By Steve Chaconas
Blue catfish were introduced into the Potomac River as a gamefish in the 70s and 80s. Capitol Catfishing Captain Jason Kintner operates a year-round trophy catfish charter business. Can you eat blue catfish out of the Potomac River? Yes and not really. The River flows through the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland and all have consumption advisories with a sliding scale on numbers, size and amounts that are “safe” to eat. They vary, but all suggest only eating limited quantities of smaller fish and avoiding larger fish altogether. Dietary allotments are based on 8 ounce meals per month.
Since the 1970s, Maryland, Virginia and District of Columbia natural resource and environmental quality agencies have suggested limiting consumption as there is a presence of heavy metal and PCBs contaminants in fish tissue. These can pose a potential health risk to those who eat them. Small fish absorb the hazardous materials and bigger fish that eat absorbing more as they continue to grow, eat and target older larger prey. They continue to accumulate until they are themselves consumed by the top of the food chain, people. In humans, they can accumulate in body tissue over long periods of time and may negatively affect the nervous system of a developing fetus and may lead to more difficulties with tasks associated with memory, learning and thinking.
Potomac jurisdictions suggest eating smaller fish will help reduce the intake of the contaminants as they accumulate in fish as they get older and bigger. For those who catch and eat fish, they also suggest consuming different types of fish caught from different locations to decrease the chance of being exposed to the same contaminant. Cooking methods that drip away fat, like baking, grilling, or broiling cut down on PCBs remaining in the fish. Mercury is found in fish muscle and can’t be cooked away.
The rationale behind these advisories is to assist anglers from overeating potentially harmful fish. But here’s the issue. Invasive blue catfish have been increasing in size and population in the Potomac River. These meaty fish have attracted the attention of anglers and commercial fishermen. In fact, around 5 million pounds, around a $2.5 million dollar Potomac industry, were harvested last year and this has been increasing every year. These fish end up being distributed by wholesalers and end up on grocery market shelves. The commercial industry is regulated and only fish up to 30” are harvested to avoid more heavily contaminated fish. Fish are randomly inspected, and USDA tested. Studies show there are low or no contaminants in fish smaller than 30”. It’s when their diets switch to eating other fish when they are 20-22 inches in length that contaminants begin to show up. If “hot” fish show up in spot checks, buyers won’t take anymore, creating a self-regulating supply chain.
The assumption is that the commercial harvest will be widely distributed across many dinner tables and would not lead to over consumption as with anglers who may have a diet centered on blue cats. When purchased by consumers in grocery stores, these fish carry no advisory.
Harvesting methods have another side effect. Of the millions of pounds of blue catfish brought to market, 98% are harvested by fish pots or trot lines. The remaining 2% come to the table via haul seine or pound nets. In light of the possibility of over-consumption, the Maryland Black Bass Advisory Subcommittee questioned the blue cat industry in general as well as the impact on the Potomac bass fishery.
Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources supports the harvest of blue catfish as a way to control the exploding population. Specifically the BBAS raised questions about the use of haul seine nets to harvest blue cats. It was suggested that dragging 1000 foot long and 10’ deep haul seine nets through spawning areas not only disrupts the spawn, but also occurs in areas where sub aquatic vegetation is emerging. While no studies have been done to substantiate damage to SAVs or to bass spawns, it would anecdotally appear there is some validity. And since there is a very small percentage of blue cats harvested with the haul seine nets, cessation of this method of harvest could only improve the overall largemouth bass fishery. It is very reasonable to ask commercial fishermen to switch their 2% haul seine operations to other more productive methods.
Eating catfish could be hazardous to your health but, according to the region’s resource officials, only if you catch them. Apparently, they would have you believe that statistically the risks go down when the catfish are harvested commercially and sold to markets. Consumers should be informed about the disparity in risk assessments.
Potomac River Bassing in January
Cold water fishing is in full swing. Warm water discharge areas like Blue Plains and Four Mile Run are easier to fish.
But for true winter fishing, get some ½ ounce silver or gold Silver Buddy lures. Tie to 10 pound test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line on a fast Quantum Smoke casting reel. Cast to the shallow end of drops and work down with short burps.
Hair jigs, Mizmo tubes and grubs and drop shot are other techniques to entice fish to bite. They still need to eat, but won’t chase lures very far, so work baits slowly. Rig tubes and grubs on open hook ball head jigs. The leader for drop shots should be around 5 inches. For line, use a 15 pound test Gamma Torque braid with 8 pound test Gamma Edge leader. Drop shot with 1/8 ounce Water Gremlin BullShot weights.
Sharp hooks are really important now since fish mouths are tougher and bites are light. Mustad hooks are very sharp and stay sharp longer. I use them on ball head jigs. For drop shots, 1/0 Mustad Mega Bite hooks keep baits weedless, but also penetrate easier to set the hook.
Author Capt. Steve Chaconas is Potomac River bass fishing guide. Potomac fishing reports: nationalbass.com. Book trips/purchase gift certificates: info@NationalBass.com.