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Blue Catfish in MN??? Maybe!

  • Brian Klawitter
    Keymaster
    Minnesota/Wisconsin Mississippi River
    Posts: 58765
    #1219574

    The Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is a Titan among the fish fauna of North America. One historical account in 1866 from the Missouri River near Portland, Missouri weighed 315 pounds, and there are several other more recent reports of Blue’s in excess of 100 pounds. However, there have been no authenticated records for this species in either Minnesota or Wisconsin, but one unverifiable account describes a 160 pound catfish which may have been a Blue from the Minnesota River in the 1800’s. This species is reported to be migratory, and it may have once ranged this far north, but the construction of dams on the upper Mississippi River in the early 1900’s likely created impassable barriers. In 1977, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) stocked 6000 Blue Cat fingerlings in the lower St. Croix River. The following year, a half pounder assumed to be from this stocking, was collected in the Mississippi River (Lake Pepin), several miles downstream of the St. Croix River. It is interesting to note that these fingerlings came from Alabama and my hypothesis is this guy was just heading south for home and warmer waters.

    Coincidentally in the 1970’s, I was fanatically involved in the disdained and very seldom practiced art of catfishing (at least at that time and these latitudes). The group I went out with would hit the rivers up to three times a week and did we catch catfish. One odd thing we clearly noticed about Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) in the St. Croix was color. Most would be gray with spots, but a few were sky blue and spotless. We were all aware of the Blue Cat stocking program and assumed that’s what these were. What we were not aware of at that time was the anal fin ray count would have verified whether we had Channels (24-27 rays) or Blues (30-36 rays). Nevertheless, our group did not face a moral or ethical dilemma with these potential transplants and treated them equally as Channel’s – we found them quite edible. So much for the “body of evidence.”

    I hadn’t given those sky Blue’s much thought for years and agreed with the MDNR consensus that the stocking program had probably failed. However, in 1992, a MDNR Fish Manager quite casually informed me that they had been seeing Blue Cat’s rather frequently in the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. I almost said in disbelief, “Excuse me!”, but mustered an encouraging request to get at least one verified and vouchered in a collection. He assured me that would be no problem, but so far no Blue’s. Also in 1992, a MDNR Nongame Wildlife Specialist asked me to check on an angler’s report of a Blue from the St. Croix River. I called him and asked if by chance he just happened to save the fish. No, because it was rare he decided to release it. A very noble deed indeed, but sure didn’t make my day. I asked (begged) that next time to save one, call me anytime, and I’d pick it up. Again, I haven’t heard a whisper.

    I had believed these recent reports and very likely the sky blue catfish I used to catch were actually just a natural color phase of the Channel. Besides, none of these suspect catfish ever came close to breaking the Channel Cat state record. However, someone always has to throw a wrench into things and our President, Ray Katula, did just that. He mentioned anglers near Winona, Minnesota have claimed catching and also eating Blue’s from the Mississippi River. Ray has asked them repeatedly to save at least the anal fin to get a ray count, but he’s not having any better luck than I have had. Again these stories could be easily dismissed, but Ray has got one of his own that is difficult to ignore. He once found the carcass of a large catfish in the Mississippi River which was 4.5 to 5 feet long. I’ve been collecting with Ray and he does know fish very well, but I had to hassle him about the possibility that this may have been a Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris). No, he was certain it was not because Flathead’s don’t have forked tails.

    Now, doubt makes my position far less certain. I guess the only thing left to do is pull the old fishing poles out of the attic, dust them off, and pay some visits to the old fishing holes one last time. Perhaps with some luck, I will put my nagging question to rest for good.

    References
    Becker, G.C. 1983. Fishes of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. 1053 pp.

    Phillips, G.L., W.D. Schmid, and J.C. Underhill. 1991. Fishes of the Minnesota Region. 2nd printing. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 249 pp.
    The Native Fish Conservancy

    Steve Root
    Participant
    South St. Paul, MN
    Posts: 5167
    #418102

    My Dad and his Dad used to fish the river below the High Bridge (downtown St. Paul). This would be back in the 30’s. Dad always maintained that they were catching Blue cats. I never saw a picture of any of these fish and as this would have been back during the Depression I’m sure anything they caught became dinner. Could they have been Channels? He said that a lot of the cats they caught were in the 5 to 10 pound class and he never mentioned catching any big ones.

