Manage Missouri's Catfish

By Vince Travnichek | March 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2005

It's easy to see why catfish are so popular. Catfish are easy to find, inhabiting rivers, streams, farm ponds, small lakes and reservoirs throughout the state. You can catch them with simple tackle and almost any bait. Some anglers even catch them on set lines, limb lines and jug lines. Catfish also grow large, sometimes huge. They can be a challenging opponent on the end of a line. And no one can deny how great a meal of catfish tastes.

In an effort to satisfy catfish anglers, the Missouri Department of Conservation has developed a new plan to safeguard and improve catfish angling.

The Department's new catfish management plan has three goals. The first is to provide a diversity of catfish angling opportunities in Missouri. This includes managing select water bodies for large catfish. The second is to inform Missouri anglers of catfishing opportunities across the state. Finally, the plan calls for partnering with Missouri catfish anglers to develop catfish management strategies for the future.

Actually, Missouri catfish anglers played a key role in the development of the plan itself. They provided ideas and direction for future catfish management at a series of public meetings the Department conducted across the state in 2003. Public input was incorporated into the final version of the catfish plan.

The Conservation Department will continue to seek input from interested anglers regarding catfish management. You will also see more information from the Department about existing catfishing opportunities across the state in the future.

Catfish in Missouri

Missouri has 15 native species of catfish. Nine are small, secretive species that spend most of their time hiding in crevices between rocks on river bottoms or under leaf litter at the bottom of creek pools. Collectively, this group is called madtoms.

Missouri also has black bullhead, yellow bullhead and brown bullhead. These three catfish species rarely exceed 2 pounds. Black and yellow bullheads are common across the state. The only confirmed, self-sustaining population of brown bullheads is at Duck Creek Conservation Area and the adjoining Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Missouri. Though overlooked by many anglers, bullheads are eager biters and taste great. They provide lots of angling pleasure for many Missourians.

The three catfish species best known to Missouri anglers are the channel catfish, the blue catfish, and the flathead catfish. These popular species are the focus of the Department's future management efforts.

Currently, anglers can take five flathead catfish daily, and 10 blue catfish and channel catfish in any combination daily on all state waters, except where special regulations apply. This combined creel limit has hampered the Department's efforts to manage channel catfish and blue catfish separately.

The new management plan proposes separate creel limits for blues and channels, and a creel limit for channel catfish of 10 daily. The daily creel limit for blue catfish will be five. If these changes are approved by Department's Regulations Committee and the Conservation Commission, the earliest the new regulation would become effective is March 1, 2006.

This proposed regulation actually would increase the total number of catfish anglers could harvest, but it would limit the number of blue catfish taken by anglers. This would allow the Department to manage blue catfish so that more of them can reach their growth potential.

Channel catfish are widespread and common across Missouri. They are most common in prairie and lowland rivers and streams, farm ponds, and small lakes. Channel catfish generally do not exceed 10 pounds in Missouri, and most weigh less than 5 pounds.

In contrast, blue catfish are one of Missouri's largest fish. They can exceed 100 pounds. Blue catfish are common to the Missouri, Mississippi, and Osage rivers and several of our large reservoirs. However, blue catfish are not as numerous as channel catfish.

One method to diversify catfish angling opportunities is to begin managing blue catfish and channel catfish separately. The Department plans to continue managing channel catfish as a food fish, while beginning to manage blue catfish to allow them to grow larger. To accomplish this, anglers will need to accurately identify the two species.

One reason for the combined creel limit currently in effect is that, unless a blue catfish is extremely large, many anglers have difficulty telling blue catfish from channel catfish. Coloration, for example, is not always an accurate guide because coloration of individual fish can vary due to fish age, gender, time of year, and even water clarity.

However, the two species do have some very clear distinguishing characteristics. The easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at the anal fin of each species. Blue catfish anal fin margins are straight, while channel catfish anal fins have a rounded margin.

Another characteristic is that the slope between the dorsal fin and the head is much more pronounced in blue cats.

Asking anglers to distinguish fish based on such characteristics is not without precedent. Bass anglers, for example, must distinguish largemouth bass from spotted bass. Waterfowl hunters must identify species and, in some cases, gender of species, on the fly.

To better manage this important resource, the Department also plans to initiate studies to identify habits, habitats, and population characteristics of blue catfish in Missouri. Over the next few years, the Department will conduct tagging and movement studies in the large Missouri rivers and reservoirs in order to determine seasonal movement, habitat use, abundance, age, growth and harvest data of blue catfish in Missouri.

Flathead Area

As part of the effort to diversify catfish angling opportunities, the Department also is considering management options to increase abundance of flathead catfish longer than 30 inches in a designated section of the Missouri River.

Data collected by Department biologists indicate that most flathead catfish in the Missouri River are being harvested before they reach 20 inches in length or 5 pounds. Flatheads can grow almost as large as blue cats, but relatively few flathead catfish escape anglers long enough to reach their growth potential. The Department is considering regulations that would allow anglers to harvest a few flathead catfish to eat, but would also allow a substantial number of flathead catfish to grow larger.

More Plans

The Department is also looking for opportunities to better manage channel catfish populations in small impoundments across Missouri. The Department routinely stocks channel catfish each fall to maintain populations in small impoundments. The Department is studying 60 small lakes across the state to determine optimum stocking rates for each body of water. Results from this study will allow managers to recommend stocking rates that take into account lake productivity and angling pressure.

While catfishing is already good in Missouri, we believe it can be even better. Any improvements, however, will require the determined efforts of Department biologists and the assistance and cooperation of anglers.

Meanwhile, grab a pole and some bait, and take a friend to sample Missouri's incredible catfisheries.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler