Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s research into flathead catfish continues at Lake Palestine.
Any final conclusions are still a long way off, but one thing that is certain a year into the project is that the fishery is not in danger.
“Based on what we saw, we don’t think flathead fishing by any method is having a negative effect,” said Rick Ott, TPWD Fisheries district biologist.
The agency recently started its second leg of the research. It will look at age and growth information.
The first part of the research, which was started this time a year ago, revolved around the capture and tagging of 255 fish, the reporting of those tags during the last year and the recapture of tagged fish during another round of collection in April.
During three-days of electro-fishing using four boats, a total of 509 flatheads were collected. Twenty-three of those wore tags from their capture in 2013.
“We had eight tags turned in by anglers or from dead fish floating. We estimate exploitation is only about 3 to 5 percent, which is very low,” Ott explained.
A year ago only legal-for-harvest flatheads 18 inches and larger were tagged. It was hoped they would be reported whether they were caught by rod and reel, trotlines, juglines or hand fishing.
The big question was about hand fishing or noodling because it had just been legalized. The study may not give a completely clear picture on its impact because it is believed some untrusting noodlers weren’t willing to participate, but even if that is the case Ott doesn’t believes harvest figures would change dramatically.
This year all 500-plus fish were marked with clipped fins. The crews will go back out in July to see how many of those they can capture.
Even though catfish are the second most sought-after fish by fishermen, information lags on them in Texas especially when compared to largemouth bass.
Flatheads are especially difficult to study because they are sedentary and solitary. It wasn’t until 2005 when department staff discovered that the same electro-fishing boats used to gather bass could be adjusted and used to collect catfish.
“We were collecting them anywhere from eight to 15 feet deep. The low pulse electro-fishing we use with catfish shocks way deeper. When on the high pulse used for bass we can maybe shock six feet maximum,” Ott said.
When it comes to catfish fishing, flathead catfish are absolutely at the end of the fisherman food chain compared to more sought-after and more numerous blue catfish and channel catfish. There are fishermen targeting the flatheads by using live bait as opposed to the cut bait preferred by blue catfish fishermen and prepared bait used for channel cats.
Part of the tradition of fishing for flathead catfish is their size. Lake Palestine has held the state’s rod and reel record for a flathead since 1998 when James Laster caught a 98.5-pound fish. The largest recorded in the state was a 114-pound fish caught by trotline on Lake Livingston in 1976.
Flatheads are also commonly caught by crappie fishermen using minnows in the spring and are definitely the target of hand fishermen who are first able to get on the water comfortably about the same time of the year that the fish are moving into cavities to spawn.
Hook-and-line fishermen are never going to catch a lot of the fish because they just aren’t abundant. According to old research data a good flathead population would be about one per five acres of water. On Lake Palestine that would mean there should be about 4,000 or so fish.
Ott said more about the estimated population should be known after this summer’s recapture effort.
Along with its on-the-water research, TPWD is also asking fishermen who hand fish to take an online survey.
“Because it is so new to our state, we are hoping to identify who hand-fishing anglers are and what their needs may be,” said Kris Bodine, a TPWD fisheries research biologist. “TPWD will be conducting a survey over the next 60 days to better understand the needs, opinions and characteristics of hand-fishing anglers in Texas.”
The survey, which will be online through June, is mostly asking the fishermen their views on catch-and-release, what is considered a trophy and whether they are more likely to catch flatheads or blue catfish.
The survey is online at https://survey.tpwd.state.tx.us/TakeSurvey.aspx?SurveyID=8803304 .