New catfish management plan would increase fish's number, utility across Pennsylvania

But an invasion of flatheads in the Susquehanna system has delayed the plan

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About 11:30 p.m. on a late-spring night, relaxing in a lawn chair on the bank of the Ohio River, the butt of a fishing rod tucked snugly under a 10-pound rock, just in case ...

It doesn't get better than that.

Suddenly, the rod was jerked out and dragged along the rock-strewn river bank. Zach Spangler, 18, of Cranberry bolted from the chair, ran for the rod and set the hook hard.

"[The line] kept pulling straight out from shore about 100 yards out. I could feel it diving deeper and deeper trying to get to the bottom," said Spangler. "It took 10 minutes to reel it in close to shore the first time. It wasn't pulling hard when it got close, then a sudden bolt of energy almost pulled me in, and it went back out again."

The process repeated for some 25 minutes until Spangler's friend Justin Battilo of Wexford jumped into the Ohio, grabbed the big fish by the mouth and dragged it to shore.

A fan of cable TV's hit fishing show "River Monsters," Spangler had landed a monster of his own -- a giant flathead catfish estimated at 50 pounds -- significantly heavier than the state record. Caught near the Emsworth Dam tailrace, the big fish took a dead 4-inch bluegill rigged for the bottom.

"I knew what the record was, but it was late and we'd have had to wait until morning to get it certified," he said. "We were worried it might die. I didn't want to kill the fish for that reason, so we let it go."

Makes you wonder what else is out there, silently swimming beneath the surface of the Three Rivers.

Powerful predators, catfish are important players in the ecosystems of many lakes, rivers and streams. Thirteen species are native to Pennsylvania, but only four grow large enough to be targeted by anglers.

Several years ago, a draft plan for the management of channel catfish morphed into a larger proposal to update the state Fish and Boat Commission's goals for catfish. The new catfish plan was expected to be approved last year.

But approval has been delayed in the wake of emerging evidence that flatheads, native to the Ohio River drainage, have entered the Susquehanna system as an invasive species threatening the delicate stability of those troubled waters.

Fisheries biologist Rick Lorson, who authored the new catfish management proposal, said the plan intends to evaluate many waterways and determine the level of need for the type of predation and angling that catfish can provide.

In some wetlands and urban ponds, channel catfish would be stocked to help check minnow and panfish populations and provide a relatively easy-to-catch angling opportunity. Age and growth data on channel catfish would be analyzed under the plan, and ongoing special programs (in which channel cats are stocked to help check over-populations of gizzard shad) would be evaluated and adjusted where necessary.

When the state stocks catfish, it prefers to use channel cats, which are easier to raise and grow to substantial size -- a channel catfish weighing 15 pounds 8 ounces was certified last year on the Monongahela River. The state record is more than 30 pounds.

"Part of the plan is, we'd take a look at how some of these big catfish, big predators, affect fisheries in the big rivers," said Lorson.

The plan's ultimate goal would be to balance the utility and cost-effectiveness of catfish.

"What we're really looking at is, we're stocking a reasonable number of channel cats across the state. That costs money," said Lorson. "An interest in fishing for catfish has seen an upswing over the last 20 years, and we want to be able to do a better job of managing them."

But the plan Lorson drafted has not been approved pending investigation into the impact of flatheads in the Susquehanna River.

"They're not native. We don't know how they got there," said Fish and Boat fisheries division chief Dave Miko. "We don't have a lot of data, but where they're introduced they tend to compete strongly with other fish ... displacing native white catfish, channel catfish and to a lesser degree bullheads. Flatheads can be very hard on sunfish, and they compete with bass and other predators."

No one at Fish and Boat is blaming flatheads for the problems facing the 464-mile Susquehanna River, which often is blamed for delivering agricultural runoff to Chesapeake Bay and in 2011 was labeled by the American Rivers environmental group "the most endangered river in the United States."

"I would say flathead catfish provide another confounding factor with respect to the challenges of management of the fisheries in the Susquehanna River," said Miko.

Among those "confounding factors" is the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, of which Pennsylvania is a member, asking Fish and Boat why a predacious invasive species is prospering in a river they're trying to clean up.

"It's about striking a balance," said Miko. "[Flatheads] are here, they're here to stay in this non-native range. But before we finally approve this catfish plan we want to have a good answer as to their current impact and a projection on where their growth will lead."

Miko said the plan is in the final review stage, and public meetings will likely be forthcoming.

In the meantime, much of the original channel cat portion of the management plan is already unofficially underway.



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