In 2017, Act 297 established that catfish could be taken by bow, crossbow or hand fishing in the state of Wisconsin. The Act, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Brad Sims, did not prohibit the Department from establishing size, bag or season limits.
Sims recently addressed the Natural Resources Board regarding the proposed rules for bow, crossbow and hand fishing season for flathead and channel catfish. He stated catfish are an important game fish within the state and are a top level predator and scavenger. They also play host to several species of native mussels including two that are threatened within the state and two that are state endangered, he said.
Some, however, still view catfish as more of a rough fish. Sims and the catfish committee, as well as other stakeholders, felt this necessitated regulations which would help protect both species, but mostly flathead catfish.
Flathead catfish, he told the board, are much less prolific than channel cats. They are the second largest species of fish in Wisconsin, right behind sturgeon. They can reach lengths of 40-50 inches and live up to 30 years.
Sims called flathead the “musky” of the catfish world. Females, he said, do not spawn every year. Flatheads are usually found at a density of five per acre in waters they inhabit, where channel cats can be found at 22-23 per acre.
Channel catfish are more prolific, but are still vulnerable. Both species are cavity spawners, with the make staying behind after spawning to care for the nest. In cases where males are taken from nests they are guarding, Sims said, there is a 100% failure rate. Although Wisconsin is one of the top producers of flathead catfish, there is no propagation system in place as there is in some of the southern states, making concern for their populations a real apprehension.
Catfish are also vulnerable at other times, he told the board. They are vulnerable not only in their spawning areas, but also in overwintering areas as well as summer resting areas. Both species exhibit site fidelity and return to the same areas as the same times of year. This would make them easier for anglers to find year after year. That is especially true for overwintering areas for flatheads, where large numbers congregate in the same places annually. Without some sort of season closures or some other restrictions, then, he said, it would be easy to decimate some populations.
He also pointed to bow and crossbow fishing in the shallows, which takes place at night, as an opportunity to exploit the resource without some restrictions in place.
“There is no catch and release in bow fishing,” Sims told the board. With some still considering catfish as a rough fish, there was some thought these fish would simply be discarded at the end of the night with the other rough fish caught.
The department, as well as the catfish committee, looked at other nearby states to see their treatment of these types of fishing. No hand fishing is allowed in Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana or Missouri, although Missouri did have a trial period in 2005-6. Kentucky does allow hand fishing, with an aggregate daily bag limit of five fish.
The committee also looked at bowfishing regulations in nearby states. Catfish are prohibited from being taken by bow or crossbow in Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana and Missouri. Kentucky allows a bag limit of five, Illinois allows six in most waters and Michigan’s bag limit is 10 channel cats and five flatheads.
With all of this in mind, Sims and Meredith Penthorn, a DNR policy specialist, laid out the proposed rules for harvest of catfish by hand, bow or crossbow. The bag limit for channel catfish, Sims said, would be five and one for flatheads. There would be no size restriction other than on those few waters where one already exists for hook and line anglers.
Bow and crossbow season for catfish would run concurrent with rough fish, which is a continuous season in most cases. Hand fishing would be allowed from June 1 to Aug. 31. No commercial harvest by these methods would be permitted.
Further, gear restrictions would be put in place for hand fishing. No snorkeling or scuba diving equipment may be used, nor would any sort of gaff be permitted. It would be hand-only harvest.
Board member Bill Bruins asked Sims what he felt the popularity of noodling, or taking catfish by hand, might be. Sims replied he did not think it would be overly popular at the outset, but may gain some popularity if a group of anglers found good success with the technique.
Penthorn made some clarifications. She stated while in the majority of the state, the bag limits would be five channel cats and one flathead with a bow or crossbow and five and one with hand fishing, on the Winnebago System, it would be one flathead only, regardless of method.
She also clarified bullhead rules, as they are similar to catfish. She said the same biological concerns did not exist for bullhead as for catfish, so those rules would continue to follow the rough fish rules. There would be no size or bag restrictions placed on them under these rules. Hand fishing for bullheads would follow the catfish hand fishing rules.
The board passed these rules as proposed. They did ask the department and the committee to monitor populations in order to detect any changes that could be due to these new harvest methods. Sims assured the board this was part of the plan.