The Cat’s Meow
With abundant supply and new research, Texas may become a top destination for catfishing.
By Dyanne Fry Cortez and Ken Kurzawski
It all started with Ethel.
In 1986, Mark Stevenson caught a record-breaking largemouth bass from Lake Fork. Weighing in at 17.67 pounds, his fish was the first entry in the ShareLunker program. Ethel, as she was named, became a legend in the fish world. She drew thousands of visitors to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s old Tyler Fish Hatchery and lived out her retirement years in a display aquarium at the first Bass Pro Shops store in Springfield, Mo. Ethel’s celebrity generated public support for hatchery programs and conservation-minded regulations. You could say she helped create the world-class bass fishery that Texas enjoys today.
In 2004, Cody Mullenix landed a blue catfish that made Ethel look like small fry. Caught with a rod and reel at Lake Texoma, the 121.5-pound fish set a new world record and beat the previous Texas record by several pounds. “Splash” found a new home in the Dive Theater aquarium at TPWD’s Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. Visitation increased by almost half that year. People came in droves to go eye-to-eye with the huge fish and see her eat chicken quarters from a diver’s hand. Splash died in December 2005, and her passing was widely mourned.
A blue catfish from Lake Waco.
Could Splash do for Texas catfishing what Ethel did for bass? Dave Terre, chief of Fisheries Management and Research for TPWD’s Inland Fisheries Division, sees possibilities.
“We’ve got some awesome catfish populations in our lakes,” says Terre, who has compared Texas fishery surveys with those from other states.
Catfish also do well in rivers and urban ponds. In fact, they’re found just about any place you find fresh water in Texas, and surveys suggest 75 percent of our anglers fish for catfish at least some of the time.
Despite their abundance and popularity, catfish haven’t been studied and managed as intensively as bass. Terre and his staff are out to change that. They’re working on a long-term strategic plan to make better use of an existing resource and explore ways to better serve catfish anglers’ needs.
“We’ve been so bass-focused for so many years,” Terre says. “What would happen if we promoted Texas as a destination for catfish fishing?”
One thing is already apparent: It won’t be a “one size fits all” kind of plan.
Texas is home to three catfish species targeted by recreational anglers: channel, blue and flathead cats. We also have black and yellow bullheads, two smaller members of the catfish family. Each species has its own food preferences, preferred habitats and quirks to challenge anglers. Populations may develop differently depending on where they live.
“One thing about catfish, they’re very adaptable,” Terre says. “They do well in reservoirs with fluctuating water levels, which I think we’ll see more of in the future.” He says biologists have a lot to learn about stream-dwelling catfish, and more knowledge in that area will contribute to a growing focus on river fishing.
Catfish anglers themselves are a mixed lot, “as diverse as the fisheries are,” says John Tibbs, a biologist at TPWD’s Waco field office. “You’ve got trophy fishermen. You’ve got urban fishermen. You’ve got people that just want to catch a bunch and fry ’em up. All of those are good.”
A 2010 survey of Texas catfish anglers indicates that most pursue their quarry with a rod and reel. However, trotlines, jug lines and throw lines also have their advocates. Channel, blue and flathead cats are the only game fish that can legally be taken by those methods. As of June 2011, hand fishing or “noodling” for catfish is also legal in Texas.
The angler survey, conducted by TPWD in cooperation with Mississippi State University, was an important step in the strategic plan.
“Our first goal was to understand how anglers use the catfish in our state, find out what’s important to them and build our management plan around it,” Terre explains.
Anglers responding to the survey fell into four broad groups:
• Casual anglers who seek outdoor fun in pleasant surroundings and aren’t too picky about what kind of fish they catch.
• Numbers and size anglers looking for action. They want to catch more and bigger fish.
• Numbers and harvest anglers, primarily interested in catching fish to eat. This is the largest group. On average, these people are older, have been fishing longer and are more likely to use passive fishing methods like jug lines.
• Size anglers aiming for a trophy catch.
A majority of respondents live in or near large cities. All groups prefer fishing spots that are close to home but provide a break from the busy urban environment.
“They want to fish in places that give them a sense of privacy or solitude, but they want access to piers, bathrooms and boat ramps,” reports Warren Schlechte, a researcher at TPWD’s Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center.
