Trophy cats: a biological perspective

Kevin Davis has weighed in plenty of huge blue catfish on the scales at his business, Blacks Camp.

Chad Holbrook, a fisheries biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources who oversees the Santee Cooper lakes, said biologists use winter gill-net sampling to assess blue catfish populations and, the data shows increasing catch rates from 2016 through 2018.

“The catch rate was due to catching higher numbers of blue catfish that were less than 20 inches long, more than we had seen in 15 years,” he said. “This is a product of a couple years of good spawning success in 2014 and 2015 and corresponding favorable water conditions. A high number of 20- to 24-inch blue catfish are now in the system as well.”

Holbrook said another key to the upsurge is likely the blue catfish regulation that went into effect in April 2015, replacing 2007 regulations that restricted anglers to keeping no more than one fish greater than 36 inches but included no creel limit. The 2015 regulations, recently repealed by an “undiscovered” sunset clause restricted the daily limit to 25 per person, with only two catfish greater than 32 inches allowed to be kept.

From a big-fish perspective, Holbrook said the data also indicates an increasing trend in the number of fish longer than 32 inches in the lakes. Beyond that, he said, based on discussions with anglers, the number of 40-pound class fish seems to have increased in recent years.

“Prior to the regulation, we believe many trophy fish were in the lakes, but they were not as abundant as they currently are — but it is hard to equate this completely to the regulation enacted in 2015,” he said. “Based on our age/growth data, on average, it takes 12 years for a blue catfish to reach 20 pounds and 18 years to reach 40 pounds A restrictive law, such as the 2015 law, would need to be in place longer to evaluate the impact to the increasing abundance of trophy fish. But the current increase in trophy catfish may also be impacted by the impact of the 2007 law.”

About Terry Madewell 809 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.