The return of Big Blue
If, like Chris Rolph, you get to go fishing only a handful of days a year, you hope for at least one unique experience.
He got his, and it put him in the record book.
Rolph, of Williamsburg, Ohio, and a friend were fishing the Ohio River one June night back in 2009. They were very near downtown Cincinnati.
“It's just a beautiful place to fish. You've got the scenery, with all the lights, Paul Brown stadium, the Reds' Great American ballpark. It's just beautiful,” Rolph said. “It's a lot like fishing in Pittsburgh, I suspect.”
It was a little after midnight when Rolph got a bite — a big one. He set the hook and knew immediately he had a monster fish on.
“If I'd gotten any more fight, I wouldn't have gotten it in,” Rolph said. “At first I thought it was going to spool me. I thought it was going to take all the line off my spool.
“I just kept cranking down on the drag and hoping for the best.”
It took nearly 45 minutes, but he finally got the fish into the boat. It turned out to be a blue catfish that stretched 56 1⁄2 inches and weighed 96 pounds. It was certified as the new Ohio record, a mark that stands today.
“They're an exciting fish to catch,” Rolph said.
And they may be on their way to Pittsburgh.
Blue cats — which look a lot like oversized channel catfish — can get huge. The world record is a 124-pounder from the Mississippi River in Illinois.
They're also local, or used to be. Blue catfish are native to the Ohio River drainage. Records indicate they were commonly sold in Pittsburgh fish markets as recently as the late 1800s, said Bob Ventorini, the biologist in charge of managing the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Then they disappeared for a variety of reasons, he said.
The commission has been exploring the idea of bringing them back. It was ultimately decided there wasn't enough money or hatchery space to do that, Ventorini said.
But the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources — which has been stocking blue cats in the Ohio since 2006 — last fall put 25,000 fingerling blues in the New Cumberland pool, just downstream of the Pennsylvania line and towns like Beaver, Midland and Industry. It plans to stock an equal number there each year for the next five years or so, said Chris O'Bara, a fisheries biologist with the agency.
The hope is that the fish — which have a tendency to migrate — will not only populate the West Virginia portion of the river but also move into Pennsylvania.
“I'm sure they're in Pennsylvania right now,” O'Bara said.
Joint survey work to be conducted on the Ohio by biologists from Pennsylvania and West Virginia later this month may answer that definitively. But even if there aren't any blues found now, it's likely they'll arrive sooner rather than later, Ventorini said. He speculated they'll first become noticeable downstream of the Montgomery lock.
“They seem to like to congregate near those tailwater areas. But somewhere, I think, we're going to have them again, probably in the next couple of years,” he said.
They'll prove popular with fishermen, if the experiences of other states are any indication.
In Kentucky, for example, where the state record is a 1999 fish that weighed 104 pounds, blues are prized for their abundance, catch-ability, size and mild-flavored flesh, said Ryan Oster, program coordinator for that state's Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources fisheries division.
“They're very popular with anglers,” Oster said. “Catfishing, in Kentucky at least, is one of the fastest-growing fisheries, and as a result interest in blue catfish is very big right now.”
The same is true in Ohio, said Scott Hale, inland fisheries program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, who said catfish have soared in popularity to become the fourth-most sought-after fish among anglers nationwide.
“Having the opportunity to catch something like that, these huge fish, people have really latched on to that. I think your fishermen will be really excited if it happens for them,” Hale said.
Blue catfish do not appear to thrive at the expense of flathead catfish, a concern some have had, O'Bara said. They're an open-water fish, prone to being caught on cut bait, whereas flatheads are more commonly caught on live bait near structure, he said.
“It takes different techniques to catch them,” Rolph added.
Instead, they create a new fishery, one with exciting possibilities, O'Bara said. As proof, he pointed to West Virginia's state record for blue catfish, which has been broken four times in the last five years, most recently this past week.
Austin Hoffman of Milton set the new mark with a 47.75-inch, 52.95-pound blue caught from the Ohio.
The division of wildlife is switching most of its stocking efforts — 100,000 to 150,000 fish annually — to the northern Ohio River in an attempt to spread that excitement around, O'Bara said.
“They're fairly common now, which is what we wanted. Now we want to see if we can make them that way all through the river,” O'Bara said.
Ventorini said he hopes Pennsylvania reaps some of the benefits of that.
“Catfish anglers want to catch the biggest thing they can, and these can go 75, 80, 90 pounds. So, yeah, we'd like that,” he said.