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.