There have always been a few fishermen who have targeted the goliaths of Texas’ freshwater lakes, but in the year since noodling became legal interest has grown.
The question Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists are asking, however, is this new-found fame a good thing or not? That has led to a planned 12-month tagged-fish study on catfish fishing and fishing techniques scheduled for Lake Palestine. The goal is to determine how and how many of the fish are being caught.
The bait being dangled in front of fishermen for the answers is cash. Fishermen reporting tags will get paid.
“We are going to collect up to 250 catfish for the tagging study and we will run it for one 12-month period,” said Craig Bonds, TPWD Fisheries regional biologist from Tyler. “Based on angler tag returns we will know what percentage of the population was harvested that year,”
The catfish for tagging will be collected by the department in late March depending on water temperature. They will use the shocking boats they normally use for fisheries surveys, but with a modified technique that has been proven to work with flathead and blue catfish. Once the fish are tagged, the study begins.
Fishermen will be asked to call a department number to collect their rewards. Since the department already has some information on more traditional fishing techniques, a follow-up survey will be sent to those who catch their fish by hand.
To be clear, TPWD inherited handfishing for catfish. It came from legislative action and not a department regulation. It was done more in response to reality television and without much information as to whether it is harmful to the fish or not.
Whether this is good or bad for the fishery depends on a number of variables including how many people are doing it, whether the pressure is sustained over years or short-lived and whether the fish are kept or released.
Bonds said at a tournament on the lake last year many of the fish brought to the weigh-in were kept, something that is completely legal under TPWD regulations. In fact, holding a tournament with live release presents its own unique problems because unlike bass tournaments, noodling tournaments are often roadrunner events where fishermen can fish any lake in an area and then bring their fish to the weigh-in.
Bonds explained in that instance it would be illegal to release fish caught, say in Lake Tyler, into Lake Palestine without a permit. With worries about zebra mussels and other contaminates, permits are not going to be issued.
The bigger concern is the impact of the fishing on nesting success.
“Our concern is how many nests can be destroyed without hurting the fishery,” Bonds said.
He explained that flatheads spawn like bass. A female will drop the eggs and leave in a process that may take less than 24 hours. It is up to the male to protect the eggs from predators.
While catching bass off a nest also can result in the loss of the eggs, the difference is that there is an infinitely greater number of spawning bass than there is mature flathead catfish. Also, it takes flatheads four to six years to sexually mature. Bass can spawn their second year.
Bonds added it is possible that a female won’t lay all of her eggs in one cavity, and that could mitigate the loss some. But biologists don’t know for certain.
Another concern is the high-grading of the biggest fish. This is similar to deer hunting if hunters only take the biggest bucks year after year. The result in this regard will ultimately be smaller and smaller fish.
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