TPWD’s Neighborhood Fishin’ Program, supported by business and government partners, targets urban anglers with frequent stocking of channel catfish in neighborhood ponds. The program currently serves 15 lakes in nine metropolitan areas. The department hopes to find additional funding sources to add more locations.
The survey also showed that catfish anglers are very “harvest-oriented,” as Terre puts it. Even the size anglers, who may practice catch-and-release more often, say they keep about half of their catch. “People want to catch something they can take home and eat. We are absolutely going to provide that,” Terre says.
A good fish for eating, most anglers suggested, would be 14 to 17 inches long. A trophy catfish would be something over 30 inches. Of all the four groups, the size anglers appear to be least satisfied with current catfishing opportunities.
Can Texas manage for more big catfish while still providing ample opportunities for people who just want a few fish for dinner?
A young angler nets a channel catfish at Fayette County Reservoir.
One experiment is already under way. In September 2009, TPWD put a 30- to 45-inch slot limit on blue catfish in lakes Lewisville, Richland Chambers and Waco. Anglers can harvest up to 25 blue cats that measure 30 inches or less per day, but only one that’s 45 inches or larger. Anything between 30 and 45 inches must be put back in those lakes. Biologists will monitor the lakes to gauge the effects of the new limit.
Tibbs, one of three field biologists on the project, explains why those lakes were selected for the experimental slot limit. All were known as good catfishing locations, popular with jug-liners and trotliners as well as pole-and-line anglers. Each has been known to produce blue catfish over 45 inches, the upper end of the slot limit. Apart from those similarities, the lakes are different sizes and have different management histories. Richland Chambers was stocked with blue catfish fingerlings in 1988. Waco has been stocked more recently; Lewisville was never officially stocked.
A slot limit “is one potential scenario, a way of encouraging growth of trophy fish, while still allowing relatively unrestricted harvest of smaller fish,” says Tibbs. “With three reservoirs in the study, we should get a good idea of where it works and where it doesn’t.”
The study will run through 2016, but “we are already getting reports of success from anglers,” Tibbs says. “For example, on Lake Waco I have gotten multiple reports this year from people catching fish above the slot limit. Prior to that, very few.”
He’s heard good reports about Richland Chambers and Lewisville, too, but there’s no conclusive evidence yet. It could simply mean that more trophy-oriented anglers are fishing those lakes.
“Just putting the slot limit in effect interests some people enough to go and try it out,” he says.
Whatever the results of the slot-limit project, it will be just one piece of a new approach to managing catfish fisheries in Texas.
“It’s kind of a new frontier for fisheries management types,” says Terre. “We can learn from the things we did for bass, and maybe even do them better for catfish.”
• Channel and blue catfish — minimum length 12 inches; daily bag 25 fish in combination.
• Flathead catfish — minimum length 18 inches; daily bag five fish.
• Bullheads — no length or daily bag limits.
Exceptions to Statewide Regulations
Community Fishing Lakes
• For channel and blue catfish, no minimum length; daily bag limit is five fish in combination.
• Pole and line is the only fishing method allowed. Anglers fishing from a dock, pier or other manmade structure in a state park, or in any community fishing lake that is not part of a state park, are limited to two poles per person.
Catfish Slot Lakes (Lewisville, Richland Chambers and Waco)
• 30- to 45-inch slot limit on blue catfish. Anglers may keep blue cats measuring 30 inches or less or 45 inches and longer, but only one fish above the slot limit can be retained per day. Channel catfish are subject to the 12-inch minimum length, and the combined daily bag limit for blue and channel cats is 25 fish.
Texas-Louisiana Border Waters (Caddo Lake, Toledo Bend Reservoir and Sabine River downstream of Toledo Bend)
• Channel and blue catfish — no minimum length; combined daily bag and possession limit 50 fish, of which no more than five can be 20 inches or longer.
• Flathead catfish — minimum length 18 inches; daily bag and possession limit 10 fish.
Special catfish regulations are also in effect on lakes Bellwood, Dixieland, Kirby, Livingston, Palestine, Tankersley and Texoma, the North and South Concho River in San Angelo and a section of the Trinity River below Lake Livingston. See www.tpwd.state.tx.us/regulations/fish_hunt/fish/freshwater_exceptions.phtml