Other than going to Lake Michigan or fishing one of the few lakes in this area which have been stocked with muskies, catfish offer the best chance for an angler to hook, land or boat a truly big fish in the Midwest. Most numerous are channel cats and channels over 10 pounds are often caught. That’s a big cat but one doesn’t have to travel far to find flat heads and/or blue cats which can be four or five times that size.
State regulations allow catching and keeping channels, blues and flatheads so obviously, fish managers don’t see sport angling as a detriment to a healthy catfish population. That doesn’t mean you have to keep all the big cats you catch. In fact, more and more anglers are practicing C-P-R – catch, photo and release – of some or all of the catfish they catch.
Unlike other game fish, the growth of catfish is very slow – among the slowest growing freshwater fish in our part of the country. They can spurt up to weighing a pound or two – eating size – in a couple years. After that, catfish may only grow a pound or so each year, so a 20 or 30 pounder may be almost 20 or 30 years old.
That’s an old fish and it takes a long time for it to be replaced in a population, once removed. Regulations or not, catfish lovers say keep the relatively abundant one or two pounders for the frying pan, let the big ones go.
However, it does no service to the fish or fish population to catch a big cat and release it so stressed or injured it has a poor likelihood of surviving. Here are five proven things catfish-catchers can do to insure the cats they release swim off live and well.
- Grab that rubber net: Unlike most fish species, catfish aren’t armed with skin-protecting scales. Instead, they have skin and secrete a viscous slimy substance that acts as an antiseptic. So for landing big catfish you need a knotless, rubber or rubber-coated net that won’t abrade their skin or remove their vital slime layer.
- No vertical holds: In the water, the internal structure of a big catfish is supported by the water surrounding it. Out of the water, muscles can be strained, bones separated and innards squashed by haphazardly gripping and lifting the fish. When snapping that photo, as best you can, fully support the weight of that big catfish fish with both hands and hold it horizontally.
- Use circle hooks: When you are targeting catfish of any size switch to circle hooks instead of conventional J-hooks or trebles. Circle hooks almost always hook fish in the corner of their jaw, even fish which have swallowed the bait. The hooks pull cleanly out of the throat or belly but stick nearly every time where they can easily be removed.
- Carry needle nose pliers: Those few times a circle hook lodges deep in a catfish’s mouth or the bait was swallowed when using a conventional hook, needle nose pliers are the tool to quickly reach and remove hooks in a catfish’s gullet. Clipping the line and leaving the hook inside the fish should only be a last resort tactic. Those hooks won’t quickly rust away or be dissolved by stomach acids.
- Be prepared: A bit of advance planning can pay off. Have the net ready. Keep the pliers where they are handy. Most important, keep the camera ready? Believe it, seconds count and being ready to land the fish, remove the hook, snap a photo or two and get that big catfish back in the water as soon as possible greatly improves the odds for survival. If you have everything you need handy you won’t have to keep the fish out of the water for very long.
Want to catch a big fish close to home? Fish for catfish.
Want to do it over and again? Do it right, treat the fish right and catfish populations will only improve.