Guided Recreational Fishing for Invasive Blue Catfish in Virginia
In the Chesapeake Bay tidal rivers, abundant trophy Blue Catfish have attracted recreational anglers. Several successful catfish anglers saw the opportunity to share their knowledge and created guiding businesses. A quick Google search yields many options for a day on the water chasing big catfish with a Coast Guard certified captain. These catfish guides bring economic benefits to the region, as well as new anglers, increased catch rates for novice anglers and knowledge to keep clients safe on potentially dangerous rivers. Clients travel great distances to experience the adrenaline rush of tangling with a monster Blue Catfish. Consequently, Blue Catfish are more than an aquatic pest in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, they provide recreation and employment opportunities to the region.
Captain John Garland of Screaming Reels Fishing Charters offered some of his time for an interview to discuss Blue Catfish guiding and the state of the fishery. Captain John was born in Richmond, where he began fishing for bream (Bluegill) at 8 or 9 years old at Byrd Park. “When I was maybe around 12, I saw some of the elders come home from the river with shad on sticks.” John later had the opportunity to fish with elders from his community near the 14th Street Bridge and the river ran white with shad and herring. John saw fishing as a good way to provide food for his family. Captain John was a talented basketball player in high school and attended Florida A&M University to continue his basketball career. He later returned to Virginia and worked for DuPont for a while. Captain John began guiding in 2009 after a couple decades of fishing for catfish on the James River. “I’ve been fishing [catfish] since 1990 and got more proficient at catching big ones over time. I fished for other species; bass and stripers, but always like chasing the big cats.” Captain John stated that interest from others in catfishing prompted him to start taking other people out on the river, which later morphed into a business.
Captain John is on the water with clients 2–3 days per week, but spends additional time keeping tabs on the fish by pre-fishing. The Bay region’s fishing guides strive to give their customers a memorable experience. When asked what size fish he targets during his charters John said, “Generally, I target fish 30 lb or larger, but I always ask clients what their personal best is. Sometimes it’s 30 lb, other times it’s 8 lb or sometimes clients have never caught a catfish before.” Captain John mentioned he had a client from Nebraska that wanted to beat their personal best catfish of 68 lb. John was able to put them on a fish that exceeded 70 lb! Clients from as far as Westminster, England have chartered trips with Captain John, as well as numerous US states.
Captain John presents an impressive Blue Catfish during an outing with a client in July of 2018
Recent declines in Blue Catfish abundance have been noted by both anglers and scientists (see blog post on size declines). Captain John said, “In the last 8 years, numbers of big blues have gone down. It’s harder and harder to catch the big ones.” Captain John is concerned about several factors limiting the number of large Blue Catfish, including commercial harvest of large fish and relocation of large fish to pay lakes by anglers (Note: relocation of Blue Catfish is illegal in the Commonwealth, click here for details). John noted when he began guiding only nine years ago there were only a handful of catfish guides, but now there are many more and technology has improved. Many of the guides now have sophisticated electronics, helping them pinpoint prime fishing spots. Captain John also stressed the importance of responsible fish handling procedures. He noted Virginia's tidal rivers get hot in the summer and fish are left out of the water for several minutes and held incorrectly, which could increase the likelihood of post-release mortality. Also, fish brought up from deep water can get the “bends”, where pressure differences at the river bottom and the surface cause air in the swim bladder and/or stomach to expand rapidly. Fish with the bends can’t descend, leaving them susceptible to predation or boat strikes. Captain John stressed the need for more education on safe handling of fish to ensure post-release mortality is as low as possible and prevent the loss of large catfish from the population.
Catch and release angling for trophy catfish has become more popular over time. Historically, catfishing has been harvest-oriented and many states don’t actually classify catfishes as sportfish. Recreational fisheries in the United States may provide economic benefits in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars and 800,000 jobs (Hughes 2014). Consequently, effective management plans for invasive species that provide angling opportunities should consider these economic benefits to enhance stakeholder buy-in. However, to date there are no published estimates of the economic impact of recreational Blue Catfish fisheries, although we plan to conduct an economic impact analysis in the future. Regardless, Blue Catfish provide employment and recreation opportunities that generate revenue for the Chesapeake Bay region.
Hughes, B. 2014. The socioeconomic values of recreational fishing. Fisheries 39: 291.