Keeper of the Plans

Wichitan pulls freakishly big fish out of the Ark River. Experts say it’s a good thing

For humans, this month’s flooding in Wichita has been a headache at best and a disaster at worst.

But for fish, it’s been pretty sweet.

As the Arkansas River and creeks around the Wichita area continue to swell, plenty of fish are finding new habitats in what has essentially become a land rush for them.

And it’s resulted in some impressive catches for local fishermen.

Jose Hernandez, 37, caught a 56.7-pound, 50-inch-long flathead catfish at the Lincoln Street Dam just south of downtown on Sunday.

Hernandez said he baited his line with bluegill bait and 10 ounces of weight to counteract the fast flowing stream — and the massive fish bit shortly after he cast the line.

It took him about 45 minutes to reel in the catfish, and the help of two nearby fishermen — a man named Vernon and his grandson — to lift it out of the water.

Hernandez did “CPR” with the fish.

In fisherman lingo, that means “catch, photo, release.”

“That’s an old fish, and for something big like that, it’s better for conservation (to let it go),” Hernandez said, adding that letting the fish go gave “somebody else or maybe me in the future” a chance to catch it.

“Ever since the water got that high, it’s just been good fishing out there,” he said. “I’ve seen people catching 40, 35, 20 (pound fish) all this last couple of weeks. Last Friday one of my buddies caught a 42 (pound fish).”

The Lincoln Street Dam, just south of downtown along the river, has long been a hot spot for local anglers to snag three different species of catfish.

Channel catfish, flathead catfish and blue catfish all can be caught at the site.

The dam, which was improved in 2015, has a dedicated “fish ladder” that allows fish to swim upstream and over the dam. It’s illegal to fish directly in the ladder, though people can fish on either side of it.

Doug Nygren, chief of fisheries for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said the news of Sunday’s big catch wasn’t all that unusual.

“What happens when you have these high floods (is) fish really stack up when their upstream movement is obstructed,” Nygren said. “Fish are moving and when they hit an obstruction they slow down, and it gives anglers a chance to catch them.”

It’s possible some of the fish currently being caught in the Arkansas River have swum upstream from the Kaw Reservoir in Oklahoma, Nygren said, though he said it’s likely most of them were already Wichita locals.

“There’s big fish like that in the Arkansas River,” he said. “It’s probably a combination of fish moving because of the high water and resident fish still around as well.”

Flooding in rivers and creeks around Wichita allows various fish species a chance to explore and populate (and in some cases repopulate) new waters.

“When you have these high flows it creates opportunities for fish to move into these areas — it’s just a self-preservation technique that fish use to exploit new habitats,” Nygren said. “Overall, I think the fish will benefit from the high water. It will stimulate a lot of spawning activity of a variety of river fish — a lot of reproductive activity.”

Would these fish be safe to eat?

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks advise people not to eat bottom-feeding fish caught at the Lincoln Street Dam.

The agencies have found contamination with PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — at the site. PCBs have been connected to various cancers in adults and issues for children exposed to it in the womb. PCBs come from electrical transformers and capacitors.

That means you shouldn’t eat any carp, blue catfish, channel catfish, flathead catfish, freshwater drum, bullheads, sturgeons, buffalos, carpsuckers and other sucker species caught there.

For fish caught elsewhere, check the KDWPT website for specific guidelines about whether that fish is safe to grill.

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.