PITTSBURGH ― Imagine hooking into a fish that weighs as much as 100 pounds.
Imagine doing it in a Pennsylvania river.
You might be able to have that experience in a few years around Pittsburgh.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has reintroduced blue catfish, a native species of the three rivers. Blues are the largest catfish species in North America, and once these fish mature they will be the largest game fish in Pennsylvania, often outweighing striped bass, carp, muskie and flathead catfish.
The Fish and Boat Commission on Wednesday released 13,000 fingerlings into the Ohio River between Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh and the Kilbuck Township Fish & Boat Ramp at Sewickley.
“It feels pretty good. These fish have been gone over 125 years and it’s going to be a good thing for the anglers in this area,” said Mike Depew, fisheries biologist. “It’s great to restore a native species to the Three Rivers system.”
Depew has been at work on the reintroduction plan for two years.
Blue catfish historically were found throughout the Ohio and Monongahela rivers in Pennsylvania as well as in the lower portions of the Allegheny River. However, industrial water pollution and habitat changes led to their demise in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s.
This area is the only portion of the state where these fish were believed to be a native species. No other parts of the commonwealth are expected to be stocked.
Depew credits a culmination of events over the years for improving the water quality in the three rivers to the point the Ohio should be able to allow the fish to grow and reproduce.
“Cleaning up a variety of discharges from a lot of industrial plants, mine drainage remediation has been a big one, cleaning up sewage discharges; all of those things over the last 50 or so years have really benefited and allowed the water quality to improve to the point where now we have over 100 species,” he said.
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Gary Smith, Fish and Boat Commission Area 8 fisheries manager, said, “What is really neat about this reintroduction is of course they are native to the three rivers, but also they are a game fish. It’s important as we have avid catfish anglers in the area.”
Anglers normally catch channel and flathead catfish. Blue catfish in their future has them excited.
“I think this is a phenomenal day in the history of the three rivers. These fish haven’t been here in over 100 years. The opportunity these fish are going to provide is unbelievable,” said Ken Nulph, 47, of Brackenridge, Allegheny County.
Nulph said he and his fishing partners normally catch 5-pound to 10-pound catfish.
“It’s surreal to be a part of this,” he said while helping to stock the fingerlings around Point State Park.
Joe Granata, 39, of Monaca, Beaver County, also fishes for catfish on the three rivers. “When we heard that blue cats were getting stocked back in Pennsylvania waters, we were pumped, to say the least. It’s a long time coming. It’s awesome to see this day finally come. They are such a fun sport fish to chase. It’s a 12-month-a-year fish. We can chase these fish in the winter.”
He said catfishing is becoming more popular nationwide and these fish will attract anglers and fishing tournaments to the Steel City. “We have the potential to have a trophy body of water once these fish grow up and adapt to our waterway,” he said.
Nulph and Granata enjoy catching catfish because of their size and strength. Playing a 50-pound or heavier fish has them looking ahead. “Just the thought of that, having a potential triple-digit fish swimming around here that we can target, is pretty cool,” Granata said.
Brian Guenin, waterways conservation officer for eastern Allegheny County, stocked some of the first blue catfish in the Ohio. “There have been talks about this for a long time and it’s finally come to fruition,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting when you hear that guy pull in a three-foot catfish in a few years.”
Raising a new species in Tionesta
Walt Stover, manager for the Tionesta State Fish Hatchery, has been tasked with raising 40,000 fingerling blue catfish for this fall’s stockings and 10,000 yearlings that will be about 8 inches to be released in summer 2023.
He said in June they received eggs from a hatchery in Ohio and raised them to 3 inches to 5 inches long for this week’s release. “It means a lot to the whole staff. The guys have really adapted and have been very innovative in raising the blue catfish. The staff at Tionesta stepped up and made it happen,” he said about growing a reintroduced species from eggs.
They discovered the eggs need more water and rolling action than other species the hatchery raises such as steelhead. The fish are growing and are hungry. “They’ll eat all day, every day. They are amazing at how much they’ll eat,” he said. The hatchery feeds them small pellets.
Smith said the population will be monitored to determine their growth rates in the river and the time it takes for them to become trophy size. As a native species, he said, they should be able to coexist with other fish.
Some blue catfish are already floating through the Ohio River in Pennsylvania
Smith said his agency received angler reports starting in 2019 of blue catfish coming into the Ohio River in Pennsylvania from West Virginia. He said West Virginia started stocking blue fingerlings in the Ohio River in 2013 and it’s believed some swam into Pennsylvania waters.
“The fact that anglers are catching some of those fish tells us they are able to survive,” Smith said.
If you happen to catch a blue catfish, current regulations call for them to be released.
“It was because of man that they’re not here anymore,” Smith said. “It’s a goal of ours to restore something that we lost because of pollution.”
Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website’s homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.