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.
Recently, recreational anglers have again been claiming that catch rates of trophy catfish are declining, and have placed the blame on overharvest by commercial fishermen. 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 2017. Blue catfish CPUE (5.2 fish/line) in 2018 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 a record high 0.8 fish/line.
Commercial hoop netting—Flathead catfish sampled during ride-alongs with commercial fishermen displayed decreasing catch rates in 2014 and 2015 followed by slight increases in 2017 and 2018. Trophy flathead catfish were observed in all pools sampled, but CPUE of trophy flathead catfish was only 0.1 fish/net/night. CPUE of trophy flathead catfish during commercial ride-alongs has remained low but consistent since ride-alongs began in 2013.
KDFWR hoop netting—Hoop net catch rates of channel catfish have increased in recent years with excellent size structure and trophy-sized fish being occasionally caught by both KDFWR sampling and commercial fishermen. Catch rates decreased in KDFWR sampling in 2018, but is likely due in large part to unfavorable sampling conditions.
Electrofishing—Electrofishing conducted by KDFWR yielded record high catch rates of blue catfish (CPUE=39.8 fish/hr) and flathead catfish (CPUE=54.0 fish/hr) in 2018. CPUE of trophy blue catfish and flathead catfish was also a record high. Trophy blue catfish had not been collected in electrofishing sampling prior to 2014 and has shown a 600% increase since. Trophy flathead catfish CPUE has increased 1200% since 2013. Trophy blue catfish and trophy flathead catfish were captured in all pools sampled in 2018.
Recreational tournaments—Catch rates for blue catfish have shown small increases since tournament data collection began in 2013, while CPUE of channel catfish has shown a gradual decrease, likely due to an increasing number of blue catfish being brought to the scales. Flathead catfish CPUE has remained low but consistent since 2013.
New for 2019
KDFWR will no longer conduct commercial ride-alongs for catfish data collection. Data collected from commercial ride-alongs present numerous problems. Commercial fishermen have different levels of experience and knowledge of the river. They often fish different net sizes (both between and among fishermen),have different soak times, and sample sites are not consistent from year to year. These inconsistencies make it impossible to standardize sampling and provide accurate data. Rather, KDFWR will run additional, larger (4.0 ft) unbaited hoop nets targeting flathead catfish and standard baited hoop nets targeting channel catfish in 2019.
KDFWR will no longer attend catfish tournaments for catfish data collection. Catch rates from catfish tournaments have remained nearly identical since tournament attendance by KDFWR staff began in 2013. Data collected from these tournaments (much like commercial ride-alongs) presents many issues. Most tournaments impose a 5 fish limit meaning that maximum CPUE is 5 fish/boat. There is no way of knowing how many boats caught only 5 fish or caught 50 fish, for example, throughout the tournament. Many anglers choose not to weigh their fish if they believe they will not finish in a position high enough to payout. Some tournaments provide an incentive to anglers in this position to not weigh in. This means that data from those fish are not collected by KDFWR and can deflate CPUE and not provide an accurate estimate of abundance. Current regulations also make it difficult to calculate CPUE of trophy fish since there is a limit on the number of fish that can be kept (again deflating catch rates). Tournaments typically happen over a one or two day period and results can be highly dependent upon river conditions and time of year. Additionally, experience level of anglers can have an impact on data collected. KDFWR sampling (electrofishing, hoop nets, and trotlines) are highly standardized, meaning sampling sites, size of gear, settings on electrical gear, bait, time of year, water temperature, etc. are all kept consistent across years to minimize variability within the data. Additionally, the methods KDFWR uses to sample catfish are considered to be effective and widely accepted and used by professional fisheries organizations and other state and federal agencies.
KDFWR will begin sampling inland tributaries to the Ohio River that are open to commercial fishing under the same regulations. No baseline data exists for these waters. Recreational anglers have expressed concern about potential overharvest, and KDFWR biologists have interest in gaining knowledge and data from these populations. Beginning in 2019, KDFWR will use low-frequency electrofishing to sample blue catfish and flathead catfish in the following tributaries: Kentucky River, Licking River, Green River, Cumberland River, and Tennessee River. In 2020, the following secondary tributaries that are open to commercial fishing will be sampled: Barren River, Rough River, and Pond River. While other tributaries are open to commercial fishing, commercial harvest records indicate that the waterbodies listed above are the most frequently pressured.
New regulations will be in place for commercial fishing. The number of commercial fisherman obtaining trophy permits will be reduced from 50 to 15. Additionally, a possession limit will be placed on catfish: a commercial fisherman shall not have more than one daily limit of trophy catfish in their possession on the water or boat ramp. Lastly, there will be a limit of two commercial fishermen per boat. These regulations should be in effect and enforceable by May 2019.