    Brian if you knew for sure that there were Blues in the St. Croix, would you target them differently than you would Channels of Flatheads? Maybe if you changed tactics you would find them?

    One last story. My Mother’s side of the family lived on Prairie Island. There were these uncles that seined rough fish. Occasionally they would come up with game fish that of course had to be returned to the river. One of these fish was a Flathead. The uncle had a hand in the fishes gill so he could carry it over his back. This guy was 6 foot tall, and the fish’s tail was hitting the ground! A real monster! This would have been in the 40’s. I’ve been trying to find that picture and so far no luck. If I do get my hands on it I’ll scan it and post it here.

    Rootski

    mile832
    Participant
    MN
    Posts: 565
    #418103

    That’s an interesting article, Brian. It makes you wonder.
    I’ve talked to fisherman before that have mentioned catching blue cats here in Minnesota. Every time I hear this I ask them, “How did you tell it was a Blue Catfish?” They usually say, ” It was blue.”

    I guess they’re not counting rays on the anal fin…

    VikeFan
    Participant
    Posts: 525
    #418109

    I can’t shed any light on whether any of the fish in question are blue cats; I wouldn’t know a blue catfish if I did in fact catch one.

    The modern-day range of blue cats in the upper Midwest has been hotly debated on other sites. One Iowa site had a very nasty debate about whether blue cats are found in the interior rivers of that state. The Iowa DNR has never documented a single blue catfish anywhere in Iowa besides the lower Mississippi and Missouri rivers, but many Iowa anglers say they have caught blue cats in Iowa’s interior rivers. I hear this claim fairly regularly out of the Iowa and Cedar Rivers around Iowa City. However, an Iowa DNR fisheries biologist claimed that all the “blue catfish” reported from Iowa’s interior rivers turn out to be large male channel cats, but he lets anglers who claim to catch blue cats believe they made an unusual catch.

    The Iowa DNR’s fisheries page claims that blue catfish are occasionally found in the lower half of the Mississippi River in that state, as well as the Missouri River, but that they are rare anywhere in Iowa. The IDNR also says that no blue cats have been documented in the Mississippi north of Davenport, Iowa. Blue cats are also rarely found anywhere in the Mississippi north of Cairo, Illinois, according to fisheries biologists.

    Personally, I think it likely that since blue cats are proven to show up on occasion south of Pool # 16, a few no doubt make their way up into some of Iowa’s interior rivers that empty in to the Mississippi south of there, and that someone in Iowa has caught a blue cat out of an interior river at some point in time. However, the fact that there has never been a verified finding of a blue cat in an Iowa interior river (none have been found in IDNR fish surveys, either) makes me think 99.9% of the blue catfish reports around here are false.

    The IDNR did try stocking blue catfish in several Iowa lakes and reservoirs during the seventies, but none of these efforts took. This post is the first I have heard of attempts to stock blues in Minnesota. I lived in Winona for seven years, and never heard any rumors of blue cats being caught there, or anywhere else in Minnesota. I did read that blue cat were once found in the Minnesota sections of the Mississippi, but that they disappeared from the upper river long ago due to the construction of wing dams, dredging, lock dams, and other such projects.

    As is the case with Iowa interior rivers, I think it likely that a blue cat or two could have made it up the Mississippi to Minnesota at some point in time. American eels make it as far as Minnesota, and bull sharks (!) occasionally show up at St. Louis, so a stray blue cat in Minnesota seems possible to me, although I would bet that the “blue cat” being caught in Winona are large male channel cat.

    There was a claim several years ago that a large blue cat was caught in Minnesota. The fish was verified as a blue catfish by the Minnesota DNR, and entered in the record book. The angler who entered the fish as a state record eventually admitted that he caught it in South Dakota, and it was stricken from the record books.

    Brian Klawitter
    Keymaster
    Minnesota/Wisconsin Mississippi River
    Posts: 58765
    #418143

    Quote:


    Brian if you knew for sure that there were Blues in the St. Croix, would you target them differently than you would Channels of Flatheads? Maybe if you changed tactics you would find them?


    I’ve only fished Blues once. We fished them the same as we fish channel cats as far a bait. This was on the Mo River, so I can’t really tell if I would fish the same locations or not. Hopefully someone with more experiance in this area will chime in. Good question Rootkie!

    I, like many other guys that talk cats alot have always discretited the folks that say “I catch blues” on the sippi or Croix. If they did, it would be a state record because today…we don’t have a blue listed.

