Catfish, MO

By Tom Cwynar | April 2, 2009
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2009

Don’t bother checking your map for Catfish, Missouri. There is no such town, and you might wonder why. After all, catfish are the second most fished for and the second most popular game fish in Missouri. Anglers like them because they grow larger than most fish, they aren’t difficult to catch and they are scrumptious.

Missouri has three popular species of catfish: channels, blues and flatheads. All look like no other game fish in that they have fleshy barbels that will remind you of whiskers, a slick, scale-free, almost shaved look to their skin and spines that stick out of their dorsal and pectoral fins.

Each species is unique, however. Most noticeable is a difference in their sizes. The state records for channels, flathead and blues, respectively, are 34, 77 and 103 pounds. There are also differences in the fight, their markings and color, and the fins of each species that allow experienced anglers to easily identify what kind of catfish they’ve caught.

The Conservation Department manages Missouri’s catfish with an eye to pleasing anglers. In fact, they’ve drawn up their Catfish Management Plan using input provided by catfish anglers through surveys and at public meetings.

When given reasonable protection by regulations, catfish usually are able to replenish their numbers. However, the Department has set bag limits on blue, flathead catfish and channel catfish. Anglers can use rods and reels, trotlines and limblines and various other means of presenting bait to fish. Anglers generally believe that channel catfish are drawn to stinky dead bait, while flathead catfish almost always prefer their meals fresh and live, and blue catfish have tastes that fall somewhere in between.

Surveys have shown that what catfish anglers most want is an opportunity to catch nice-size fish. Delving into the survey responses, the Department learned that more anglers would prefer to catch four 5-pound catfish than 10 2-pound catfish.

They weren’t just after trophies, however. The catfish anglers also preferred catching those four 5-pounders to catching two 10-pounders or one 20-pounder. Like many anglers, they aren’t greedy, but they do like it when their fish have some heft to them.

There is no closed season on catfish. Because catfish reproduction absolutely requires the presence of adult fish to guard and care for the eggs and young, some protection would seem logical. However, catfish lifestyles help them protect themselves.

Parenting Skills

Many game fish, such as white bass and crappie, pump out eggs by the gazillions. Their reproductive strategy, if you want to call it that, is that if only a few of the many survive, they’ve accomplished their mission.

Catfish lay relatively few eggs. A 20-pound catfish, for example, might generate fewer than 10 percent of the number of eggs produced by a 2-pound white bass. You might think that the percentages would work against the catfish, but these species increase the survival rate of their eggs and young by diligent parenting.

Catfish nest in underwater cavities, such as in depressions in stream banks, in hollow logs or beneath root wads or log jams. While these afford some natural protection from egg predators, catfish also aggressively guard their nests from egg-eating amphibians, reptiles and other fish.

Female catfish might stay at a nesting site for only a half a day or so, but males won’t leave the eggs until they hatch—in about a week. During this period, which for most catfish occurs in June or July, the male catfish keeps the eggs oxygenated and clean by repeatedly swishing their tail fin over them. After the eggs hatch, the males remain with the young for another week or so, until they disperse.

This reproductive strategy is so unusual among fishes that the Conservation Department studied catfish parenting. Department staff encouraged pairs of catfish to spawn in shelters placed in a hatchery raceway where there was flowing water. This simulated the cavity nesting of catfish in a Missouri stream.

After the eggs were laid, they removed the parent fish from some of the nests and left other nests undisturbed. The results were startling. Within hours after the nests’ guardian fish were removed, a fungus known as a water mold colonized the egg masses and began spreading. Within 12 hours, all the eggs in the nests with no parents were dead. Each of the eggs in the unguarded nests had myriad wavy filaments growing out from them so that they looked like tiny moldy muffins.

Of the nests left undisturbed, 60 percent produced viable eggs. It was clear that catfish eggs cannot tolerate removal of the attending parent.

Fortunately, catfish that are guarding nests aren’t very vulnerable to anglers. The catfish won’t leave their eggs even to feed, and it would be extremely difficult to put a bait in front of them.

At Odds

There is a kind of catfishing, however, that doesn’t require bait. It’s sometimes called noodling, grabbing, hogging or hand fishing. Maybe you’ve seen it 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 in a day. If the hand fisher discovers a catfish, out it comes. Few fish would be spared, and long stretches of stream would experience no reproduction.

Legalizing hand fishing would almost certainly add to the number of hand fishers and the number of fish taken. Hand fishers surveyed by a University of Missouri researcher said the minimum size catfish they would catch and keep was 17.5 pounds for flatheads, 12 pounds for blue catfish and 6 pounds for channel catfish, and that flatheads were their preferred quarry more than 85 percent of the time. Growth rates vary, but it takes flathead catfish more than a dozen years to grow to that size, and catfish in those size ranges represent only a tiny percent of the total catfish population.

The math argues that Missouri’s small streams, where 90 percent of hand fishing takes place, would soon be devoid of large fish. Catfish anglers who use traditional bait, hook and line methods to harvest fish wouldn’t have much luck. What’s more, our stream ecosystems would suffer because large flathead catfish help control populations of less desirable fish, such as carp.

It is unlikely that large catfish might be replaced by those moving up tributaries from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Flatheads are generally stay-at-home fish. In a 2006–07 study of catfish movements, 25 percent or fewer of the catfish implanted with radio transmitters moved from the Missouri River into tributary streams. When they’re gone, they’re gone, and so is the whole idea of a pleasant little place called Catfish, Missouri. end of main article

In Pursuit of Noodlers

Hand fishing has been illegal since 1919, and yet there are people in Missouri who continue to grab catfish by hand. This activity is not confined to small streams. When a recent drought lowered water levels at Montrose and Truman lakes, anglers reported finding noodling boxes, which are artificial underwater cavities made to attract nesting catfish. Conservation agents watched the boxes and arrested several people using them for hand fishing. They removed the boxes after the spawning season.

Don’t let people acting illegally take away your opportunity to catch big catfish. Report hand fishing or suspicious equipment, such as sunken tires, cable spools, bathtubs or water heaters, that you find in our lakes or streams. Program the Operation Game Thief number, (800) 392-1111, into your cellphone so you can call while you are on the water. The line is active 24 hours a day, and you may even be eligible for a reward.

Also In This Issue

Missouri’s rain forest connection—our birds in the tropics
turkey calling
Knowing when to talk turkey and when to be silent is an important part of successful turkey hunting.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/Editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler