The Santee Cooper lakes have long been known as an exceptional catfish fishery, blessed with both large numbers of fish and very large fish. And while the world record channel catfish was caught from Lake Moultrie (58 pounds, caught in 1964), and the state record flathead catfish (79 pounds – 4 ounces, caught in 2001) came from the Diversion Canal that joins the two lakes, there is little doubt that in terms of angling attention the blue catfish is king of the catfish on Santee Cooper.
Five years ago in 2008 I went out on my first trip pursuing catfish on the Santee Cooper Lakes with Captain Jim Glenn, who has over 30 years of experience fishing on Santee Cooper, including a 22-year career on the lakes with DNR. He taught me about the history of blue catfish, which are actually Arkansas blue catfish, in Santee-Cooper and how in 1964 South Carolina exchanged our striped bass for Arkansas blues. Arkansas blue cats were sent by truck to South Carolina, only a couple hundred survived the trip, and they were not really heard from for almost ten years. Then around 1974 or 1975 the first 30 pound fish was caught, almost certainly one of the original fish that had traveled the highway from Arkansas to South Carolina, and a new fishery began to blossom. Prior to 2008 Jim was essentially pleased with what appeared to be a large, stable albeit mature population of blue catfish in the lakes. An incredible number of captains were guiding for catfish and supporting an entire industry in the region estimated to reach an annual six to eight million dollars a number of years ago. It is likely valued even higher by now.
While blue catfish can still be caught on Santee Cooper, today Captain Jim Glenn believes that the fishery is not what it was five or even 10 years ago. There are spikes when more fish are harvested because of seasonal or weather-pattern reasons, but overall fewer numbers of fish and numbers of very big fish are being caught than just a few years ago. Earlier this summer I had a chance to go on my second catfishing trip with Jim on Lake Moultrie, and his pattern for catching fish during this season will be explored in a follow-up article. This article, though, will share his concerns for the Santee Cooper blue catfishery as well as some possible ways forward.
First, it is important to repeat that catfish can still be caught on Santee Cooper, particularly at seasonally peak times. The day that Jim and I fished together we still managed to catch an acceptable number of catfish, although I would point out that the majority of the fish we landed were channels and the few blues we caught were all released – unlike five years ago. A number of factors affect the day-to-day strength of the bite, including weather patterns, fluctuating water levels, temperatures extremes, seasonal periods and the like. One example of this is that recently the extreme rainfall across much of the state has led to a massive inflow of freshwater into the lakes, and the result has been a very strong bite in the Diversion Canal due to all the current. Still, from Jim’s personal fishing; conversations with a wide range of guides, commercial fishermen, and recreational anglers; and the data he has seen there is no question that there has been a general decline in the blue catfish population. It is most noticeable during normally slower periods.
The decline has not happened overnight, but because there has traditionally been such a high density of blue catfish in the lakes few catfishermen noticed the warning signs at first. However, subtle changes such as larger average fish have become apparent, and today the average Santee Cooper blue is 12-13 pounds. Additionally, people have taken note as fewer very large catfish (the lifeblood of the tourism industry) have been landed in recent years.
As far as why the blue catfishery is down, Jim believes that much of the problem can be blamed on bad spawns. He says that the last large, successful spawn was in 2009, and it is unknown just how good even that spawn was. While it is fairly clear that spawning and in turn species recruitment has been inadequate for the last few years, it is more complicated why that is so. Possible explanations include drought, inadequate nutrients in the lakes related to weed control, disease, and predation by fish species. The bottom line, however, is that it is unclear why but clear that recent spawns have been inadequate to replenish the Santee Cooper blue catfishery at rates necessary to keep it sustainable at an acceptable level to catfishermen.
Considering the historic strength of the fishery, Captain Jim Glenn acknowledges that it is almost unfathomable to think that a number of new harvest restrictions may need to be imposed on Santee Cooper blue catfish to save it. However, so long as spawning success is down and consequently species replenishment is depressed, there may be no alternative besides to decrease the harvest. Without adequate replenishment for the current harvest the fishery is in danger, and so doing nothing would be a “high risk business” in Jim’s words.
Jim believes that the initial change that needs to take place is for an attitude change regarding blue catfishing on Santee Cooper to occur. He thinks that the mindset shift needs to start with the scientists, who he fears may be too passive about warning about the peril the fishery is in. It was only recently that DNR biologists publicly recognized the decline in the blue catfish fishery which they had noticed as long as ten years prior. More research also needs to be done about why catfish are not spawning better, but that issue is tremendously complex and so Jim fears that the reasons will never be altogether clear. It is also possible that one or more culprits could be pinpointed, but that they could be difficult to remedy. Everyone affected realizing that blue catfish on Santee Cooper are not an unlimited resource that does not need to be managed, and that the population may be in trouble, is a first step. Once that consensus is built then there will need to be agreement about how to reduce the harvest.
The groups who harvest blue cats from Santee Cooper include rod and reel anglers, recreational trotliners, commercial fishermen and increasingly bowfishermen – who can legally shoot as many catfish as could be taken on traditional game methods. Making all of these stakeholders happy will be difficult, but everyone will have to be included in the solution. While the first step is for all of the user groups to realize and admit that there is a problem, after that they all need to be included in the solution. The goal should be to allow all of the groups to continue to sustainably use the resource as much as possible.
In terms of specific restrictions, changes affecting each of the stakeholder groups will probably have to take place. There are a number of possible changes that could be considered.
With regards to the commercial fishery, there may need to be a tightening of some of the rules. The number of allowable hooks on a commercial trotline could be cut in half to 600, although this would do little to eliminate the problem of illegal trotlines which may be a half-mile long. Hooks on trotlines are currently allowed to have a maximum gap of 7/16 inches, because it has been recognized that large catfish are more valuable to rod and reel fishermen than to commercial anglers. However, this rule is routinely skirted by the use of modified huge J-hooks and circle hooks – or simply ignored. Modified J-hooks and circle hooks could be banned, and for anglers violating rules currently on the books increased enforcement could be attempted. If DNR makes more cases and prosecutes violators Jim believes it would help to get the word out.
Lots of “commercial fishermen” are also selling fish now without a commercial license. Requiring retailers to show the source of their catfish and that they were purchased from a licensed commercial fishermen with a DHEC-approved cleaning facility – just like is required with other species such as striped bass and Florida bream – could help as well as generating revenue. Additionally, Jim believes we should consider grandfathering in the right to purchase a commercial fishing license to anglers who owned them between 2000 and 2010, and not those who bought them later. The reason is that many anglers bought commercial fishing licenses after that time to get around the new recreational angling rule that trotlines could only have 50 hooks.
Jim would also strongly consider banning the sale of live fish to out-of-state payout ponds. The pond operators want big, Santee Cooper catfish for their ponds located in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, or other states, and he feels strongly that this is having an adverse effect on the lakes’ population.
On the recreational side, several new regulations should be considered and the biologically preferable options enacted. One possibility is a ten fish limit, whereas currently there is no limit. Currently only one blue catfish over 36 inches can be taken, and another possibility is to reduce that size. Some places have a 34-inch limit, but different systems have different needs and so, again, the biologically preferable option should be adopted. Another option that could be considered is a 24-34 inch slot limit. Jim also might reduce the number of traps recreational anglers can deploy to 10 instead of the current 50.
Finally, as mentioned above bowfishing is becoming increasingly common, perhaps because of people seeing the sport on television. Some bowfishermen will shoot big fish and leave them to die, and seeing 1000 pounds of fish carcasses on the side of the road is not unheard of. Restrictions on bowfishing could be considered, and if general creel limits were adopted bowfishermen should be included in these.
The above is not intended to be an exhaustive list of possible regulations that could be considered. Jim also points out that there is the chance that there could be a spontaneous environmental correction that could dramatically improve blue catfish recruitment rates, and accordingly he would suggest “sunsetting” legislation so that it has a definite beginning and ending point. However, it should be clear that Captain Jim Glenn does not believe that at this point it is acceptable to do nothing and simply hope for improvement.
All options that are considered should have two goals. The first should be functional – that they actually make practical sense and are driven by sound biology. The second goal is to send a message and raise awareness. Jim knows that blue catfish have to fight the ignorant perception that they are a limitless resource, some people’s belief they are trash fish, and a lack of knowledge about how much they contribute to the region’s tourism economy. Jim realizes that as long as blue catfish can be caught it will difficult to change the perception that is a good deed to provide a ton of fillets for a church fish fry, but getting people to the point that they do not keep unneeded fish would be a healthy development.
For the Santee Cooper blue catfishery, the best-case scenario is that the same thing will happen that appears to be happening with the striped bass population. That is, Mother Nature has provided optimal spawning conditions with better spring river flow through the system. It is the job of regulations decreasing the allowable harvest to give the fishery breathing room to support and solidify the gains that nature has provided. Jim’s hope is that more prudent regulation combined with some good luck from Mother Nature will allow the Santee blue catfish population to rebound and maintain its status as one of the country’s premier fisheries.