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Sport Anglers Welcome New Catfish Protections

Fishing Regulations Indiana Freshwater Fishing

The rules for catfishing will be more restrictive starting this year. And that’s just the way sport anglers wanted it.

When the Indiana Natural Resources Commission (NRC) passed the rule changes in a September 2015 meeting in Indianapolis, Eric Radez and about a dozen other anglers welcomed it with a standing ovation.

“I think we surprised the NRC,” Radez, who lives in Indianapolis, said.

The new rules raise the minimum size from 10 to 13 inches for catfish caught in rivers and streams, including the Ohio River, and limit the number of large catfish caught in lakes, reservoirs, streams and rivers (including the Ohio River) to no more than one each per day of channel catfish at least 28 inches long, blue catfish at least 35 inches long, and flathead catfish at least 35 inches long.

The changes apply to both commercial fishing and sport fishing.

The DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife proposed the changes to increase survival of younger catfish and ensure continued large or “trophy” catfish opportunities for both sport and commercial fishing. Larger catfish also have higher reproductive potential and can help control populations of forage species such as gizzard shad and Asian carp.

The existing daily bag limit of 10 for channel, blue and flathead catfish on lakes and reservoirs remains unchanged.

“We try to balance the needs and desires of all of our users while keeping our ultimate focus on maintaining the resource,” said DNR’s fisheries chief, Brian Schoenung.

The changes were opposed by a handful of commercial anglers. But sport anglers said the move was necessary to protect the state’s catfish population from exploitation and to guarantee a future for the growing sport of catfishing.

Sport anglers had been campaigning for changes since at least 2009, when the number and size of fish caught in Ohio River catfish tournaments took a nose dive, Radez said.

The decline corresponded with increased commercial catfishing activity on the river, Radez said. Radez is a member of the Indiana Catfish Conservation Association, a group of about 80 anglers that formed in 2011 to advocate for increased regulation.

“It’s not uncommon within a three mile stretch of river to see 50 nets lined up,” Radez said.

The increase in commercial activity stemmed from a growing demand at pay lakes for live, wild catfish, according to DNR big rivers fisheries biologist Craig Jansen. Traditionally, pay lakes had depended largely on smaller, farm-raised fish.

“I think it just shifted within the last decade,” Jansen said. “Pay lakes really like to advertise when they stock big catfish over 40 or 50 pounds in an effort to increase business. Those big fish have to come from somewhere and a lot of them are coming from the Ohio River.”

A live, trophy catfish is worth about $2 a pound to a pay lake, Radez said.

Harvest reports from commercial fishermen reflect the shift to trophy fish. From 2005 to 2012, the average annual catfish harvest reported by Ohio River fishermen licensed in Indiana was 16,091 pounds. In 2014, the annual Ohio River catfish harvest increased to more than 35,000 pounds. The number of trophy catfish harvested also increased from 161 in 2012 to 608 in 2014.

In 2014, there were 17 licensed commercial anglers on the Ohio River. But according to Jansen, the majority of trophy catfish were being caught by two commercial fishermen.

“Two guys can have a substantial impact,” Jansen said.

Radez attributes the market shift toward larger fish to popular cable television shows like “River Monsters,” which has helped draw attention to big, freshwater species such as catfish, gar, buffalo and sturgeon. Jansen said Radez’s theory could be true. The fisheries biologist is also a duck hunter and said he has seen more hunting pressure at public marshes after the reality TV show “Duck Dynasty” became popular.

Inspired by these shows, many new anglers were heading not to rivers, but to pay lakes, where raffles and gambling pools on daily big fish tournaments offer anglers an additional incentive to do business there.

A river catfish usually lives about 15 years before reaching trophy size. A wild catfish can live up to 40 years. But according to Radez, the cats don’t live long once they are transported to pay lakes, creating a constant need for restocking.

“They put these fish in a small pond that doesn’t have the ecosystem to keep these fish alive, and they die,” Radez said.

Jansen said the new bag limit will have little effect on most anglers.

“How often do you catch two trophy fish in one day?” he said.

The catfish rule changes in Indiana brings the state in line with other Ohio River states, most of whom had already taken steps toward protecting the fishery. Illinois recently passed the same suite of regulations for both commercial and sport fishermen in their portions of the Wabash and Ohio Rivers.

Because catfish are so long-lived, Jansen warned that recovery on the Ohio could take a while.

In the meantime, fishing conditions for catfish in the state’s lakes, reservoirs and smaller streams remain good.

Radez shared one piece of advice to make catfishing more enjoyable – if you want to land a “monster,” look for them in their original environment.

“Just going to a pay lake and paying 20 bucks to set at a pond and pull out the big fish, it doesn’t have near the amount of satisfaction as learning and finding the fish on your own in the wild,” he said.