds was the winning weight. The more telling statistic was that of these 60+ boats, only one fish over 25 pounds was brought to the scales.
Fishing like this not only hurts the sport fishermen in the area who want to see good fishing, it hurts the turnout on tournament events, and the money they pump into local economies. Monsters on the Ohio tournament director Aaron Wheatley is concerned and a leading advocate for regulations to protect catfish. “I started this tournament to showcase the kind of fishing we thought we had on the Ohio, but in 3 years, with some of the best tournament fisherman out there, we still haven’t topped 100 pounds for a winning weight. Something just isn’t right.” People simply don’t travel as well to areas that don’t offer good fishing. When I first started fishing tournaments on the Ohio, it wasn’t uncommon to see as many out of state anglers as in state anglers, as the Ohio held a reputation as a catfishing destination. That reputation is quickly fading, if not already gone.
Spurred on by this drop in quality of fishing, concerned fishermen across the state have taken their case to the KDFWR with increased urgency in recent months. The general push has been for Kentucky to adopt the same rules that neighboring states have to limit the take of trophy catfish from our waters. Resistance from the pay pond and commercial fishing communities has been stiff. Fishermen have made their case to the KDFWR by providing historic tournament weigh in information, angler logs, etc. However, KDFWR is less reliant on creel survey and angler opinion than they are to actual scientific population studies. So far what we’ve learned from KDFWR is that, despite angler reports, they haven’t found anything to suggest the catfish population is under duress, but they will also admit that catfish are one of the more difficult species of fish to sample. KDFWR has agreed to undertake a study of our catfish populations to see if regulations are warranted. These studies are to take place from fall of 2012 to fall of 2013, at which point in time KDFWR will make their determination as to whether or not the sport fisherman’s concerns are valid or not. To be blunt, catfishermen across the state aren’t reacting positively to KDFWR action, or lack of action, on this issue. The states of Tennessee and Alabama listened to their constituency when they cried foul to this issue and reacted quickly, enacting the “one over 34 rule”, and the fisheries there are still strong. It’s hard to find a rod and reel fisherman who believes fishing on the Ohio is as good today as it was five years ago. Our concern is that if we wait much longer for action, the fishery will take much longer to recover and grow the caliber of fish that made the Ohio a destination to catfish in the first place.
How long can we afford to ignore what happening on our Ohio River? Catfishing has become increasingly popular and we certainly understand that some folks don’t have access to the big rivers, so they go for some action at the pay ponds. However, we can’t continue supply Private pay lake demand without depleting our Public natural resources from within the Ohio. If you’re reading this magazine, you’re likely a sportsman, and even if you don’t fish for catfish, we would appreciate your support. To be clear, we are not looking to stop all commercial fishing for catfish. We are just asking for reasonable regulations and enforcement to protect a fishery that should continue to grow in popularity, if allowed to reach its full potential. So, what can you do to help? There is a petition page on monstersontheohio.com that you can sign if you’d like to support this cause. Further, if you feel strongly about this, let your KDFWR or State representative know that you support regulations to protect large catfish. Also you can keep up with our updates and progress at discovercatfishing.com and you can also help by becoming a member of the Ohio Valley Catfishing federation who has teamed up with the Kentucky League of sportsman to help present our concerns. For more information on how you can help you can contact Steve Douglas at 502-510-0275 or Aaron Wheatley at 270-993-3733. As sportsmen, we are hopeful that the powers that be will react to our call to action and protect this resource. It would be a shame for the mighty Ohio to not reclaim its position as one of the top catfisheries in the nation.