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. As a result, recreational catfish anglers came to KDFWR asking for more stringent regulations for both recreational and commercial anglers, because of their 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 commercial harvest of trophy catfish was again brought up at a KDFWR Commission meeting in 2012, and it was decided that one year of more intense sampling would be conducted to help determine if new catfish harvest regulations were needed to ensure commercial harvest was not negatively affecting Ohio River populations.
A public meeting was held in October 2013 to present catfish data that had been gathered during this project and to discuss potential regulations that could be designed to provide a conservative approach to Ohio River catfish population management. Both recreational and commercial anglers were in attendance and given the opportunity to share their thoughts and suggestions. In November 2013, in an effort to focus on responsible management of catfish in the Ohio River while also striking a compromise between sportfish anglers and commercial fishing to reduce trophy catfish harvest, the following regulations were proposed to the Fisheries Committee:
Recreational fishermen on the main-stem Ohio River will be allowed to harvest one blue catfish ≥35.0 in, one flathead catfish ≥35.0 in, and one channel catfish ≥28.0 in. Harvest of fish below those 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 full commission passed the regulations 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.
Blue catfish sampled by trotlines had shown slight increases in catch rates since 2013 until a decrease in 2017. Size structure of blue catfish was good, but slightly skewed towards fish <35.0 in. Catch rates of trophy blue catfish have remained low since 2004, and have been at 0.1 fish/line or less the past 5 years.
Hoop net surveys conducted using ride-alongs with commercial fishermen indicate consistent, but low catch rates from 2013 – 2015 with a decrease in 2017. It should be noted that blue catfish are not the primary target of hoop nets, and variability in catch rates of blue catfish in hoop nets is extremely high.
Electrofishing conducted by KDFWR yielded record high catch rates of blue catfish in 2017; however, size structured was heavily skewed towards fish <30.0 in. Even with a skewed size structure, catch rates of trophy size blue catfish were also at a record high, but still relatively low (0.5 fish/hr). It should be noted that electrofishing does not typically capture larger blue catfish.
Since 2013 catch rates of blue catfish at recreational tournaments has remained nearly identical, both total catch rate and catch rate of trophy-sized fish. Overall, the blue catfish population is fair and has shown slight increases since 2013; however, catch rates of trophy fish as well as 30.0 – 34.9 in fish have remained consistently low for all sampling gears. Larger fish are likely not efficiently sampled on a consistent basis as water and weather conditions vary temporally and can have large impacts on the effectiveness of gears.
Flathead catfish sampled by hoop nets with commercial fishermen displayed decreasing catch rates from 2013 – 2015 with a slight increase in 2017. Size structure appears to be consistent and groups are represented relative to expectations; however, catch rates of trophy flathead catfish has remained low (0.1 fish/net-night or less) every year. Department hoop netting has yielded results and trends similar to commercial fishing.
Electrofishing catch rates of flathead catfish have remained stable since 2013 with a small increase in 2017 that yielded a record high catch rate. The 2017 catch rate of trophy flathead catfish was at the highest rate recorded, though still relatively low (0.8 fish/hr). As with blue catfish, size structure was heavily skewed towards fish <30.0 in.
Catch rates of flathead catfish at recreational tournaments has remained low, but it is important to realize that most anglers are not targeting flathead catfish during tournaments. Rather they are predominately targeting blue catfish. Overall, the flathead catfish population in the Ohio River is fair to good with a wide range of sizes in the population. As with blue catfish, trophy flathead catfish are present but in low numbers. Additionally, trophy flathead catfish catch rate trends between gear types contradict each other during certain years indicating that those larger fish are not always efficiently captured regardless of gear.
Catch rates of channel catfish captured on trotlines are down slightly since 2010 but have remained consistent in those years. Size structure is excellent. Catch rate of trophy channel catfish has been low since 2004.
Hoop net catch rates, both of commercial fishermen and KDFWR, have increased in recent years with excellent size structures and with increasing numbers of trophy sized channel catfish.
Electrofishing is not typically effective in capturing channel catfish, but catch rates of channel catfish have remained consistent since 2004.
Catch rates of channel catfish at recreational tournaments has decreased slightly since 2013, with catch rate of trophy fish remaining low but consistent in that period. Overall, the channel catfish population throughout the Ohio River is in excellent shape. Fish of all sizes are captured using multiple gears and catch rates continue to trend upward. Low catch rates of trophy channel catfish should not be a concern, as the current trophy size (28.0 in) is not commonly reached by the species in many of the region’s waterbodies.