What Are the Odds of Catching a Trophy Catfish?
Catching a record trophy fish is a major feat. When and where will someone catch the next world record catfish? The odds are long against catching the next record, but it will happen. When it does it will start a buzz in the media that will stimulate others to go after an even larger trophy. Virginia boasts the two largest Blue Catfish Ictalurus furcatus ever caught by rod and reel.
Blue Catfish is the largest North American catfish. Old timers suggest Blue Catfish over 240 pounds were caught in the 1860s (Read more here). Blue Catfish of this size may have been more common in the Mississippi River in the 1800s, but they are unheard of today. Blue Catfish can live for 30 years and fish over 100 pounds have been confirmed in at least eleven states. The current world angling record is a 143-pound monster caught in Virginia’s Buggs Island Lake in 2011. Read more here.
The two largest Blue Catfish weighed in at 143 (top, world record) and 141.75 pounds, both caught in Buggs Island Lake, Virginia. Photos from roanoke.com (top) and alloutdoor.com (bottom).
Blue Catfish is an adaptable, big river fish and has established populations in many reservoirs after stocking both within and outside its native range. Populations exist in tidal rivers from Delaware south to Florida (Fuller and Nielson 2018). Today, many anglers are equipped and motivated to pursue trophy size catfish in big waters. Some management agencies have developed restrictive harvest regulations, prohibited commercial harvest, and stocked many waters in order to increase the odds of catching a trophy (Cofer 2000; Boxrucker and Kuklinski 2006). Serious anglers have increased pressure and organized catfish tournaments. One cultural shift has been toward more frequent catch and release of catfish. The Missouri Blue Catfish record (130 pounds) holder, Burr Edde, says he throws back Blue Catfish that weigh more than 50 pounds so that others may catch them. Read more here.
Blue Catfish populations are recovering in the Ohio River near Kentucky and West Virginia. The state record was recently broken in West Virginia. Read more here.
The list of large Blue Catfish caught (below) contains many over 110 pounds. North American anglers would have to target sturgeon, paddlefish, or Alligator Gar to have a chance at landing a larger fish in freshwater.
See the following links for details:
What can you do to increase the odds of catching a trophy? Fish more! Yes, but where? Talk with the experts. Use a depth finder to locate the big Blue Catfish. Hire a guide. Keep records of your fishing success. Let's look at how big the record Blue Catfish really are. These data from Virginia tidal rivers show a large spread in weight at a given length. These data tell us not to trust any simple length-weight chart, due to natural variability in weight at a given length.
State record Blue Catfish are often 55 inches or longer. At this size, their large mouths make the largest calorie-rich fish possible snacks. When prey fish are not present, they will be easy to catch with the correct bait and placement. Depending on what they are consistently eating, the weights for a 50-inch Blue Catfish maybe 40 pounds or 90 pounds! The record fish are no longer streamlined, they become stocky and very large around the middle.
Blue Catfish weight (pounds) and length (inches) for Virginia tidal river sampling (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, unpublished data).
Anglers often measure the length and maximum girth of their record Blue Catfish. The trophy size Blue Catfish put on weight and add to their girth. The world record was 57 inches long and had a maximum girth of 47 inches. No one knows how long a fish this size could go without eating. They are unlikely to chase down a small shad – it’s not worth the cost. Rather they wait for a large fish that is easier to catch. A 100-pound Blue Catfish can easily consume a 5-pound carp for a meal.
Weight, length and girth of some of the largest Blue Catfish ever recorded.
Weight Length Girth
143 57 47
141 61 46
130 57 45
124 58 44
117 55 40.5
Plot of Blue Catfish weight (pounds) and age (years) from tidal rivers of Virginia (see Hilling et al. 2018).
The observed weight at age plot demonstrates a very wide range of weights for fish of the same age, due to variability in the age-length and length-weight relationships. A 5-pound Blue Catfish could be 5 to 15 years old. We hypothesize that some Blue Catfish are slow growing throughout their life because they feed primarily on aquatic vegetation. Others are fast growing because they switch to eating fish at an early age. The odds of reaching a trophy size are related to abundant large prey to drive further growth. The odds also depend on survival.
Any harvest will decrease the chance that Blue Catfish will ever reach 25 years or more. Fish numbers exponentially decline and it is very unlikely that a 10-year-old Blue Catfish will be a trophy. Without harvest regulations, few catfish ever reach an age where some may approach trophy size.
Comparison of numbers of Blue Catfish in a hypothetical fished and unfished cohort.
The odds of catching a 100-pound Blue Catfish are very long. But they are swimming out there. Virginia and Maryland have examined Blue Catfish populations as they have expanded and established large populations, which may influence native fishes and blue crabs. In a 7 ½ mile section of the James River, Fabrizio et al. (2018) estimated there were 1.6 million Blue Catfish. None of the tagged fish were trophy size. But the chance that some Blue Catfish in the population were over 100 pounds is NOT zero. High abundance led to labeling Blue Catfish an invasive species in the tidal waters of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. Commercial fishing may reduce their abundance in the future, such that the peak of trophy catfish has passed (Hilling et al. 2018). What’s the future of trophy catfishing? Anglers will continue to target Blue Catfish and many trophy fish are swimming in waters near you. So spend more time fishing in rivers and reservoirs where big fish have been reported. A local favorite is the tidal James River. Read more here.
Maybe you will break the world record.
Boxrucker, J., and K. Kuklinski. 2006. Abundance, growth, and mortality of selected Oklahoma Blue Catfish populations: implications for management of trophy fisheries. Proceedings of the Annual Conference Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 60(2005):152–156.
Cofer, L. 2000. Record retrospective. Catfish In-sider. 3(1):14-15.
Fabrizio, M.C., T.D. Tuckey, R.J. Latour, G.C. White, and A.J. Norris. 2018. Tidal habitats support large numbers of invasive Blue Catfish in a Chesapeake Bay subestuary. Estuaries and Coasts 41:827-840.
Fuller, P., and M. Neilson, 2018, Ictalurus furcatus (Valenciennes in Cuvier and Valenciennes, 1840): U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.aspx?speciesID=740, Revision Date: 1/15/2014, Peer Review Date: 4/1/2016, Access Date: 10/3/2018
Hilling, C.D., Y. Jiao, A.J. Bunch, R.S. Greenlee, and D.J. Orth. 2018. Natural mortality and size-structure of an introduced catfish in Virginia tidal rivers. Journal of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 5:30-38.