Steve Knight Outdoors

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is looking at reducing and simplifying catfish regulations in the state.

Catfish fishing has always been an every-man’s type of activity. It is something that can be done from the shores of a pond, lake or river or by boat either using rod and reel or more traditional techniques like trotlines and juglines.

Compared to bass fishing, equipment and technology changes to catfish fishing have come slowly, and for the most part the fishery remains a meat-eaters dream.

However, in recent years there has been a shift in how some fishermen look at catfish. While it is still a popular fish for consumption, there has also become a sport component and along with that changes in gear and technology. That of course includes the popular trophy fisheries on Lake Tawakoni and others where fishermen are targeting monster blue cats, but it also includes a growing number of fishermen who want to fill the pull of quality fish on their line.

In 2008, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began talking with Texas fishermen about their views of catfish fishing in the state, and in 2015 the department developed a statewide management plan. The plan included a revision of blue and channel catfish regulations, but just like what happened with bass, there became a patchwork of rules on lakes across the state.

Catfish fishermen represent about 22 percent of the state’s 1.2 million licensed fishermen, and the department has realized in some cases the various limits can be confusing. With an eye on new regulations for 2021 it has gone back to the drawing board to a degree following the bass format, and come up with a set of statewide regulations with much few exceptions.

“Basically what we trying to do is simplify the regulations while making them biologically relevant,” said John Tibbs, Inland Fisheries district biologist from Waco.

Tibbs said that for many new fishermen, catfish is where they get their start, and in the beginning they just want to keep fish. In looking at regulation options, Tibbs said the department also recognized the consumptive nature of catfish fishing, but has seen a change in attitudes of even those fishermen.

“What we are seeing is a shift in angling. There are a lot more anglers out there, but more are willing to release fish to catch trophy fish,” he explained.

Along with the social aspect, the biological equation also has to be considered. Biologists look for regulations that create a balance between spawning and recruitment, growth rates, along with harvest and natural mortality.Those three factors help determine a fisheries’ quality. With that and fishermen’s attitudes in mind, the department has come up with four options to be applied based on a lake’s management goal. One is for quality fisheries, one for large reservoirs that are harvest oriented, another for trophy fisheries and a fourth for lakes where over-harvest is an issue.

For about 80 percent of lakes that offer good or quality fisheries, the department is suggesting a daily 25-fish limit to include no more than 10 over 20 inches and no minimum length limit. The regulation is expected to provide ample harvest as well as allowing some fish to maximize their growth potential.

The proposed regulation for large lakes that are harvest oriented is 25 fish with no minimum length limit, but no more than five over 30 inches. This regulation is geared toward not only rod and reel fishermen, but also those using trotlines and juglines. Rod and reel fishing is the most popular form of catfish fishing, but Tibbs said the department wants to encourage fishermen to continue other traditional methods.

The department recognizes a small number of fisheries as trophy fisheries and is suggesting a daily limit of 25 fish, with five over 20 inches, but only one of those over 30 inches.

“Changing from seven (the current over-20 reg) to five makes a significant change in our modeling,” Tibbs said. He added the regulation would be a vast improvement over slot limits that are currently used on lakes Lewisville, Richland Chambers and Waco.

Tawakoni could be one of the lakes under this regulation, but not immediately. Tawakoni is part of a research project and would temporarily remain under its current regulations.

On lakes where over-harvest is an issue, the proposed limit is 15 per day with a 14-inch minimum length limit.

Of course there would also be exceptions for Caddo Lake, Texoma and Toledo Bend, boundary water lakes where regulations are shared with other states.

“The regulations we are proposing we think are more effective in every case than what they are replacing,” Tibbs said. He added in most cases the regulations would not change anything because catfish are typically underexploited on Texas lakes. However, with the vast majority of the lakes under a statewide regulation of no minimum length limit it would simplify things for fishermen.

“It is our No. 2 species as far as popularity with anglers,” Tibbs said of catfish. “We are trying to recruit fishermen and keep the ones we have. Having friendly regulations and regulations popular with anglers is important.”

The department has run its proposals by a number of catfish fishermen, guides and tournament participants during three webinars to mostly positive reviews. There have been some concerns from tournament fishermen about the one-over-30 regulation on trophy lakes and some other issues. There were also concerns about rod-and-reel fishing versus trotlines and juglines, but those were more social issues than regulatory.

Tibbs said the department still wants to hear from more interested fishermen and that at this point the proposals are not written in stone.

“I also wanted to emphasize that these options may change based on angler input before we present them to the commission in January. After that, there will be a lot more opportunity for angler input as well,” Tibbs said.