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Catfish, MO

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2009

Last revision: Dec. 13, 2010

Blue Catfish

on TV. People reach down into a secluded nest and grab a catfish parent by the mouth or gaff it with a big hook and pull it out. The aggressively protective catfish makes grabbing it easy because it’ll clamp down on anything it thinks threatens its eggs.

Several states, most of them in the southern U.S., allow hand fishing for catfish. The practice was banned in Missouri in 1919 with the same law that made it illegal to capture fish by dropping rocks or logs on them.

Unlike many of the states where hand fishing is legal, Missouri manages catfish as game fish, which means not only that hand fishing for them is not allowed, but also that catfish may not be speared, snagged, shot with arrows or netted. Hand fishing has been illegal in Missouri for 90 years, so those who argue that a tradition of hand fishing remains in the state seem to be on shaky ground.

The Department allowed an experimental hand fishing season on portions of the Mississippi and St. Francis rivers and a stretch of the Fabius River starting in 2005. They collected data on hand fishing and studied catfish populations on the kinds of rivers where hand fishing, if legal, would likely take place. Angler and hand-fisher surveys, as well as the raceway study with the disturbed and undisturbed nests, were part of their efforts to learn what might happen if they were to legalize hand fishing statewide.

In April 2007, the Department rescinded the experimental hand fishing season after several studies indicated that legalizing the practice would be at odds with the Department’s management of the state’s catfish populations.

The Problems

Removing a catfish parent from its nest dooms the eggs and the young they would produce, as well as the young that fish and its progeny would produce in future years. Even if the parent catfish is returned to the water, the eggs will almost certainly be damaged or dispersed by the fish’s struggle.

Another problem is that hand fishing has the potential to deplete streams of nearly all of their large catfish. The densities of large catfish in Missouri streams are low. Only 1.7 percent of nearly 29,000 flathead catfish sampled from 2005–08 were longer than 36 inches. There are only so many potential catfish nesting sites, and an experienced hand fisher can check most of the holes, jams or root wads in a long stretch of stream

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