Catfish Blues: Famed fish vanishing from Santee Cooper lakes

sfretwell@thestate.comSeptember 20, 2013 

  • Imported catfish Native to the Mississippi River basin, the blue catfish is one of at least two large catfish brought to South Carolina to enhance recreation decades ago in the Santee Cooper lakes. The other is the flathead catfish, native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins. Unlike blue catfish, flathead catfish are blamed for devouring other fish species native to South Carolina, such as the redbreast sunfish. Both catfish can, on average, reach 40-45 inches long and weigh more than 40 pounds. Source: S.C.’s Guide to Freshwater Fisheries, Department of Natural Resources

Blue catfish are disappearing from the state’s Santee Cooper lakes, nearly 50 years after wildlife officials brought the hulking sport fish to South Carolina from the Mississippi River basin.

Some anglers say overfishing at Lakes Marion and Moultrie has reduced the number of blue catfish, a species that draws people from across the country to drop hooks in the Santee Cooper waterways.

But the S.C. Department of Natural Resources suspects the dwindling numbers result from poor reproduction among blue catfish during the past decade. Years of drought, broken only this year by heavy rains, has made spawning difficult, agency biologists say.

Whatever the reason, net surveys show the numbers are down – and the DNR says stricter catch limits may be needed to help the fish recover.

“It’s gotten to the point where we feel like we may need to do something to reduce the harvest, in order to give them the opportunity to rebound,” said Ross Self, chief of freshwater fisheries at the natural resources department.

The department will hold a public meeting Sept. 19 in Moncks Corner to discuss the issue.

Blue catfish, imported from Arkansas in 1965, are today among the top sport fish in lakes Marion and Moultrie, large man-made reservoirs between Columbia and Charleston. The catfish also support a commercial fishery in South Carolina.

“The Santee Cooper lakes are historically a catfish mecca,” said Dieter Melhorn, president of the Carolina Catfish Club. “It’s a place you want to fish if you are after big catfish.”

Among the largest freshwater fish in North America, blue catfish average between 20 and 45 inches long and weigh up to 40 pounds. But some can reach behemoth size, topping 100 pounds. In 2012, a man fishing on Lake Moultrie caught a 56-inch-long, 136-pound blue catfish, the largest of its species ever recorded at the reservoir.

Blue catfish now are found in most eastern South Carolina waterways and most inland lakes. A substantial population has been documented in Lake Wateree, and some have been found in Lake Murray, near Columbia. Lakes Marion and Moultrie draw the most national attention for anglers, who support the state’s multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation industry.

Despite the reputation, lakes Marion and Moultrie are experiencing declines in blue catfish populations that other lakes in South Carolina are not. The DNR isn’t sure why. Dry weather that persisted for years may have degraded the habitat for spawning, agency officials say.

It isn’t known if climate change has had an impact, although rising earth temperatures have affected a variety of animal species across the country.

The Catfish Club’s Melhorn and Darryl Smith, a guide who is on the water about 300 days each year, said commercial fishing is a particular concern at lakes Marion and Moultrie. Some commercial catfishing operations set thousands of hooks in the water, catching blues and shipping them to other states, Smith said.

“A private lake will pay somebody to catch catfish out of Santee, a public fishery,” Melhorn said. “They bring them in alive, and people pay to fish for them.”

It’s unlikely the DNR would seek a ban on catching any blue catfish, but the state may need to toughen the limits, Self said.

Blue catfish are not classified as a game fish, so catch limits are not as strict as for some other species. And those limits apply only to the Santee Cooper basin. For blues 3 feet or longer, people are limited to only one fish per day on lakes Marion and Moultrie. No limits exist at the lakes for blue catfish of less than three feet in length.

Smith said he opposes tighter rules for recreational fishing. He said South Carolina should limit the commercial fishery on the Santee Cooper lakes and the DNR also should enforce existing regulations.

Smith, who has fished the lakes since 1966, said some of the biggest blue catfish are being hauled out of state in tanks to stock other lakes.

“If they would just get that under control, that would be big,” Smith said.

Agency law enforcement Capt. Robert McCullough said his agency does enforce the law, finding that most commercial operations are catching blue catfish under the 3-foot limit.

But DNR biologist Chad Holbrook said poor reproduction has plenty to do with the decline of the blue catfish in lakes Marion and Moultrie.

The department’s net surveys indicate all sizes of blue catfish are down, he said. Agency surveys show a decline in smaller fish dating to about 2004, but in the past several years, the numbers of large fish also appear to be down, he said.

“A lot of those big fish have been caught out, and there aren’t a lot of juvenile fish that have been born in recent years to fill in the gaps,” Holbrook said. “Now, fisherman are starting to see that.”

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