As incentives go, this one isn't half bad. West Virginia's catfish anglers can now earn free sternwheeler or train rides simply by catching tagged catfish.
The fish were stocked earlier this month in lakes located in eight state parks - Cedar Creek, Cacapon, Chief Logan, Little Beaver, North Bend, Blackwater Falls, Pipestem and Tomlinson Run.
Division of Natural Resources officials started "catchable catfish" stockings in 2008, but up to now hadn't provided any incentives other than the fish themselves, which average 1 to 2 pounds.
With the "Catfish in the Parks" initiative, there now is an added incentive. Anglers who catch one of 400 specially tagged channel catfish stocked in the aforementioned parks can exchange the tag for a free trip to Whittaker Station on the Cass Scenic Railroad, or for a ride on the Island Belle sternwheeler to Blennerhassett Island.
Sissie Summers, director of programming services for the state Parks Section, called the tagged-fish incentive "an additional outdoor fun factor."
"Cass Scenic Railroad and Blennerhassett are exceptional outdoor places steeped in history," Summers said. "Both parks have unique modes of transportation - [Cass has] Shay locomotives and [Blennerhassett has] a sternwheeler."
The 400 tagged channel cats represent about 12 percent of the more than 3,300 stocked this month in state park waters.
Bret Preston, the DNR's assistant chief in charge of warm-water fisheries, called the "catchable catfish" incentive an ideal activity for people who would like to take advantage of West Virginia's upcoming Free Fishing Days.
"This year's Free Fishing Days are June 9 and 10," Preston said. "Our goal is to get people, particularly families, out there. These catchable catfish provide a great opportunity for people to wet a line in places that are easy to get to, easy to fish and provide a family-friendly atmosphere."
During the two Free Fishing Days, anglers over age 15 may legally fish without first needing to purchase West Virginia fishing licenses.
Park ponds weren't the only waters to receive catchable-sized catfish. In all, more than 8,000 fish were stocked this month. Stocked waters outside the park system included Anawalt Lake, McDowell County; Barboursville Lake, Cabell; Berwind Lake, McDowell; Conaway Run Lake, Tyler; Coopers Rock Lake, Monongalia; Edwards Run Pond, Hampshire; French Creek Pond, Upshur; Handley Pond, Pocahontas; Hurricane Lake, Putnam; Indian Rock Lake, Nicholas; Krodel Lake, Mason; Laurel Lake, Mingo; Mason Lake, Monongalia; Mountwood Lake, Wood; Wallback Lake, Clay; and Wirt County Farm Pond, Wirt.
"These fish give anglers something to fish for in the late spring and summer months," Preston said. "Catchable-sized stocked catfish have very good survival rates and will be present throughout the summer in the waters where they're stocked. And they're just the right size for a fish fry, should people want to keep a few for that purpose."
Some of the stocked fish came from the DNR hatchery system and some were purchased from private fish farms. Preston said that by number, about 65 percent of the stocked channel cats came from state hatcheries.
"Our fish constituted the most by number, and the purchased fish were larger," he said. "By weight, about 65 percent of the weight came from the purchased fish."