Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Are blue catfish returning to Pittsburgh’s rivers?

Blue catfish like this have been gone from Pennsylvania reaches of the Ohio River drainage since 1880. Conditions for them to return appear to be good now. Photo courtesy

Harrisburg — An effort to bring back one long-gone species worked, but only to a degree.

Might this go better?

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission for years worked to reintroduce paddlefish into Pittsburgh’s rivers. The fish are native to the drainage; they disappeared more than 100 years ago because of pollution.

The commission stocked fingerling-sized paddlefish in the river for a decade or so, and subsequent studies turned up both adult fish and evidence – albeit limited – of natural reproduction.

In the end, though, the effort was deemed too costly and the commission canceled the program.

Now, the commission is hoping another fish native to the Ohio River drainage – and that’s been gone even longer than paddlefish – will return, if it hasn’t already.

That would be blue catfish.

They’ve been gone since 1880, said Rick Lorson, Area 8 fisheries manager for the commission, working out of its Somerset office. They disappeared for a variety of reasons, he said.

Conditions for them appear to be good now, though, Lorson added.

“So this is another species that’s been gone, and we’re trying to get them back,” he said.

The commission hasn’t stocked any – yet – Lorson said. It may if it can find evidence of the fish already there, he said.

Lorson expects that.

Why? West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources has been stocking blue catfish in the Ohio and Kanawha rivers.

They never vanished from the Ohio there like they did in Pennsylvania’s section of the river.

“But there weren’t many,” said Bret Preston, assistant chief of the division’s wildlife resources section.

So, with an idea of creating a special fishery, the division began stocking blues. Some came from Kentucky; others were purchased commercially. Many were raised to larger sizes in-house.

Taken together, all those fish have indeed led to good numbers of blues and lots of interest in fishing for them, Preston said.

“Probably within the last five or six years we’ve been getting more and more reports of people catching them. There are a number of tournaments for them. Guys are targeting them,” Preston said.

“It’s become very, very popular on the river.”

The fish get big, too. Twice in the last two years the West Virginia state record has been broken. The largest by weight was caught last summer. It weighed 59.74 pounds.

The fish get bigger than that, though. Much bigger. The world record was caught in 2011 in Virginia. It weighed 143 pounds, according to the International Game Fish Association.

The biggest catfish ever officially recorded in Pennsylvania is a flathead that tipped the scales at 48 pounds, 6 ounces.

What’s really notable about those West Virginia blues – at least from Pennsylvania’s perspective – is where they were stocked, Lorson said.

There’s been no formal agreement between the two state agencies. But, in sort of a handshake deal, West Virginia stocked 30,000 or so blue catfish fingerlings in the Ohio near the New Cumberland and Pike Island pools.

Those are the two most immediately downriver of the Pennsylvania border.

Lorson expects some of those fish will move into Pennsylvania’s portion of the Ohio.

“Blue catfish, like most fish, tend to move upriver. And they don’t know state lines. So we expect to see them in our tailwaters eventually,” he said.

They could even be here already, though that’s not been confirmed.

But not for lack of trying.

Commission crews spent several days in June surveying the river around Georgetown Island and the Montgomery Lock and Dam. They picked up channel catfish and flatheads, but no blues.

“We may still be looking for a needle in a haystack,” Lorson said.

He plans to survey the river again later this summer, though, to continue the search. If he doesn’t find any then, the plan is to continue the search in 2018.

Eventually, Lorson said, biologists will get one. In fact, he said, they’ll likely get more in time.

Then, the commission may act.

The new statewide catfish management plan contains a small section outlining how to manage blue catfish if and when they’re here. One part of the plan even calls for stocking blues.

The goal would be to begin that as soon as a few fish show up in the Ohio, he added.

“Our plan is that once we find one in our waters, then we’ll work on a plan to get some to stock in the river, from the Point down to the Montgomery lock and dam,” Lorson said.

Anglers will like the fish once they get them, Preston said. Catching them requires a change in techniques. They’re much more a fish of the main river channel rather than nooks and crannies of cover, he said.

“They’re a very powerful fish, very strong,” Preston said.

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