About five years after West Virginia began stocking blue cats into the Ohio, Virginia fisheries officials learned that blue cats introduced into the James and Rappahannock watersheds were eating untold tons of smaller fish and, in the process, were affecting the rivers' food chains.
Scientists with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association have gone so far as to label blue cats an invasive species, and consider it a threat to the entire Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
O'Bara said blue cats, though reintroduced to the Ohio, shouldn't be considered invasive.
"They once were endemic to the Ohio and had their numbers reduced by pollution," he explained. "Stocking them is just re-filling an empty ecological niche."
DNR biologists expect the species to thrive in the Ohio, mainly because the river contains huge numbers of two favorite blue-cat foods - gizzard shad and skipjack herring.
"The Ohio and Kanawha have the potential to grow really large blue cats," O'Bara said. "Our state record has been broken about twice a year for the past few years.
"There are unofficial reports that 60- to 70-pounders have been caught. It wouldn't amaze me if one in that range would get caught and confirmed. If that happened, it would most likely be a fish that was already in the river before we began our stockings."
The current state record, caught by Alex Foster in 2012, was almost certainly a pre-stocking fish. It measured 43.9 inches in length and tipped the scales at 44.5 pounds. O'Bara estimated that blue cats from the first couple of stockings are running 10 to 15 pounds - not nearly record-breakers, but big enough to attract die-hard catfish anglers' attention.
"Anglers are targeting blue cats now, and the catch has been increasing," he said. "About 20 percent of the fish caught in catfish tournaments this year have been blues."
O'Bara called blue cats "whole different-acting critters than flatheads or channel catfish."
"Blues prefer open water," he said. "They're more likely to be found out in mid-river than along the shorelines. Guys who catch them are the ones who find deep water and suspend their baits off the bottom."
DNR officials are getting ready to launch a study to determine how blue cats are doing in the Ohio.
"If the study shows that blues are abundant in the lower Ohio, we'll slow down our stockings there and focus more on the upper river," O'Bara said. "Eventually we hope to get a fully reproducing population along our entire segment of the river. When that happens, we can discontinue the stockings, and anglers can enjoy the fishery those stockings created."
Reach John McCoy at johnmc...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.