Anglers singin' the blues
Anglers along West Virginia's Ohio and Kanawha Rivers are catching the blues - and they're happy about it.
The "blues" are blue catfish, a species being reestablished in Mountain State waters after a long absence. Chris O'Bara, a research biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources, said anglers are starting to reap the results of the agency's stocking program.
"In 2010 and 2011, we started to see appreciable numbers of anglers catching fish that we were confident were [fish we had stocked]," O'Bara said. "Blue cats grow pretty slowly, and it took a few years for the fish we stocked to grow large enough to start showing up in anglers' catches."
Though native to the entire Mississippi River watershed, blue cats virtually disappeared from West Virginia's waters sometime during the 20th century.
"We know they were once here because archaeologists have found blue cat bones at some digs up in the Weirton area. We also knew that blue cats were common in the lower reaches of the Ohio," O'Bara explained.
"We don't know why they disappeared, and we don't know why they didn't come back on their own. They do tend to migrate a bit, but they just never migrated back to our section of the [Ohio]."
DNR officials decided in 2005 to begin stocking juvenile blue cats into West Virginia's 256-mile section of the Ohio, and in the Kanawha as well.
"We figured that since the species was originally native to the river, it would be safe to reintroduce it," O'Bara said. "We don't anticipate any problems from it."
States where blue cats aren't native have had trouble with them, mainly because they grow quite large and prey heavily on other fish.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, alarmed by the damage done to native fish populations in Virginia's James River and other tidal watersheds, is pondering whether to slap an "invasive species" label on blue cats and push for their eradication.
The threat has catfish anglers up in arms, mainly because the lower James River supports a thriving trophy blue cat fishery in which anglers pay outfitters to hook them up with fish that routinely tip the scales at 60 to 70 pounds.
O'Bara doesn't believe that will happen in the Ohio and Kanawha because it hasn't happened anywhere in the blue cat's home range. He does believe that state anglers will eventually begin to catch really large blues.
"It will take a while because blue cats are pretty slow-growing," he explained. "The fish we've stocked into the Kanawha since 2005 and the Ohio since 2006 are still relatively small. The state-record big blue cats that have been in the Ohio were fish that migrated upstream."
So far, the heaviest blue caught in West Virginia's section of the Ohio weighed 32 pounds, 5 ounces. Alex Foster of St. Albans caught that one in 2011. The longest blue, an Ohio River fish caught in 2009 by Lynn Lange, measured 42 1/4 inches.
O'Bara said catfish tournament anglers are already starting to target blues in much the same manner they target flatheads, another large catfish species.
"I don't have exact numbers for tournaments, but blue cats are starting to become a more substantial portion of the catch," he said. "A lot of those tournaments are 'big-fish' tournaments, and people are going after blue cats to try to win them."
He expects more anglers to go after blues as word gets out about how to fish for them.
"They're different from flatheads and channel cats, which feed close to the bottom. Blue cats are an open-water species. They tend to suspend in the water column and stay away from the bottom. It's best to fish for them in much the same way you'd fish for striped bass or hybrid stripers," he added.
DNR workers currently stock 50,000 to 80,000 blue cats a year, mostly in the Ohio, but also in the Kanawha and in Wyoming County's R.D. Bailey Lake.
"There's a very high population of gizzard shad in R.D. Bailey, and we hope the blue cats will help keep that population under control," O'Bara said.
Both of the state's warm-water hatcheries raise blue cats to a size that can be stocked, but the fish themselves come from Kentucky and Tennessee. O'Bara said that might change in the future when the species becomes well enough established that brood-stock fish would be easy to obtain.
"For the time being, we're going to maintain the [stocking] program at its current pace," he added. "Where we are right now is just where we want to be."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.