It was the kind of fish that Ryan Gnagy needed both hands to begin lifting from the water, then both arms, and finally both legs as he pulled a catfish aboard his boat Thursday afternoon.
A whisker shy of 45 inches, the blue catfish had a head the size of a shovel and a belly that looked like it had swallowed a basketball. The fish carried the thick, muscular flanks that minutes before had bent a pool cue of a fishing rod to the handle. Its tail was the size of a man’s hands, side by side.
“Probably in the 50-pound range,” said Gnagy as he calmly hefted what would have been the fish of a lifetime for most. It wasn’t even the best in his boat for the week. Monday afternoon one of his clients had landed one weighing 67 pounds. Even that fish was far from the biggest in the lake.
Monster blue catfish up to 100 pounds are already swimming in at least two Kansas rivers and probably Milford Reservoir.
“The blue catfish has created a kind of big-game fishing in Kansas,” said Doug Nygren, Kansas Wildlife and Parks fisheries chief. “Now people can go out and have a legitimate chance of catching a 50-pound fish.”
The blue catfish has created a kind of big-game fishing in Kansas.
Doug Nygren, Wildlife and Parks fisheries chief
Biologists and experienced blue cat anglers say more lakes may hold 100-pounders in the future. Cheney and El Dorado reservoirs, near Wichita, have the potential to grow catfish that could eventually top the current world record of 143 pounds.
“I think Kansas could someday harbor a new world record,” said John Jamison, a professional catfish tournament angler from Spring Hill. “With the forage base we have in our lakes, a 140- to 150-pound fish is highly possible.”
For Jamison’s predictions to happen, however, Kansas’ blue catfish could need some assistance from the state.
“The potential is there, but we need regulations that protect these blues,” said Robert Stanley, who holds the current state record. “It takes a lot of time for these fish to grow. We’re getting more and more pressure from anglers. We need tighter regulations.”
Practicing what they preach, Gnagy, Jamison and Stanley release all blues over about 10 pounds so the fish can grow. Yes, Stanley watched his Kansas record – a 102.8-pound blue catfish caught in the Missouri River – swim away after it was weighed and photographed on Aug. 11, 2012.
Rebirth of the blues
Early Kansans found the Missouri, Kansas and Marais des Cygnes rivers teaming with huge blue catfish at the time of settlement. Some accounts speak of 200-pounders, though those aren’t confirmed. Photos of blue catfish taken from the Kansas River near Lawrence in the late 1800s show fish that easily could be more than 100 pounds.
Blue cats look somewhat like their smaller cousins, channel catfish. Named after a dark grayish-blue color often on their backs, blue catfish are generally thicker than channel cats and grow to larger sizes. A Kansas state record channel cat weighed 36.5 pounds. A blue cat that size won’t raise many eyebrows for serious anglers.
Commercial anglers, often using huge nets, made quick work of most of the blue cats in the Kansas and Missouri rivers by the early 1900s. Eventually commercial fishing was stopped in those rivers and the fish began to grow.
Tom Bowman, a Kansas Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist, began successfully stocking blue catfish into Milford Reservoir, Kansas’ largest lake, in 1990. Within a few years the fish were of considerable size and reproducing.
“That really changed how we thought about blue catfish,” said Nygren, the state’s fisheries chief. “Eventually our hatchery crew were doing a great job of growing blue catfish to stock in other lakes.”
The species has done well most places in Kansas that it has been stocked. Gnagy said the fish really grow fast once they reach 10 pounds.
The bigger they get, the more they can eat.
“Once they get up to about that size, they can start eating the bigger gizzard shad,” said Gnagy. “The bigger they get, the more they can eat.”
Jamison’s best catch out of the Kansas River weighed 84 pounds and ate a three-pound carp for bait. Gnagy said a 10-pound blue cat could easily eat the 12-inch shad he was cutting up for bait on Thursday. He’s found pieces of gulls and other animals in the fish he’s cleaned.
