Camdenton, Mo. – Lake area residents will test the waters of the Missouri Department of Conservation's new blue catfish regulations this year.

The proposed regulations, filed over a year ago, go into effect on Saturday, March 1.

The Department gave a 30-day period in November of 2013 in which the public could give their input to make suggestions for changes, which were taken into consideration before the finalization of the regulations.

The MDC staff has been concerned about the potential over-harvest of these fish for a number of years, and a number of anglers have expressed concern abut the decline in numbers of larger-sized fish.

Over a decade ago, the Conservation Department did a statewide survey, and 35 percent of respondents said that the quality of catfishing at Truman Reservoir had declined over the previous decade, while only 12 percent said it had improved.

The changes that will be made affect the daily, possession and length limits for blue catfish taken at the Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Reservior and their tributaries.

Greg Stoner has been employed with the Conservation Department as a fisheries management biologist since 1990, and he has been the fisheries management biologist at Lake of the Ozarks since 1991.

Stoner believes that these new regulations will bring back the large blue cats of the Lake, using simple regulations to control the fish taken by anglers.

The approved changes are:
    •Ten blue catfish daily
    •A protected slot-length limit of 26-34 inches (7-16 pounds)
    •Fish within the slot must be returned to the water unharmed immediately.
    •Two blue catfish larger than 34 inches
    •These two fish would count toward the daily limit of 10.

The reason these regulations are being put in effect is that an increasing portion of the blue cat population is being harvested before they can reach their full growth potential.

"The harvest is so high that we're not seeing the real potential of this fish," Stoner said.

Blue cats can grow to some of the largest freshwater fish, as they can easily live 30 years and reach weights approaching or exceeding 100 pounds. The current state record stands at 130 pounds. Putting a protected slot-length limit of 26-34 inches will allow the fish of that size right now to reach the next step up to be a larger blue cat.

A blue catfish living in Lake of the Ozarks or Truman Lake will live about 15 years before growing to a size above 31 inches in length and 12 pounds. If undisturbed, a blue catfish can live over 25 years and weight 60-80 pounds, according to a recent study. The Conservation Department's data on this subject indicates that anglers are harvesting too many blue cats before they can reach that growth potential.

Doubling the daily limit from 5 to 10 will also encourage the harvest of smaller blue catfish. The numbers of smaller blue catfish in both reservoirs are adequate to allow for additional harvest.

Encouraging more harvest of smaller blue catfish has the potential to reduce competition among blue catfish, which may actually improve growth. Encouraging the harvest of smaller blue catfish will still allow anglers to take fish home for the table.

According to Stoner, a survey showed that of almost 1,500 fish taken over a three-year study, only one was 50 pounds in size.

"Actually, it was more like 49.9," Stoner said.

There have been a handful of instances of bigger fish being taken, including an 88 pound blue cat in Warsaw, but the study also showed that just 25 percent of the fish taken in that study were larger than 24 inches.

"It's a lost opportunity," Stoner said. "This is as close as people can get to deep-sea fishing in Missouri."

The whole point of the new regulations is to protect the fish as they attempt to reach what Stoner referred to as adulthood. Stoner explained that fish keep growing in length for the first few years, but at a certain point, blue cats will grow more in terms of weight and girth, growing "shoulders" as Stoner put it.

"The regulations will protect about 15 percent of blue cats," Stoner said. "Mortality will be low, and we will see a 4 or 5 times increase as they grow. In four years, a few will start seeing the regulations take effect. But the real impact will begin in 7 to 8 years, at which point the department will do a post-regulation to determine the success of the regulations."

As for how this will effect the jobs of the conservation agents, Stoner explained that it would just be another item for them to check for, so it will not increase the work of the agents by too much.

Of course, there has been dissenters among the ranks of blue cat anglers, but Stoner pointed out that the regulations placed on bass and crappie have been overall quite effective, and those have been in place for quite awhile. In fact, there's a generation that has grown up only knowing those regulations when it came to fishing those species.

In time, another generation could grow up knowing just these regulations, and could benefit from the actions taken now.