For several years anglers who target catfish in Kentucky waters have been up in arms about a decline in the numbers and quality of catfish. Anglers who call Kentucky home and those that travel there to fish all seem to agree that there’s been a significant decline in the catfish size and populations in fisheries in recent years.
The population decline is specifically in blue catfish and flathead catfish as these are the largest species.
I’ve talked to dozens of tournament and recreational catfish anglers over the past few years that all agree there’s a significant issue in Kentucky. All of these anglers blame one cause, commercial catfishing in Kentucky waters and “catfish pay lakes”. There’s never any question.
Pay lakes don’t exist in many states and there’s different types of pay lakes so it deserves some explanation.
In my home state of Texas for example there’s a handful of pay lakes across the state. These are small privately owned bodies of water that are typically stocked with farm raised catfish. People pay to fish these water and are generally required to keep what they catch and pay a per pound fee for the fish.
There’s a very different type of catfish pay lake in other parts of the country however and catfish anglers unanimously agree that they’re bad for the sport, bad for fisheries and need to be stopped.
These catfish pay lakes are privately owned bodies of water that are typically stocked with larger fish (instead of smaller farm raised fish) and anglers fish these waters in hopes of catching big cats. Much of the business model of these pay lakes (beyond people paying to fish) revolves around them stocking these lakes with big trophy catfish and holding tournaments.
Many states have various laws in place that prevent people removing fish from public waters and releasing them or selling them but unfortunately there’s still some who don’t.
What’s the issue with paylakes?
The issue isn’t that people are fishing private lakes, it’s how these pay lakes get their big catfish, where the fish come from and the lack of regulation surrounding it.
There’s not a reliable commercial source of trophy sized catfish because it takes so long for these catfish to grow to trophy sizes. It wouldn’t be a viable business model for fish farms to raise blue catfish and then grow them to reach trophy class sizes. For lack of other options the catfish pay lakes rely on commercial fishermen to catch and supply trophy catfish to stock their lakes. The pay lake then purchase fish from commercial fishermen and in turn charge anglers to catch these fish.
The issue most catfish anglers have with pay lakes is where these catfish come from and what happens once they’re caught.
Commercial fishermen catch these trophy class fish in public waters and then in turn sell them to the pay lakes. The pay lakes put the fish in their privately owned lakes, charge anglers to fish and then fish typically end up dead (either because of transport or the stress and physical damage of pay lake anglers repeatedly catching the fish over and over again.
Bottom line, the whole beef with pay lakes is that commercial fishermen are catching fish in public waters and then removing them from public waters and selling them to private companies so they can profit. The other issue is that in many states catfish are being caught in public waters and then transported across state lines and being sold.
The end result is a LOT of big catfish being removed from public waters that can’t be replaced. It’s not uncommon to see pictures that pay lakes post of 100 plus pound catfish pulled from public waters. It can take decades for catfish to reach these sizes. When you pull a catfish this size from a lake or river you’re not only removing that fish but you’re losing the spawning potential as well (which biologists estimate to be ~1000 eggs per pound of body weight).
There’s a great video below from the website Exposing Paylakes that explains the issue in much more detail and includes many of the gruesome images showing what’s happening to these fish.
I encourage you to watch the video below and check out their website to learn more about paylakes and get more details on getting involved. They have a lot of great resources on the issues of paylakes and catfish conservation.
My friend and fellow SeaArk Boats Pro Staff angler Aaron Wheatley who runs Monsters On The Ohio is another angler heavily involved in the Kentucky catfish conservation fight. Aaron is back at it again (and working with other anglers) to go back to Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to institute change and help protect further decline in the catfish populations in Kentucky fisheries.
It’s been a hot topic on social media over the past few days so I wanted to pass along some information about the scheduled meeting and encourage anglers that live in Kentucky or fish these waters to get involved and make their voices heard. Read the email below for more details.
There’s more information in the copied email below ….
To Trophy Catfish Anglers,
KDFWR understands your frustration concerning commercial harvest of trophy catfish, and the fact that you are witnessing illegal harvest is even more disconcerting. In order to address these violations, the Department is adjusting our Conservations Officers’ assignments to increase our presence on the Ohio River.
In order to plan officers’ work strategies and schedules to target the violations, we need information from you to maximize our effectiveness in addressing this problem. Please contact the officer (listed below) located closest to the area of the Ohio River where you are witnessing commercial fishing violations to report the location of violations and to report any information you have on who is committing these violations. Any information you can provide will enhance our officers’ ability to provide surveillance and catch offenders breaking the law. Poaching is a very serious offense, and KDFWR is committed to enforcing our laws and citing offenders.
In addition to the steps above, in about a week, KDFWR will provide a research update on our Trophy catfish web page that will cover the history of this issue in terms of research, public meetings, and compromises made for regulations that were structured to reduce harvest pressure on trophy catfish in the Ohio River. When the regulations were passed and became effective in October 2014, we recognized that it would take time to assess their effect because of the time it takes for catfish to grow to trophy sizes. Enforcement issues aside, additional time is needed to properly assess if the regulatory strategies have increased the relative number of trophy catfish in the Ohio River. However, our intensified catfish research initiative is providing solid data on Ohio River catfish, and the fishes’ populations are generally in very good health.
Pay lake issues and practices are also being examined by KDFWR. I want to make it understood that the trophy catfish in pictures posted by pay lake operators/owners to entice people to fish their ponds do not all come from the Ohio River. The pay lakes receive or harvest fish from many sources outside of Kentucky. However, we recognize that the prices that pay lakes offer has increased the commercial effort and harvest of trophy catfish. Therefore, KDFWR is in the process of reviewing pay lake regulations, statutes, and fish holding processes.
Lastly, KDFWR has received a request from a catfish angler to present Ohio River catfish and fishing information to the November, KDFWR Fisheries Committee. The Committee meeting is open to the public for those who wish to attend, and any attendee may provide comments on an agenda item. Meeting agendas are posted on the KDFWR website at least one week prior to each, quarterly meeting.
Fisheries Division Director
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
#1 Sportsman’s Lane
Frankfort, KY 40601
KDFWR Law Enforcement officers’ direct lines:
-District 1(Paducah Area)-Lt. Chad Parker 270-627-2170 firstname.lastname@example.org
-District 2(Henderson Area)- Lt. James Nason 270-350-2650 email@example.com
-District 3(Louisville Area)- Capt Rick Mehlbauer 270-617-1212 firstname.lastname@example.org
-District 5(Cincinnati Area)- Capt Charlie Philips 859-797-1771 email@example.com
-District 8(Ashland Area)- Capt Buddy Grayson 606-356-1804 firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also add our wildlife violation report line 1-800-25ALERT. Every call that goes through this hotline is recorded; as is the officers’ responses.