Cheney and El Dorado reservoirs seem tailor-made for blue cats, thanks to unique food supplies.
David Studebaker, owner of a catfish tournament series that fishes many parts of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri, said young blue cats feed heavily on zebra mussels, an invasive mollusk in high supply at both lakes.
He said larger blue catfish can feed heavily on white perch, an invasive species native to the eastern U.S. accidentally brought to Kansas with a load of striped bass. They now probably number in the millions in El Dorado and Cheney. That’s bad news for species they compete with, like walleye and white bass, but good news for the growing blue catfish populations in both lakes. Jamison and Studebaker predict both reservoirs will eventually produce huge blue catfish.
Blue catfish also are doing well in the rivers of eastern Kansas, where Stanley caught his record fish.
“I guarantee you there’s 100-pounders in the Missouri River and the Kansas River basin,” Studebaker said. “There was a 106-pounder caught last weekend in the Missouri.”
Technically that fish was a few miles into Missouri, but it could have easily swum into Kansas. Several years ago a 130-pound blue catfish was caught from the Missouri River near St. Louis.
Protecting the future
Gnagy offers guided fishing trips at Milford on weekdays, but said weekends are too crowded on the water.
“We have people from Oklahoma, all parts of Kansas, Iowa, Colorado and other states,” said Gnagy. “They’ve heard about the big blue cats at Milford, and they want to catch some. It is something knowing the next bite you get could be a 12-inch fish or a fish that’s nearly five feet long.”
It is something knowing the next bite you get could be a 12-inch fish or a fish that’s nearly five feet long.
Studebaker, from near Topeka, said pressure is increasing at places like Melvern and Perry reservoirs, where blues can routinely be caught from 20 to 40 pounds.
“Catfishing is the fastest growing of the fishing sports,” he said. “It’s growing faster than bass fishing these days.”
That creates a worry about over-harvest. People like Studebaker and Stanley are afraid too many larger fish will be taken, which can hurt reproduction and the potential for 50- to 100-pound fish in the future.
“It’s not just the trophy potential,” Stanley said. “We need those really big fish left in there because of their genetics. Big fish produce big fish.”
For years, most avid blue catfish anglers would release all fish 10 pounds and up. At Milford an angler attempting to keep an extra-large fish was booed by those in surrounding boats until he returned the fish to the lake.
Studebaker said he’s sure there are those who take all they legally can. For most of the state, the limit is five blue catfish per day, with no size restrictions.
“We know we have guys running trotlines (long lines left overnight, with up to 25 hooks) that are catching and keeping a lot of big fish,” he said. “You could catch 1,000 pounds on a good weekend, but who can possibly eat that many fish? That’s a waste.”
Jamison said the best trophy blue cat fisheries are where regulations limit the number of big fish that can be kept. Currently in Kansas only El Dorado has such protection. Of the daily limit of five blue catfish, only two can be 35 inches or longer. All fish between 25 and 35 inches must be released to protect productive females.
Last year Bowman, since retired from Wildlife and Parks, asked the department to implement restrictions on Milford to protect the lake’s population of big blue cats. Nygren said his department plans to offer options to the state’s wildlife commissioners this spring. Any new regulations would take effect in 2018.
The chances of someone catching a 100-pounder out of Milford are pretty high, if not this year in a few years.
David Studebaker, owner of a catfish tournament series
Studebaker said statewide he’d like to see midsized blues be protected, like at El Dorado. Ideally he’d prefer no blues more than 35 inches be kept. A limit of one would certainly be an improvement over the current law of five of any size, he said, adding that action needs to be taken fast.
“We have so much potential right now in this state. Perry is coming on strong. Melvern is coming on strong, and the chances of someone catching a 100-pounder out of Milford are pretty high, if not this year in a few years,” he said. “These fish have so, so much potential in this state. We can have something really special if we just give them a chance, give them some protection.”