It’s no secret that winter and the cold water period are some of the favorite times of the year for anglers who target blue catfish.
It’s a great time to catch trophy class blue catfish as well as numbers of blue catfish using a variety of techniques.
Many anglers choose to target blue catfish in deep water in the winter, it’s often the most productive areas to fish. Drift fishing is one of the favorites of scores of cold water catfish hunters. Blue catfish of all sizes can be caught in shallow water in the dead of winter also and many anglers prefer to target shallow water areas. Outside of the cold water period, there are often times where catfish can and will be caught in deep water areas.
Catching catfish in deep water presents a conservation problem that puts the fish at risk if they’re not handled correctly.
Unfortunately, many anglers with good intentions have followed misinformation passed on by others that puts the fish at risk.
Understanding The Anatomy
The swim bladder or air sac is an internal air-filled organ that acts as a floatation device allowing the fish to maintain its depth and position in the water. The flexible walls of the swim bladder expand or contract according to ambient pressure. Think of it as a ballast that controls the position, where, and how the fish sits in the water column.
The swim bladder also functions as a resonating chamber to produce or receive sound.
The swim bladder in most fish is an independent organ. Catfish are different as the swim bladder is also connected to the inner ear. A series of vertebral bones known as the Weberian apparatus connects the swim bladder and inner ear. This is part of what gives catfish a heightened sense to detect sound and vibrations in the water.
Here’s What Happens To Deep Water Catfish
When you latch into a deep water catfish and begin pulling it up from the bottom the problem that can occur is called “Barotrauma”. What’s behind this is called the ideal gas law, a simple law of physics.
When an air bubble ascends the water column, the decreasing water pressure allows the bubble to grow larger and larger until it reaches the surface.
You’ve probably seen television shows or heard references to scuba divers and ideal gas law.
What this means is that when ascending from deep water, it has to be done slowly or problems occur.
The bottom line is…..
When a catfish comes up to the surface quickly from deep water the air bladder expands or blows up.
When they come up slowly there’s much less chance of having this issue.
How To Recognize Swim Bladder Problems
Catfish that have ascended too quickly that are suffering from swim bladder problems are easy to identify.
The signs can very often be seen before they’re even brought into the boat.
One of the first signs you’ll see is they’ll often surface faster than expected and often away from the boat. The more experience you have catching catfish the easier this is to recognize.
- When these fish get to the surface they’ll often turn “belly up” or on their sides.
- Sometimes they’ll just kind of lay there on the surface.
- They’ll often attempt to fight and splash around on the surface but won’t go back below the surface of the water.
- Once you have them in the boat the belly will be distended because it’s full of gas or “blown up” like a balloon.
- A catfish that has been heavily feeding will have a distended belly that looks unusually large.
- The distended belly of a catfish that’s suffering from decompression issues will look and feel different.
- Distended bellies from feeding will have a normal shape and will feel soft to the touch.
- The bloating from decompression issues are extremely bloated, have an abnormal shape, and will be hard or very firm to touch when you push on them.
- The eyes of a catfish that’s suffering from decompression issues will also often have a bulging appearance.
- if you look down their throat you’ll often see the air bladder being distended. It’s white but may seem slightly transparent when it’s distended.
If you’ve missed all of these signs and you attempt to release the fish it won’t go under and swim away.
It will turn on its side or belly up, it may attempt to swim under or swim away but will struggle.
Burping Catfish (The Right Way)
When you hook a catfish in deeper water, try to bring the fish up slowly. Preventing this from ever happening is preferred. It really helps to reduce the chance of having these issues.
Sometimes no matter how hard you try it still happens and the fish even contribute to this as well. They’ll often swim up quickly and cause the problem on their own.
Here’s what to do:
When a catfish surfaces and you’ve identified swim bladder issues here’s what to do.
- Reel it close to the side of the boat and allow it to swim and splash around at the surface. Often this movement at the surface and allowing it to splash around will allow it to release the pressure.
- If you boat the fish and recognize that the swim bladder is distended it will often release the pressure in the simple process of handling the fish. To help will this turn the fish “right side up” with its belly down on the floor of the boat when removing hooks and handling.
- If the pressure still exists hold the fish securely and lay the fish across your lap. Place your knee towards the front of the air bladder and apply very light pressure. Move the fish in a circular motion around on your knee. This very slight pressure will often release the pressure if the first two methods that didn’t work.
- Place the fish in a live well and wait. This should rarely be needed. If you’ve followed the first three steps, they’ll work.
Burping Catfish, What Not To Do
I often see anglers suggesting that something is inserted into the mouth of the fish to push on the air bladder and release the pressure. Pieces of PVC pipe or clear plastic tubing are most often suggested.
Please don’t do this, it’s not necessary.
When you insert something into the mouth of the fish to decompress the swim bladder you’re going into an area that can seriously damage the fish. You’re working in and around the gills and internal organs of the catfish.
You run the risk of damaging the gills or internal organs using pipes and tubes and inserting them through the mouth. It’s a risk that can cause damage, infection and even be fatal to the fish if not done correctly.
If you’ve got to apply pressure to the swim bladder in attempts to release the catfish alive then you can apply the very same pressure pushing on the outside of the fish as you can inserting something into their mouth.
It’s not invasive and there’s considerably less risk to the fish.
How To Tell When The Pressure Has Been Released
It’s easy to identify when the catfish has released the pressure from the air bladder.
- It’s not uncommon to hear a loud “whoosh” of air or burping sound, much like a human.
- The appearance of the belly will change and it won’t look distended any longer.
- It will feel “normal” to touch again. It will no longer feel hard and distended.
- When you put the fish back in the water it won’t turn on its side or upside down and won’t struggle to swim off.
Here’s The Video
Here’s more information in our video. Be sure to check out our other catfishing videos.
Listen To The Catfish BURP
When we filmed the first video on how to burp a catfish we tried over and over to get the audio of a catfish burp on film but it never worked out. Recently we caught the catfish burping sound on video and it turned out great so we wanted to share this. Check out the video below to hear what it sounds like.
Put The Big Cats Back
Practicing catch and release with trophy class catfish is essential to protecting the sport as well as assuring that a good population of fish remains in our waters for years to come.
It can take decades for a fish to get into the higher-end range of trophy class fish we’re catching today. They’re not replaced quickly or easily so remember to put the big cats back.
Sometimes a misinformed angler with good intentions is just as dangerous to fish populations as one that chooses to keep every fish they catch or keep these big trophy cats.
Do your part, treat these fish with the respect they deserve, make sure you’re communicating with other anglers about the benefits of trophy catch and release.
Let them go, let them grow, put the big cats back!