Large fish eat zebra mussels, provide excellent angling opportunity

FARLINGTON -- In recent years, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) has embarked on a project to stock blue catfish in many of the state's lakes. Blue catfish grow very large (the state record is 94 pounds), provide excellent table fare, and have the added benefit of browsing on zebra mussels, an aquatic nuisance species that is present in El Dorado Reservoir.

In 2003 and 2004, KDWP received blue catfish fry (newly-hatched young) from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) and stocked those fish directly into ponds at the Farlington Fish Hatchery. (The Farlington Hatchery annually obtains channel catfish in the same manner from KDWP's Pratt Hatchery.) Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of those blue cats grew from fry to fingerling.

In hopes of improving those returns, Farlington staff decided to change their approach. They decided to hold the blue cat fry in the fish house for a week, hoping that they would have the chance to grow bigger and stronger, increasing their chances of survival.
"Information on the fry to fingerling production of blue catfish is essentially non-existent in literature," Farlington's' fisheries biology specialist Dan Mosier explains. "I queried other states that rear blue catfish. Universally, it was suggested that the fish should be at least 10 days old before being stocked into a pond, so we made the decision to hold them in the hatchery before stocking."

In 2006, the hatchery received 157,330 blue cat fry from AGFC and 62,082 fry from Osage Catfisheries, a private hatchery in Missouri. The fish from Arkansas came in two groups about one week apart. Each of the three groups of fry were held in Farlington's fish house for one week. While in the fish house, the fish grew from approximately 11,000-14,000 fish per pound to 4,000-6,000 fish per pound. After a week, each group was stocked in a separate pond, where they would be grown to fingerling size or larger.
"It didn't take long to realize we might have some success increasing our return because the fish quickly took to the artificial feed we offered," says hatchery manager Randy Nelson. "We stocked the fish in early- to mid-June and harvested in mid-October. From the total of 219,412 fry we stocked into our ponds, we harvested 154,406 fish weighing a total of 11,717 pounds. This return was fantastic."

The young blue cats now averaged about 7 inches long. These fish were stocked in Perry, John Redmond, Melvern, Cheney, El Dorado, Clinton, and Wilson reservoirs. Gridley City Lake also received 1,000 fish. Because of the high survival rate of the fry using this alternate method, Cheney, El Dorado, and Wilson all received double the fish they had requested.

"We had so many fish, we were able to send more than 22,000 back to Arkansas Game and Fish," Nelson adds. "Because Kansas does not keep blue cat brood fish, we are dependent on trades with other states to obtain the fish we need to meet the requests of the management biologists."
Fish-hauling trucks from the Milford, Pratt, and Farlington hatcheries were used to transport these fish to their new homes. It took three days to complete harvest and delivery in Kansas.

The state of Oklahoma has requested that KDWP not stock any blue catfish into lakes that drain into Oklahoma unless they are of Arkansas River origin. For this reason, KDWP depends on AGFC for blue cats stocked in Cheney, El Dorado, and John Redmond reservoirs and Gridley City Lake.

The following is a list of lakes receiving blue catfish fingerlings in 2006, and numbers of fish:

  • El Dorado Reservoir -- 32,100
  • Cheney Reservoir -- 20,040
  • John Redmond Reservoir -- 20,021
  • Melvern Reservoir -- 15,050
  • Perry Reservoir -- 11,611
  • Clinton Reservoir -- 14,025
  • Gridley City Lake -- 1,000
  • Total -- 113,847 fish

"Dan Mosier was in charge of this project, and he did a fantastic job with these fish," says Nelson. "This year, we had a return of 70 percent, which is comparable to our long-term channel cat returns."

Blue catfish should provide Kansas anglers with an exciting new opportunity to catch truly big fish and put meat on the table. Fish weighing more than 50 pounds have been reported caught from Milford Reservoir. And while no fish is likely to control a zebra mussel infestation, blue catfish, unlike other fish, will use zebra mussels as a food resource, helping them grow quickly in waters where zebra mussels are established.

For more information, contact the Farlington Hatchery at 620-362-4166.