Justin Conner has fished for blue catfish throughout the southeastern United States, and he believes West Virginia’s blue cat fishery ranks right up there with the best.
“We’re catching as many blues here as we would if we fished elsewhere,” said Conner. “The fishery is like a fine wine; it just gets better with age.”
Compared to blue cat hotspots in other parts of the country, West Virginia’s is of recent vintage. Blue cats are native to the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, but were extirpated by the 1960s and 1970s by widespread water pollution.
Water quality improved after the Clean Water Act of 1970 went into effect. By the early 2000s, Division of Natural Resources officials considered it clean enough to begin a blue cat reintroduction program.
The fish didn’t just survive. They thrived.
“It’s pretty obvious the fishing has gotten better,” said Nate Taylor, the DNR’s District 6 fisheries biologist. “The state record is being broken just about every year, and the river has the potential to grow fish much bigger than the ones being caught now.”
The heaviest blue cat caught so far, taken from the Ohio River in 2016, tipped the scales at 59.74 pounds. The longest, an Ohio River fish Conner caught and released in 2020, stretched the measuring tape to 49.84 inches.
The largest fish ever caught in Mountain State waters is a 70-pound flathead catfish caught from the Little Kanawha River in 1956. Taylor said he believes a blue cat eventually will eclipse that record.
“It’s probably going to take a few years, because the growth rate for blue cats is slower here than it is in more southerly states,” Taylor said. “But blues have the potential to top out much higher than flatheads.”
Every year, the DNR conducts trotline surveys to monitor the blue cat population.
“We use trotlines because electrofishing for blue cats is much less reliable,” Taylor said. “We’re catching bigger and bigger ones each year. Last year, we got a 48-pounder and a 52-pounder on the same line, which was incredible.”
Conner and his fiancée, Tabitha Linville, operate a catfishing guide service on the Ohio and Kanawha. Conner said they’re seeing the same trend.
“Every year, we’re seeing a 3- to 5-pound gain in the size of our larger fish,” he added. “Last year, most of the big fish were in the upper 40-pound range. So far this year, we’ve already caught multiple fish in the mid-50 range.”
Anglers are starting to notice.
“Catfishing on the Ohio and Kanawha is becoming very popular,” Taylor said. “When we’re out doing our field work, every boat ramp we go to has trailers on it. It’s obvious they’re targeting catfish.
“It’s bringing a lot of attention to the area, and it’s probably bringing in a lot of money. We’re getting more license sales from out-of-state people, and we’re seeing a lot of license plates from other states.”
While the DNR launched and grew the fishery by stocking blue cats, they suspended stockings in 2015 so they could determine if the introduced fish were reproducing naturally.
“We’re now getting reports that anglers are catching a lot of smaller individuals, which we didn’t have before,” Taylor said. “That’s a sign that natural reproduction is taking place.”
The best blue cat fishing currently takes place on the Ohio’s upper Greenup Pool, from Kenova upstream to the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam; and the Robert C. Byrd Pool, which includes the lower Kanawha downstream from the Winfield Locks.
“We’re getting reports that decent-sized blue cats are being caught in the Racine Pool, too,” Taylor said. “Anglers appear to be doing well there. And we’re seeing blue cats being caught in the Ohio’s upper pools, from Hannibal and New Cumberland on up.”
To protect those fisheries, West Virginia fisheries officials have placed special regulations for blue and flathead catfish on both the Ohio and Kanawha rivers.
Anglers are allowed to take only two blue cats per day, and both must measure more than 24 inches in length.
A four-fish daily limit is in effect for flatheads, only one of which can measure more than 35 inches.
Conner has no problem with the regulations; in fact, he’s delighted with them.
“The state is doing a tremendous job of protecting the fishery,” he said. “They introduced the fish, and then they put regulations in place to protect them from commercial fishermen.”
No such protections are in place on Kentucky’s section of the Ohio, and Conner said commercial fishing there “has devastated the fishery downstream from the West Virginia-Kentucky state line.”
“The fishing on the West Virginia stretch is so much better, it’s like night and day,” he added. “On the Ohio and Kanawha, the blue cats keep getting bigger and bigger, and our smiles get bigger, too.”