- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

VEVAY, Ind. (AP) - On a recent overcast morning, Dale Sides dropped his lines 25 feet to the bottom of the murky Ohio River. Just then, a green boat motored past.

A few hundred yards from where Sides was anchored, the boater, a commercial fisherman, began pulling up submerged hoops big enough for a human to swim through. If not for the nets attached.

Sides was not happy.

“I watch him pull five, six, seven nets right through this area right here, and he’s pulling fish out,” Sides told The Indianapolis Star (https://indy.st/1vpGcbh ). “He’s fishing it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The commercial angler in the green boat is Sides’ opponent in a contentious debate that has pitted sport and commercial fishermen against each other in at least four states. The battle has spawned heated exchanges at prime fishing holes, in public game commission meetings and on online forums. Sides said it’s reached a point where he’s heard of fishermen vandalizing the commercial anglers’ nets and gear.

The unlikely source of all this animosity? Whiskered behemoths that will never win a beauty contest: Blue and flathead catfish, which can live close to 20 years and grow to more than 100 pounds.

Over the past few years, these monster catfish have been in high demand at hundreds of commercial fishing operations throughout the Midwest known as pay lakes.

At these lakes, trophy wild catfish pulled from rivers by commercial anglers are stocked in ponds for anglers who pay a small fee to fish. But the fishing itself isn’t the only draw for pay-lake anglers. At many pay lakes, including at least two in central Indiana, anglers gamble on their fishing skills by putting money into daily and seasonal trophy pots.

Catch the right-sized lunker catfish at the right time, and an angler can go home with several hundred dollars in his or her pocket.

Commercial angling groups and pay-lake owners argue big-river catfish populations are doing fine and pay lakes are nothing more than a little harmless - and legal - fun, even if winning money is a motivator for their clients.

“You’re not going to outfish the Ohio River,” said Robert Hubbard, the owner of Hubbard’s South Lakes, a pay-lake business in Mooresville. “There’s plenty of fish in there for everybody.”

But recreational catfish anglers such as Sides think an insatiable demand for gambling fodder at pay lakes is a gamble all its own. They think the practice may do irreversible harm to the region’s big-river cat-fisheries, if it hasn’t already.

State conservation officers, too, are wary of a public wildlife resource being exploited for private gain.

“Commercializing trophy catfish impacts the resource and benefits only a few,” said Lt. William Browne, an Indiana conservation officer. “The sport fishermen and recreational fishermen are having lifetime opportunities taken away from them.”

It appears that recreational interests are winning the day. Indiana fisheries officials are considering adopting fishing regulations that would only allow one large blue or flathead a day for both commercial and recreational anglers. Illinois officials are considering similar rule changes. Fisheries officials in Ohio and Kentucky already have approved them for some waters.

Hubbard, the Indiana pay-lake owner, worries that the proposed size limits would hurt his and other pay-lake operators’ business. He says he’s already struggling to find a steady supply of big cats.

“I wasn’t able to get any big fish this year, and I put in big fish every year,” he said. “I got one small load, and I had to go all the way over to Illinois to the Mississippi River. And from what I’m hearing, they’re talking about doing it over there, so then there won’t be anywhere to go. It’s all about guys making a living, too.”

Fisheries officials say the rule changes are needed because there’s been a noticeable uptick in the demand for big flatheads and blues, which have been fetching $2 or more a pound at pay lakes.

Smaller catfish for food markets aren’t in as much demand, but the larger specimens are at risk of over harvest, said Ron Brooks, the chief fisheries official in Kentucky.

“What they can do, though,” Brooks said, “is have an effect on the larger fish because there’s obviously much fewer of the larger fish in each of the pools.”

Commercial anglers see things differently.

At a public meeting last year, Bob Fralick, president of Kentucky’s commercial fishing association, testified that the regulations were nothing but a “feel-good” attempt by the wildlife agency to get recreational anglers “off the back of the department.” He argued the changes would do little to protect the resource.

The Star could not reach Fralick for comment.

Brooks said the key is striking the right balance. He said commercial fishing in Kentucky has been a way of life for more than 100 years, and fisheries officials still see it as an important tool to ensure no one species takes over a waterway.

There are around 300 commercial anglers licensed in Kentucky. Brooks said 20 to 40 of them regularly fish on the Ohio River. There are 16 licensed commercial fishermen on Indiana’s side of the Ohio, with 312 commercial anglers licensed for Indiana’s inland waters.

That there’s a demand for trophy catfish shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with cable TV. Catfish - flatheads in particular - have become celebrities of sorts in recent years thanks to mainstream fishing shows such as “River Monsters” and “Hillbilly Handfishin’.”

In those shows, anglers often employ a bizarre fishing method called “noodling” in which massive flatheads are caught by people sticking their hands into a fish’s underwater lair. The toothless fish bite down hard on the intruding digits, giving the fisherman a handhold to heave the fish out of the murk.

Brooks, the Kentucky fishery official, said the sight of so many people clutching brown, flopping fish the size of preschoolers to their chests has undoubtedly led to a spike in anglers who hope to catch their own river monsters, both at pay lakes and on the big water.

Catch-and-release catfish tournaments on some public waterways now rival bass-fishing competitions.

Sides, the Ohio River angler, said he got into trophy catfishing a few years ago after he retired and moved near Vevay on the Kentucky border. He upgraded his boat and tackle specifically for a better shot of catching monster blues and flatheads on rod and reel on the big water.

Sides’ fishing rods aren’t your average farm-pond poles. Each of the half-dozen rods splaying out from holders on the back of his boat had a reel the size of coffee cups. They’re strung with 100-pound test braided line.

His bait of choice is live bluegill for the more predatory flatheads. For scavenging blue cats, he fishes with iPhone-sized hunks of skipjack herring, an oily, bony fish that Sides catches from the river. He skewers his bait with hooks the size of a man’s thumb.

His biggest fish to date is a 50-pound blue he caught on the Ohio near the Markland dam in 2010.

But on a recent day on the same stretch of river, he fished for nearly five hours without a bite.

These days, he says it’s become increasingly hard to catch trophy fish. His biggest after 20 days on the water this summer was a measly 15-pounder. He blames commercial trot lines and hoop nets for the decline.

He says he and his fellow recreational anglers throw the big ones back, but the commercial guys never do.

“Five or six years ago, every time I come down here, I could catch a 25- or 30-pounder. Every time,” Sides said. “Now, if I catch one like that a year, I’m doing good.”

___

Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com


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