The Fuss About Catfish
An excerpt from the Missouri Department of Conservation’s cookbook Cooking Wild.
In the past decade, the Conservation Department has invested substantial re-sources toward better managing and protecting Missouri’s channel, blue, and flat-head catfish populations. During that time we have learned a lot about how to sample catfish, how fast they grow, how much and when they move, and how many are harvested. We have much yet to learn. However, some people have asked, “Why all the fuss?” These are just some of the many reasons.
Missourians and visitors to our state spend a lot of time fishing for catfish. Surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that anglers spend more than 15 million days and more than $1 billion annually fishing in Missouri. As a group, catfish were the fish anglers most wanted to catch.
Catfish, especially large individuals (20 pounds and more), are the top predator in many of Missouri’s rivers and streams. Top predators help control the populations of other fish species, including invasive species that are threatening our outdoor heritage. In Missouri, it often takes longer than a decade to produce a large catfish.
Many freshwater predators that fight hard are not preferred table fare. There is also a strong catch-and-release ethic when dealing with species such as largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, or muskies. Large catfish are unique. They not only fight hard, but also taste good. There is a strong harvest tradition among catfish anglers.
Missourians are good, and are getting better, at catching catfish, especially big ones. Techniques and places that were once mysterious and hidden are now shared openly through social media and other technologies. Anglers are able to quickly learn a skill that used to take years to acquire. This puts more pressure on large catfish that make up a small but important part of the population.
The memories of catching a large catfish and the meals shared with family and friends connect us to the outdoors and one another. Catfish are part of a public trust that was inherited from previous generations, and the Department has been charged with their protection and management. Missourians expect that inheritance to be managed conservatively with the intention of passing it on, with interest, to future generations.
Catfish are an important part of Missouri’s culture and economy. As with all public trust resources, they must be managed conservatively with an eye toward future generations. This means that the Department will continue to learn more about catfish, and we will always take the conservative approach to management and related regulations.
The good news is that, in most places, there are plenty of catfish. But there is increasing pressure directed at the largest individuals that are most valuable socially, economically, and often ecologically. Our efforts to manage catfish must recognize and adapt to these changes.
Why all the fuss about catfish? Missourians both now and in the future deserve nothing less.