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'Catfish love shacks'

LAVALETTE - With his video camera mounted to the end of a long pole, Jeff Hansbarger dunked the rig under the surface of Beech Fork Lake and got a glimpse into a world few people ever see - a catfish's nursery.

Hansbarger, a biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, has spent several recent days inspecting catfish nesting boxes in several Mountain State lakes. The boxes, built by a DNR worker and placed in about a dozen impoundments, are designed to improve catfish reproduction and reduce the need for stockings.

"Hey, we've got a catfish!" Hansbarger said as he pushed the perch-shaped camera toward the morning's first box. "It's a flathead, and it's sitting on eggs."

In short order, Hansbarger and his assistant, Mike Nuckles, checked six boxes. Five contained nesting catfish. "That's a really good percentage," Hansbarger said.

DNR officials launched the nest box-building program three years ago. Zack Brown, the biologist who spearheaded the project, said it was first tried in Braxton County's Burnsville Lake.

"We weren't finding young catfish in Burnsville, and we wanted to enhance spawning activity there," he explained. "Catfish are cavity nesters, and Burnsville doesn't have very many natural cavities. So we built some boxes and put them in the lake."

The wooden boxes, 32 inches deep by 16 inches wide and 10 inches tall, have a 6-inch hole offset to one side in the front. The hole gives the female catfish a secure place to lay her eggs, and gives the male catfish - which guards the nest after the eggs are laid - a nursery that's easier to defend from predators.

"We call them 'catfish love shacks,'" Brown said, laughing. "But all joking aside, they seem to be working."

Recent surveys have shown that more than half the boxes are being used. Brown said the percentage should improve as biologists better learn how and where to place the boxes.

"The first year, only 10 to 15 percent of them were getting used," he said. "And the results were clumped; boxes in some locations were used heavily, while ones in other locations weren't used at all."

DNR workers studied what the well-used boxes had in common.

"We found that depth was a big factor. If we set them in 5 feet of water, they didn't get used much. Through trial and error, we found out that putting them in 3 feet of water works a lot better, especially if it's on a sunny slope with some sandy substrate nearby," Brown said.

Moving poorly located boxes isn't easy. Weighted with patio paving stones, they tip the scales at roughly 120 pounds apiece.

"We've been waiting until the lakes are drawn down in winter to move the boxes into better locations," Brown said. "It's a tough job, but we're gradually getting it done."

Brown and his co-workers have come up with a unique way to determine which boxes are being used. During the spawning season, they lower a waterproof video camera attached to a long stick into the water near each box.

"It's amazing, some of the images we've gotten," Brown said. "You can see the catfish holed up in the boxes with hundreds of yellow eggs under them."

Nuckles, a DNR wildlife manager based in Gassaway, builds the boxes from green, freshly sawn hemlock. So far he's made 350 of them at a cost of about $20 each.

"It's pretty cost-effective," Brown said. "Every time a catfish spawns successfully, it represents hundreds or even thousands of fish we won't have to raise in our hatcheries. That's a powerful incentive for us to put out more boxes, and to move unused boxes to places where they'll get used."

In the past two years, boxes have been placed in Burnsville, Beech Fork, East Lynn, Stonewall Jackson and Tygart reservoirs, plus half a dozen or so smaller lakes. Brown expects the number of waters to grow.

"We'll continue to build new boxes and install them," he said. "The goal is to make fishing better by increasing the standing crops of catfish in all these waters. We think we're off to a pretty good start."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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