On the hunt for blue catfish

Posted on: June 16, 2017 | Bob Frye | Comments

The hunt is on.

Blue catfish might be swimming in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Ohio River. Or they might not.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources stocked more than one million fingerlings in the Ohio and Kanawha rivers between 2004 and 2016. As many as 30,000 of those went into the Ohio at the New Cumberland and Pike Island pools.

Those are the two closest to the Pennsylvania border.

“Blue catfish, like most fish, tend to move upriver. And they don’t know state lines,” said Rock Lorson, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s area 8 fisheries manager based in Somerset. “So we expect to see them in our tailwaters eventually.”

But are they here yet?

The Commission is trying to answer that question.

Biologists spent several days recently surveying the river around Georgetown Island and the Montgomery Lock and Dam. They picked up channel catfish and flatheads.

“But we did not uncover any blue catfish yet,” Lorson said. “We may still be looking for a needle in a haystack.”

They’re not done looking, though.

The plan is to go searching again within the next few weeks, Lorson said. And if that turns up nothing, they’ll go looking again next year.

Because, sooner or later, the blues will show up, Lorson said.

That, he added, would be a good thing.

Blue catfish are native to the Ohio River. They disappeared from Pennsylvania long ago, though, Lorson said. The last one was documented in 1880.

“So this is another species that’s been gone and we’re trying to get them back,” he said.

Blue catfish never disappeared completely from West Virginia, said Bret Preston, assistant chief of its Division of Natural Resources’ wildlife resources section.

“But there weren’t many,” he said.

West Virginia changed that by stocking blues, using fingerlings from Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and, to a lesser extent, those purchased commercially.

Some were released in spring, at 2 to 3 inches long. Others, called “advanced” fingerlings, were held in a hatchery over summer and released in fall at 5 to 7 inches long, Preston said.

The hope was that they would create a blue catfish fishery. That’s apparently worked.

“We had results pretty quickly,” Preston said.

Things have really taken off recently.

“Probably within the last five or six years we’ve been getting more and more reports of people catching them. There are a number of tournaments for them. Guys are targeting them,” Preston said.

“It’s become very, very popular on the river.”

It’s not hard to see why.

An angler pulled a blue from the Ohio in 2014 that stretched 47.75 inches and weighed 53 pounds. That set the West Virginia state record for length and weight.

It remains the longest blue caught in West Virginia, but was surpassed in weight. Another fish pulled from the Ohio, this one in 2016, was 44.88 inches long but 59.74 pounds.

West Virginia’s state record blue catfish by weight.
Photo: West Virginia DNR

Blues get bigger still. The world record, caught in Virginia in 2011, weighed 143 pounds, according to the International Game Fish Association.

By comparison, Lorson noted, Pennsylvania’s record flathead catfish weighed 48 pounds, 6 ounces.

Catching monster blues takes learning some different techniques, Preston said. They don’t orient to structure quite like flatheads and channel cats, preferring to cruise the main river channel chasing schools of gizzard shad and skipjack.

But when hooked, they are tremendous fighters.

“They’re just a more muscular fish. They have shoulders on them, for lack of a better term,” he said.

“They’re a very powerful fish, very strong.”

Lorson hopes anglers will get to experience that in Pennsylvania sooner rather than later.

West Virginia won’t be stocking any fish this year because of hatchery renovations. The plan is to get back to planting fish by next year, however, Preston said.

Pennsylvania could join that effort eventually.

“Our plan is that once we find one in our waters, then we’ll work on a plan to get some to stock in the river, from the Point down to the Montgomery lock and dam,” Lorson said.

Finding blues isn’t easy even under the best of conditions. Catfish in general aren’t as easy to get via electroshocking as other species, Preston said. Surveying often involves using one boat to do the shocking and one or more “chase” boats to follow along and nab fish floating to the surface before they recover and disappear again.

“It’s a fairly intense survey effort,” he said.

But Lorson is hopeful he’ll find a blue or two, and sooner rather than later.

“We’d like to have them back, the same as they were here historically,” he said.

Channel catfish elsewhere

So blue catfish are likely coming, but they’re not here yet.

What’s a catfish angler to do?

Head to Crooked Creek Lake in Armstrong County. A 350-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water, it’s home to a pretty good population of channel cats, based on recent survey work.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has stocked Crooked Creek with channel cats for years. It’s done double stockings each of the last three years or so, in fact, said Brian Ensign, a biologist in its area 2 office in Tionesta.

The goal is to create a “targeted fishery” where anglers can reasonably expect to do well.

Biologists examined the lake in May to see if the fishery is indeed responding.

The news, Ensign said, is good.

When biologists surveyed Crooked Creek in 2011, they collected 49 channel catfish. This year, using the same equipment and putting in the same amount of time, they got 201, “with some really good size distribution in them,” Ensign said.

The fish ranged from 4 inches on up to 28, with the biggest going 11.3 pounds.

“And we had a lot that were between 14 and 20 inches, which is a nice size,” Ensign added.

Most came from two areas of the lake: near the boat launch in the lake’s shallower, warmer end, and near the dam, around the point of the beach.

To boost tings further, the commission may, Ensign added, install channel cat nesting boxes in the lake to give fish more of a chance to reproduce. It also plans to re-survey the lake this fall to look for young of the year fish.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.