Ohio River Catfish History
Over the past decade, commercial fishing for catfish in the Ohio River has switched from primarily a harvest for flesh to also harvesting trophy-sized fish to sell to pay lake owners. At the same time, a high quality, primarily catch and release trophy catfish fishery has developed for recreational anglers in the Ohio River, which has led to conflict between recreational anglers and commercial anglers. Recreational catfish anglers came to KDFWR asking for more stringent regulations for both recreational and commercial anglers, because of a perceived decline in trophy catfish numbers. KDFWR began looking at some basic population parameters of the three major catfish species (blue catfish, channel catfish, flathead catfish) in the Ohio River beginning in 2004. The study was initiated to obtain baseline information on length frequency, weight, and age profiles of these three species and determine methods to catch each of these species. The conflict was again brought up at a commission meeting in 2012 and it was decided that one additional year of intense sampling would be conducted before a decision on potential regulations was made.
A public meeting was held in October 2013 to present catfish data that had been gathered during this project and discuss potential regulations that may be put in place. Both recreational and commercial anglers were in attendance and given the opportunity to share their thoughts and suggestions. In November 2013, the following regulations designed to protect trophy catfish were proposed to the Fisheries Committee:
Recreational fishermen on the main-stem Ohio River will be allowed one blue catfish ≥35.0 in, one flathead catfish ≥35.0 in, and one channel catfish ≥28.0 in. Harvest of fish below their respective length limits will not be regulated.
The majority of commercial anglers fishing in the legal waters of the Ohio River and its tributaries will be allowed one blue catfish ≥35.0 in, one flathead catfish ≥35.0 in, and one channel catfish ≥28.0 in per day. However, 44 commercial anglers that harvested over 10,000 lbs of catfish in at least 2 of the last 3 years along with an additional six commercial anglers who will be chosen by a lottery drawing will be allowed a daily harvest of four (in aggregate) blue catfish and flathead catfish ≥40.0 in and channel catfish ≥30.0 inches in Kentucky’s portion of the Ohio River and its tributaries open to commercial fishing below Cannelton Lock and Dam. Harvest of fish below their respective length limits will not be regulated.
After hearing comments from stakeholders in attendance and discussion with the fisheries director, the committee voted unanimously to pass the proposed regulations on to the full commission. The regulations were passed by the full commission at their meeting in December 2013. In June 2014, the regulation was made law; however, an injunction on the regulation was filed by commercial fishermen shortly after its enactment and regulations on commercial fishermen were not enforceable until December 1, 2014.
Accusations by recreational anglers that overharvest was still occurring surfaced again in 2018. Multiple meetings were held with KDFWR staff, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, and paylake owners all present to work towards another compromise. Several regulations were proposed and submitted for review. At the time of this report the following regulations have been made law:
The number of commercial fishers awarded trophy permits was reduced to 15 (previously 50).
There will be no more than two licensed commercial fisherman per boat. If more are present, they may only keep a two limits of trophy catfish.
A possession limit (twice the daily limit) was placed on trophy catfish for commercial fishers. This applies when on the water and when trailering fish.
KDFWR has remained active on the river conducting standardized field sampling for catfish by means of trotlines, hoop nets, electrofishing, commercial ride-alongs, and collecting data from tournaments.
Trotlines—Trotline methods were altered in 2018 with a larger focus on sampling more fish and more trophy blue catfish. Fresh cut bait of various rough fish species were gathered each week. Catch per unit effort (CPUE) of blue catfish increased from 2018. Blue catfish CPUE (5.9 fish/line) in 2019 was higher than the historical average (2.9 fish/line). Trophy blue catfish were captured in all pools sampled during trotline sampling, and CPUE of trophy catfish was 0.6 fish/line.
KDFWR hoop netting—Baited hoop net catch rates of channel catfish have increased in recent years with excellent size structure and trophy-sized fish being occasionally caught during KDFWR sampling. Channel catfish CPUE was 4.5 fish/net-night. Unbaited 4.0 ft nets proved to be effective for catching flathead catfish. CPUE of flathead catfish was 1.8 fish/net-night which was higher than the historical average from previous commercial ride-alongs (1.3 fish/net-night). Trophy flathead catfish were captured in all pools sampled.
Electrofishing—Electrofishing conducted by KDFWR yielded good catch rates of blue catfish (CPUE=22.2 fish/hr) and flathead catfish (CPUE=40.2 fish/hr) in 2019. These were decreases from 2019, but both still above average. Trophy blue catfish and flathead catfish were captured in all pools that received complete samples.
The initial report from 2014 is located here