Catfish Conservation: What Individual Anglers Can Do

by Ron Presley

The successful live release of trophy catfish requires anglers to be informed of proper fish handling.

This tournament angler is demonstrating good fish handling skills. He has a solid grip on the mouth and is cradling the fish horizontally.

As the sport of catfishing grows more attention is being given to conserving the catfish as the valuable resource that it is. Catfish should be protected to the benefit of each state, its residents, and the visitors the catfish attract to the state. Unfortunately, catfish regulations vary greatly between states and therein lies part of the problem. Catfish regulations should result in plenty of trophy catfish for us, and for future generations but all states do not view the problem the same.

When I hear anglers talk about the decline in trophy catfish in their area the finger is often pointed to paylakes and the extraction of trophy catfish from public waters. Paylakes have an economic incentive to get the trophy catfish wherever and whenever they can and regulations need to be aimed at preventing the relocation.

It is important for anglers to practice CPR, but it may be more important to teach the concept to younger anglers. After the photo, this blue was released.

The more I learn about the desperate situation of trophy catfish the more it appears that public servants are going to have to be a part of the solution to the continuing transport of live trophy catfish across state lines. In most instances, it is a political problem of huge proportions. It seems like anglers and government officials often don’t see eye to eye on the severity of the problem.

The solution will be a combination of education, better laws, and better enforcement. In the meantime, there are certain things that the average everyday catfish angler can do to help the cause.


Basic Fish Handling

Catfish care can begin before the fish is boated and continue from there. Anglers need to be mindful of good fish handling procedures, use them regularly, and teach them to others.

One angler who has a high concern for fish handling is Captain Bradley Doyle. He is owner-operator of Bradley’s Guide Service on Lake Conroe in Texas. He demonstrates his commitment to catfish conservation by serving as Vice President of Texas Trophy Catfish Association. He has some good advice for the average catfishermen willing to learn proper handling procedures for trophy cats.

“Caring for our trophy cats begins as soon as they are hooked,” offered Doyle. “Anglers should not reel the fish in too fast. Smooth steady pressure on the fish will allow them to equalize their pressure and avoid stress bloating.”

Catfish anglers joke about getting slimed, and it can not be avoided. But the less slime the catfish loses the better it is protected. Scientists tell us that the slime is important for fish to regulate many necessary body functions, including protection against parasites.

“Try to limit handling of the fish,” advises Doyle. “And don’t keep them out of the water for too long. Learn to take a quick photo and get them back unless they are going to the scales at a tournament. In that case plan in advance and equip the boat with an adequate livewell to accommodate big fish.”

Big catfish are not easy to handle. They are strong and powerful enough to overcome an unsuspecting angler. Gloves are helpful when you get ready to pick up a big catfish, but do it with determination and understanding of how powerful they are. Do whatever it takes to avoid dropping the fish. Practice makes perfect, and anglers should strive to learn the best technique for grasping and holding big cats.  

“As far as handling, it’s also better if they’re cradled as opposed to holding them by the jaw,” continued Doyle. “This can be done if you’re trained in proper handling and are familiar with the anatomy of the fish. However, most people are not, so above all else avoid grabbing them by the gills!”

“What I do is grab lower lip and lift,” added Doyle. “Then run the other hand under the fish and cradle it. Larger fish may require two people and/or need to be handed to someone sitting for pictures.”

Fish slings are another way to safely transport and weigh trophy fish. Several companies are putting them on the market. Some tournament trails are using them in the weigh-in line because of the potential benefit to the fish. The whole idea is to cradle the fish and remove the possibly damaging process of lifting by the jaws and/or dropping them.

“I can’t stress enough that anglers need to know what they are getting into when grabbing the jaw of a large catfish. If you let it slip it will harm the fish and most likely you’ll lose some skin in the process. Not to mention potential other injuries from their tendency to roll. These big trophy fish are very strong.”

Finally, Doyle suggests putting the big cats in a livewell to recuperate and gain strength before returning them to the water or taking them to the scales. If you have been to a tournament where big fish have been in an oxygenated livewell you know the positive affect some time in the well can have.

Good catfish handling skills complement good regulations.

Burping for Release or Livewell

Sometimes catfish need to be burped. If you ever caught a catfish from deep water and tried to release it or put it into the livewell and it turns on its side or struggles to straighten itself, it’s possible that it needs to be burped. B’n’M prostaff angler Mark Blauvelt is a stickler for good fish care so he keeps the necessary tools on board to ensure a healthy release.

“It happens when a fish from deeper water,” explains Blauvelt. “When a fish is reeled in too fast its air bladder can swell up and trap too much air. It’s like a diver in the ocean who comes up too fast from deep water and gets the bends.”

“It works the same way with catfish,” continued Blauvelt. “As we reel them in from deeper water, say anything over 20 to 25 feet, air increases to a point where the fish cannot adjust his air bladder and two things will happen. First, the stomach will be rock hard and swollen. Second, it’s possible that his anus will be protruded. These are sure signs the fish needs some attention from the angler. When these conditions exist, the fish should be burped.”

“…above all else avoid grabbing them by the gills!”

Blauvelt describes two easy methods that he uses to relieve the pressure on the bladder. One requires a tool, the other does not.

“The first way is to lay the fish with its belly down across your lap.” Instructed Blauvelt. “Begin on the lower belly and massage the stomach towards the mouth. This process will push the air out of his system. You will hear it when he burps and you know you have done your duty.

“The second method is a little more difficult,” continued Blauvelt. “It also involves a little more work but is a sure way to decompress the fish. I carry a small PVC pipe with holes drilled in it. I carefully and slowly push the pipe down the fish’s throat. As you slowly turn the tube while pressing it against his tonsils the throat will open. Now you can proceed to slowly push the tube deeper until he burps. Once you hear the burp, slowly pull the tube out and rinse it off.

Oxygenated tanks at tournaments provide another level of resuscitation for the fish and also provide an opportunity to get the kids interested in catfish.

For blue cats, Blauvelt uses the smallest diameter PVC pipe he can find, say 1/4 or 3/8-inch inside diameter. For channel cats and smaller blues (5 pounds or less), he uses the end of a turkey baster minus the bulb. Both of these instruments are great tools to have in the boat, and with practice, you’ll be saving these fish for future anglers to enjoy. He also offered some words of wisdom for first-time burpers.

“I do suggest watching another angler do it the first time,” concluded Blauvelt. “You will learn quicker and have more confidence when you do it yourself. I also suggest that you do not look too closely because you might get a load of projectile catfish stomach contents on you. And trust me it’s a smell you’ll soon not forget. If it happens once, you’ll likely never make that mistake again—trust me!”   

Mark Blauvelt uses a tool made from PVC to burp larger fish and a turkey baster without the bulb for smaller fish.

Final Comments

Thankfully, the growing catfish community includes individual anglers, families, and tournament teams that are joining together to help preserve the opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasure of fishing for trophy catfish. The more we do as individual members of the catfish community the more likely we are to get the attention of others who have the power to help us. The trophy catfish of our lakes and rivers are a resource worth protecting.


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