    Since I now know that the DNR has stocked them at one point…although highly unlikely…it is possable.

    Makes me just want to get out there and toss some cutbait into the Prescot area!

    Brian Klawitter
    Keymaster
    Minnesota/Wisconsin Mississippi River
    Posts: 58765
    #418144

    Quote:


    This species is reported to be migratory, and it may have once ranged this far north, but the construction of dams on the upper Mississippi River in the early 1900’s likely created impassable barriers.


    I don’t get this quote? With the “roller” damns, can’t (any) fish strong enough swim under them? Or even if fish can’t…couldn’t some just “lock through”. Not very efficient but wouldn’t some get through?

    david_scott
    Participant
    Twin Cities
    Posts: 2946
    #418190

    I have seen many of the *sky blue* cats in the Mississippi river around town… but I havent seen any for at least 10 years, but it was somewhat common about 20 years ago. I had an uncle that also made the claim that years ago when he was fishing with his father(my grandfather) that one day they caught a few catfish that were all a unique shade of blue.. that was the only day he had ever seen them.

    Is it a color phase, or were they actually Blues? I am inclined to believe they are/were blues. I have been catfishing regularly for MANY years and I have never seen another cat with that color phase.. literally 1000’s of fish later. These are fish that I have, or witnessed caught since. I guess we will never know for sure, but I never kept one.. maybe one of these days I’ll catch one all grown up.

    I have seen the flatheads expanding their territory over the last 10 years, and the population booming in some areas they just started to show their presence 10 years ago. The dams(with locks) are not stopping them. It MAY slow them down, but I know from experience that cats have no problem using the locks. In fact I think the locks draw the fish in because they suck a lot of bait(fish) through when the water cycles.. A regular cycle of injured fish will draw cats. If the flatheads will migrate, and create a population of fish in a short period of time.. Who is to say that the blues wont do it too over time? If the fish are spawning in a different climate than the typical warmer southern waters.. I have no doubt the fish will eventually adapt. Flatheads dont like cold water either, but it isnt stopping them.

    I caught a questionable catfish(16 pounds) in Lake Erie of all places a few years back pulling cranks around. It was very dark in color, had a very unique build to it.. and it sure didnt resemble any channel I had ever caught. The only similarity it had was a forked tail.. very deep forked tail. I took the fish to the DNR station at the launch(Walnut Creek in PA) to try to get it identified. They could not identify it either, but they were sure it was not a channel also. They weighed it, and said they could help me no further? The fish was still alive(had it in livewell) so I released it back to the water. Once I got home I did some research and it was picture perfect to a blue cat with the darker color phase. I didnt know to count the rays on the fin. I guess its not impossible that it was a deformed channel(for lack of better word), but looking at pictures of blues of similar size in the same color phase has me convinced it was a blue.

    Whiskerkev
    Participant
    Madison
    Posts: 3835
    #418274

    My wife caught one a few years ago on pool 9. We caught a pile of channels under this tree that had a dead animal in the tree. Then she pulls up this one that was blue as the sky. I don’t know if it was a blue cat or a channel that happened to be blue. I haven’t seen one since that was even close to that color. It was about 12 pounds just prior to the spawn if memory serves.

    VikeFan
    Participant
    Posts: 525
    #418300

    Larger male channel cat do sometimes take on a bluish color, especially in the spring. These “blue” channel cat also lose their spots, and are the basis for many a “blue catfish” report, according to the Iowa DNR. A 28 lb. “blue catfish” caught in the Iowa River was brought in to a sporting goods store here in Iowa City several years ago, only to be positively identified by an IDNR biologist as a male channel cat.

    Again, I don’t doubt that a blue cat makes its way as far up the Mississippi as Minnesota once in a while, and it is feasible that someone has at some point caught one. However, I don’t think it happens very often, as there has never been a single documented finding of a wild blue catfish in Minnesota. As someone pointed out, count the fins on a suspected blue catfish, and if it is one, you have a state record no matter what its size.

    rburns
    Participant
    Wisconsin
    Posts: 284
    #418319

    Color is very low on the list of indicators.

    We’ve all seen pictures of Red River channels of various ages and sizes and they come in about 15 different colors from blue to gray to black to green to pink.

