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Give CPR to Big Catfish

Did you see that? She released that big catfish back in the water! But, why? She should have taken that big fish home, cleaned it and ate it!

Why do some people get perplexed when they see someone release a massive, master angler-sized catfish? After all, catfish, especially larger ones, sure taste good, don’t they?

So why is it every time we see an angler report or post a mention or picture of a large catfish they have put back in the water, a spirited discussion, no scratch that, a huge dispute ensues over what is ethical?

So how do we move beyond flaming the angler who chooses to release a sizeable channel, blue or flathead catfish?

Lexie Berggren of Elkhorn, NE happily displays a large channel catfish she caught and then released in a private sandpit lake in western Douglas County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Lexie Berggren of Elkhorn, NE gently releases a nice-sized channel catfish she caught back into the waters of private sandpit lake in western Douglas County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Allow me to inform you on why I am so passionate about and concerned with that whopper being taken home for the fryer.

First, let me say that I have never judged any licensed angler who has kept a large catfish to eat, and I won’t as long as that licensed angler is obeying the laws and regulations set forth by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

But, let’s cast into the issue of catching and releasing voluminous catfish family members.

Unlike other game fish, the growth of catfish is very slow. Actually, catfish are among the slowest growing freshwater fish in our part of the country.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department age and growth studies indicate that a 40-pound blue catfish could be 25 years old! A 30 inch blue catfish in Oklahoma and Missouri averages 10 to 12 pounds and is most likely around 14 years old! And, in Nebraska, Daryl Bauer of the Game and Parks Commission’s Fisheries Division adds that a 10 pound channel catfish is most likely dozens of years old!

So, it takes a while for catfish to reach trophy and spawning sizes with some not even surviving adulthood under ideal or normal conditions. Also, with catfish, larger specimens pass on physical traits and survival instincts to thousands of young. Essentially, proper catch and release fishing improves wild catfish populations by allowing more fish to remain and successfully reproduce in an aquatic ecosystem in greater numbers. Keep in mind that mature catfish can lay anywhere from 4,000 to 100,000 eggs in cavities, and breeding males can fertilize as many as nine spawns a season if the eggs are removed from the spawn site each time.

Furthermore, In-Fisherman Magazine’s Doug Stange, says statistical evidence suggests that once catfish attain a larger size they may continue grow exponentially by weight. One key, he says, to catching bigger catfish in any water body, is to limit the harvest of large fish, in favor of releasing them to be caught again and again. The practice of catch and release fishing provides an opportunity for increasing numbers of anglers to enjoy fishing and to successfully catch a memorable catfish.

Your blogger shows you a hefty channel catfish caught and then immediately released in a private sandpit lake in western Douglas County, NE. Photo by Rich Berggren/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Catch and release fishing works but only if you learn to properly handle and care for big catfish.

Brad Durick, renown channel catfishing guide on the Red River of the North in North Dakota, and longtime Nebraska Game and Parks Fisheries Biologist, Daryl Bauer, both unequivocally agree.

Here are their eight things to remember when putting a lofty catfish back in the water to ensure the best chances for its survival:

  1. Grab that rubber net. Unlike most fish species, catfish aren’t armed with skin-protecting scales. Instead, they have skin and secrete a viscous slimy substance that acts as an antiseptic. So for landing big catfish you need a knotless, rubber or rubber-coated net that won’t abrade their skin or remove their vital slime layer. A rubber-coated net with micro-mesh and a flat bottom panel is a optimum because it gently supports the fish without contorting its body in abnormal angles. Without a net, a large, wild catfish flopping on the boat floor, bank or dock is asking for trouble — broken equipment, sprained ankles and severely injured fish.
  2. Wear rubber gloves. In the case of handling big catfish, a variety of rubber gloves specifically designed to make gripping fish easier without removing their slime, should be worn. They should always be wetted first, before grabbing a fish, in order to be minimally abrasive. Gloves also have the added bonus of protecting anglers from catfish spines, sandpaper-like teeth and even hooks!
  3. No vertical holds! Fully support the weight of that big catfish fish with both hands and hold it horizontally. Keep hands away from gills and gill openings. Grip the narrow body section just below the tail with one hand and then basically cradle the fish’s head and shoulders with the other, avoiding pectoral and dorsal fins completely. If the fish decides to shake, you simply keep a firm grip on the tail and keep its head balanced until it calms down. It’s an safe, easy grip that just works.
  4.  Use good quality circle hooks. A huge part of proper catch and release for substantial catfish involves the use of circle hooks and and preferably higher quality, tournament grade circle hooks. Good circle hooks are a must for hooking catfish safely and securely. Employing tournament grade circle hooks, allows nearly all of big catfish to be hooked in the corner of the jaw. This allows for a quicker hook removal, causes less stress on the fish and shortens time that the fish has to be out of the water.
  5. Carry long-handled needle nose pliers. Long-handled needle nose pliers let you to remove hooks with better control and limit your “hands on” contact with big catfish. Fish that are barely hooked or hooked in the lip can usually be freed with your hand, but it’s a good idea to always have a pair of long-handled needle nose pliers for those harder to reach hooks.
  6. Take quick pics. Take a few quick Smartphone or iPhone pics (photos) of the big channel, blue or flathead catfish you landed to preserve the memory of that trophy catch, and then put the fish gently back in the water right away. Practice conservation, practice CPR — Catch, photo and release! Just think, next week, the large catfish you released could be the biggest catfish some other lucky angler ever caught!
  7. Be prepared. Are your rubber gloves or rubber net and pliers within reach? Is your camera ready? Anything you can do to get that big catfish back in the water as soon as possible helps to improve the odds for survival. If you have everything you need handy you won’t have to keep the fish out of the water for very long.
  8. Little, long and cut. Catch and release fishing for weighty cats works if three basic tactics are remembered and followed: Play the fish as little as possible, keep the fish in the water as long as possible and cut the line if the fish has swallowed the hook.

Good fishing!

“Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once” – Lee Wulff, Widely Acclaimed Fly Fisherman.

Nebraska Conservation Officer Rich Berggren of Waterloo, NE (off-duty) poses with a big channel catfish he landed and released in a private sandpit lake in western Douglas County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

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About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media sites, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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