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Stocking program helped spur return of blue catfish

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's no secret that blue catfish have begun to thrive in West Virginia's Ohio and Kanawha rivers.

Anglers in catfish tournaments have begun to target blue cats the way they used to target flatheads, and for good reason. Flathead catfish grow larger than any fish found in state waters, and blues have the potential to grow even larger than flatheads.

West Virginia fisheries officials began stocking blues in 2005, mainly to increase interest in fishing along the Ohio.

"When I first came here in 2000, we started looking at ways to promote Ohio River fisheries," said Chris O'Bara, fisheries research supervisor for the state Division of Natural Resources.

"At the time, there were indications that the river's water quality was improving. We were seeing increases in the number of smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger, all of which are 'indicator species' for water quality."

DNR officials knew a good thing when they saw it, and they started looking around for other popular game fish species to add to the river's already diverse roster.

"We wanted to make sure any fish we brought in were native to the area," O'Bara said.

They knew that blue cats were native to the Ohio watershed, and that a few blues were still being caught by anglers downstream from the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam in Mason County.

"At that same time, people working archaeological digs somewhere up north of Wheeling reported that they were finding blue catfish bones in their excavation sites," O'Bara said. "That was an indication that blue cats were native to the entire river along the state's border. So we decided that blue cats would be a logical species to try to reintroduce."

Fisheries workers in Kentucky were raising blue cats in the commonwealth's hatchery system, and West Virginia officials asked for some of them.

"We received that first batch of fry in 2005, and we raised them in our Apple Grove and Palestine hatcheries," O'Bara said. "The two-hatchery approach worked out well, and we've used it ever since."

When the young blue cats reached 5 to 7 inches in length, hatchery crews stocked them in the river downstream from the Byrd Locks.

"We focused first on that section of river because we knew there were small numbers of wild blue cats already there," O'Bara explained. "We wanted to build the population in the lower river and then gradually move our stockings upriver. We've been stocking 100,000 to 150,000 blue cats a year ever since."

True to their plan, DNR officials have made subsequent stockings in the Racine pool upstream from the Byrd Locks and in the Belleville pool upstream from the Racine Locks.

"This year, we plan to put some in the Pike Island pool, the New Cumberland pool, or both," O'Bara said.

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 johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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