    The few blues I have caught were all gray on top with a white belly. Sometimes the white would come up quite high on the sides.

    mile832
    Participant
    MN
    Posts: 565
    #418329

    Channel Cat: 27 rays or less on anal fin

    mile832
    Participant
    MN
    Posts: 565
    #418331

    Blue Catfish: at least 30 rays. Notice how much longer and straighter the anal fin is.

    mahtofire14
    Participant
    Mahtomedi, MN
    Posts: 7226
    #1703052

    Heard another rumor of Blues being caught on the Minnesota and Mississippi and was doing some research on the topic and came across this old thread. Great info and stories in here. Brian or anyone else, has anything changed with the status of blue catfish over the ten years since this thread was posted? I can’t seem to find any.

    Brian Klawitter
    Keymaster
    Minnesota/Wisconsin Mississippi River
    Posts: 58765
    #1703098

    First real blue caught will be the state record…in other words. Nope, nothing has changed. People still calling channels blue cats. coffee

    Buffalo Fishhead
    Participant
    Posts: 230
    #1703115

    Lot of “blue catfish” caught in the spring/summer are male channel catfish in spawning colors.

    There was a good article on catfish coloration in the online Nebraskaland site under “Fishing” and then the “Barbs and Backlashes” section.

    I tried to post the link here but I could not get it do work.

    Buffalo Fishhead

    mahtofire14
    Participant
    Mahtomedi, MN
    Posts: 7226
    #1703374

    Yeah I’m guessing that’s what it was too after reading through this post. I didn’t really think about there being a blue catfish record if someone catches one. Makes sense. I guess I should be more skeptical. Ha

    mahtofire14
    Participant
    Mahtomedi, MN
    Posts: 7226
    #1703376

    Now this is not the DNR site so its obviously not an official site but StateRecordFish.com has a fish and angler listed for MN state record Blue Catfish:

    Catfish, Blue 52lbs. 8oz. 48″ length, 32″ girth Minnesota River, Lac Qui Parle County Steven J. Ness, Browerville, MN 5/22/02

    Wonder if he has any proof.

    Interesting nonetheless.

    Brian Klawitter
    Keymaster
    Minnesota/Wisconsin Mississippi River
    Posts: 58765
    #1703396

    Now this is not the DNR site so its obviously not an official site but StateRecordFish.com has a fish and angler listed for MN state record Blue Catfish:

    Catfish, Blue 52lbs. 8oz. 48″ length, 32″ girth Minnesota River, Lac Qui Parle County Steven J. Ness, Browerville, MN 5/22/02

    Wonder if he has any proof.

    Interesting nonetheless.

    I can prove this guy was convicted of transporting a wild animal across state lines and falsifying legal records…

    His photo along with the blue he claimed to be a state record was published by the MN DNR. Then they found out it came from the MO River.

    Brian Klawitter
    Keymaster
    Minnesota/Wisconsin Mississippi River
    Posts: 58765
    #1703398

    DNR 532637
    DNR 532638

    NESS, STEVEN JOHN
    DOB Edited out

    02/26/2003
    Todd

    Dept. Nat. Resources
    Converted Closed

    POSS WILD ANIMAL UNLAWFUL
    Guilty
    MAKE FALSE AFFIDAVIT
    Guilty

    mahtofire14
    Participant
    Mahtomedi, MN
    Posts: 7226
    #1703483

    Oh man…..HA! That explains it. Good thing you’re around here to set me straight Brian. I knew it couldn’t be real but I had to play devil’s advocate. After this one I’m all out of ammo.

    Brian Klawitter
    Keymaster
    Minnesota/Wisconsin Mississippi River
    Posts: 58765
    #1703485

    I wish there were Blues around these parts.

    Still I find it odd that we don’t see an occasional blue show up in MN. It’s proven that a fish of the size of the blues can make it through a lock and dam system, so why wouldn’t one or more come up for a summer. Plenty of shad.

    I know a fella that claims to have release a few into lower pool #3 as well.

    The only thing I know for sure is to Never say Never when we’re talking about the Mississippi River.

    sharptailer
    Participant
    IGH, MN
    Posts: 161
    #1703536

    Could Kieran get into the books with a black channel?

    Attachments:
    1. IMG_2247.jpg

    Brian Klawitter
    Keymaster
    Minnesota/Wisconsin Mississippi River
    Posts: 58765
    #1703541

    Whew! She er He is a pretty back guy!

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