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Release Big Catfish Unharmed

Why do some people get perplexed when they see someone release a massive, master angler-sized catfish? After all, catfish, even the larger ones, sure taste good, don’t they? Consider the belly meat on a flathead catfish.

So why is it every time we see an angler report or a social media post mention or show a picture of a large catfish they have put back in the water, a spirited discussion most likely ensues over what should or should have not been done with that whopper amid the popularity of catfishing.

So how do we move beyond gaslighting 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 immediately 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.

Freshwater catfish family members are in post-spawn mode now and are quite susceptible to being caught as they build up fat reserves for the cold weather months of fall and winter that lie ahead.

So please let me take this opportunity inform you on why I am so passionate about and concerned with that ‘big un’ with whiskers 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. See those in the current Nebraska Fishing Guide publication online at www.OutdoorNebraska.gov

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

Fisheries biologist Daryl Bauer of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission correctly releases a healthy flathead catfish he landed from a Nebraska water. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer.

Unlike other game fish, the growth of catfish is very slow, and giants are rare. 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 to be dozens of years old!

Angler Kirbian Peters (Twitter @kirbyp_23) caught and released this massive, old, post-spawn blue catfish measuring 53 inches long and weighing about 70-75 pounds in the Missouri River near Omaha, NE. Photo courtesy of Kirbian Peters.

Thus, it takes a while for catfish to reach trophy and spawning sizes with some not even surviving adulthood under ideal or normal circumstances. Also, with catfish, larger specimens are resilient in the water with variable conditions and 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 female catfish lay more eggs and can produce 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. Large male catfish have important roles as “nest guarders,” too.

Furthermore, In-Fisherman Magazine’s Doug Stange, says statistical evidence suggests that once catfish attain a larger size they may continue to 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 flathead catfish caught and then properly released in a private sandpit lake in western Douglas County, NE. See video above. Photo and video by Rich Berggren/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Remember, catch and release fishing only works 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 Commission Fisheries Biologist and Fisheries Outreach Program Manager, Daryl Bauer, both unequivocally agree about correctly releasing big catfish.

Here are their ten 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 good-sized rubber net, a large, wild catfish flopping on the boat floor, ground (in the dirt) or dock is asking for trouble in the forms of  broken equipment, sprained ankles and severely injured fish.
  2. Lip grips can be used with care. Big catfish can tear your hands up and make you think twice about sticking your hand in their mouth. A good pair of what are called lip grips may be used with care to handle and release large catfish. When you squeeze the grips, make sure the jaws of the catfish do not open otherwise injury will be caused. If you’re wondering, fish lip grips are a typically a floating, plastic device that features a handle with a locking system that clamps down on the inside and outside of the fish’s bottom lip while using your other hand to support the catfish on its underside near the tail fin. The lip grip makes it easier to control the fish while holding it.
  3. 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!
  4. Use a head lamp at night. When tackling a decent-sized catfish at night destined for release, an effective light source that focuses on the subject and area and frees your hands up is quintessential. That means wearing a good quality head lamp. Make certain the head lamp has a high lumen output and multiple settings. White and yellow are typically the best colors for the headlamp to emit even though other colors would work for different purposes.
  5. 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 a safe and simple grip that just works.
  6.  Utilize good quality circle hooks. A huge part of proper catch and release for substantial catfish involves the utilization  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.
  7. 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.
  8. Take quick pics. Take a few quick Android 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!
  9. 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.
  10. Little, long and cut. Catch and release fishing for weighty cats works if three basic tactics are remembered and followed: (1) Play the fish as little as possible, (2) Keep the fish in the water as long as possible and (3) Cut the line if the fish has swallowed the hook.

Good catfishing!

“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

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Communications and Marketing Specialist 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 channels, 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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