Sport and Commercial Fishing for Catfish

In Alabama, 36% of all freshwater anglers fish for catfish, ranking these fish as the third most popular fish sought by anglers after bass and crappie. The catfish fishery on Wilson Lake on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama is one of the best catfish fisheries in the region.  Catch rates by recreational and commercial angler are high, particularly below the dam at Wilson Lake, the former world record blue catfish (111 lbs) was caught in Wilson Lake, and catfish tournament anglers come to this reservoir to catch large catfish.  We conducted an assessment of the fishery and the population of catfish on Wilson Lake to determine the health of the fish and look determine if regulations (minimum lengths or bag limits) were necessary to maintain this excellent fishery.

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Assess and analyze the populations of blue catfish, channel catfish, and flathead catfish on Lake Wilson on the Tennessee River to determine abundance, growth, and survival.

Conduct a creel survey of the fishery to determine recreational and commercial catfish catches, angler preference for size of fish targeted and harvested, and thoughts on regulating the fishery with minimum length limits to improve the quality of the fishery and promote trophy blue catfish.

 In 2006 and 2007, blue catfish, channel catfish, and flathead catfish were sampled on Wilson Lake using a special type of electrofishing boat that can collect catfish.  About 3,000 catfish were tagged with a wire type dangler tag that was attached in the muscle below the top fin of the fish.  Anglers were encouraged to return the tag for a reward so we could estimate the number of catfish harvested.  Based on tag returns, about 10 to 19% of all blue catfish are harvested each year, which is moderate amount of fishing harvest.  Fewer channel catfish and flathead catfish were harvested and harvest rates were below 10% per year.  About 25% of the total catfish harvest was from commercial anglers.

Both blue catfish and flathead catfish are very long-lived on Wilson Lake.  The oldest blue cat was 25 years old, the oldest flathead was 34 years old.  The oldest channel catfish was 11 years old.  The largest blue cat we collected was 72 lbs, the largest flathead was 45 lbs.  Blue and flathead catfish are slow growing, and because these fish are long-lived, the death rate due to natural causes is low. Most anglers prefer to keep blue cats and channel cats less than 5 lbs.  High minimum lengths limits could increase the harvest in pounds of these fish as growth and the natural death rate are low in these long-lived fish.  High minimum length limits could increase the number of big blue cats, but this regulation would likely not be acceptable to anglers as these folks use fishing gear and bait that target smaller fish.  The flathead population contains many large fish and offers anglers the opportunity to catch trophy flatheads as fishing pressure for this species is low.  Flathead catfish are usually caught using live fish.  Large channel catfish can be found in the rocks right below Wheeler Dam, but most of these fish are less than 4 lbs.

Since the last creel survey in 1990, the quality of  the catfish fishery in Wilson Lake remains excellent.  Anglers catch about 1.5 catfish per hour and harvest rates are high.  In 2006, nearly 90,000 catfish were caught by anglers for a total weight of 110,000 lbs.

Natural reproduction of both blue cats and flathead cats is very high which makes the fishery very viable and support high angler harvest rates. Even though lots of catfish are caught and harvested each year, mostly by recreational anglers, at this time, no regulations are needed to protect or enhance the catfish fishery on Wilson Lake  However, concerns have been raised about some large (> 20 lbs) blue catfish being removed and sold to private pond owners and this issue may be addressed the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fish.

Principal Investigator

Photo of Mike Maceina
Michael (Mike) J. Maceina
TES Retiree
203 Swingle Hall
Auburn Univ, AL 36849
334-844-4058

Affiliated Institutions

Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fish
Tennessee Valley Authority
Southern Catfisherman Association