CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's no secret that blue catfish have begun to thrive in West Virginia's Ohio and Kanawha rivers.
Anglers in catfish tournaments have begun to target blue cats the way they used to target flatheads, and for good reason. Flathead catfish grow larger than any fish found in state waters, and blues have the potential to grow even larger than flatheads.
West Virginia fisheries officials began stocking blues in 2005, mainly to increase interest in fishing along the Ohio.
"When I first came here in 2000, we started looking at ways to promote Ohio River fisheries," said Chris O'Bara, fisheries research supervisor for the state Division of Natural Resources.
"At the time, there were indications that the river's water quality was improving. We were seeing increases in the number of smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger, all of which are 'indicator species' for water quality."
DNR officials knew a good thing when they saw it, and they started looking around for other popular game fish species to add to the river's already diverse roster.
"We wanted to make sure any fish we brought in were native to the area," O'Bara said.
They knew that blue cats were native to the Ohio watershed, and that a few blues were still being caught by anglers downstream from the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam in Mason County.
"At that same time, people working archaeological digs somewhere up north of Wheeling reported that they were finding blue catfish bones in their excavation sites," O'Bara said. "That was an indication that blue cats were native to the entire river along the state's border. So we decided that blue cats would be a logical species to try to reintroduce."
Fisheries workers in Kentucky were raising blue cats in the commonwealth's hatchery system, and West Virginia officials asked for some of them.
"We received that first batch of fry in 2005, and we raised them in our Apple Grove and Palestine hatcheries," O'Bara said. "The two-hatchery approach worked out well, and we've used it ever since."
When the young blue cats reached 5 to 7 inches in length, hatchery crews stocked them in the river downstream from the Byrd Locks.
"We focused first on that section of river because we knew there were small numbers of wild blue cats already there," O'Bara explained. "We wanted to build the population in the lower river and then gradually move our stockings upriver. We've been stocking 100,000 to 150,000 blue cats a year ever since."
True to their plan, DNR officials have made subsequent stockings in the Racine pool upstream from the Byrd Locks and in the Belleville pool upstream from the Racine Locks.
"This year, we plan to put some in the Pike Island pool, the New Cumberland pool, or both," O'Bara said.