JAMES RIVER - Splashed and speckled in mud, Dave Lucchesi jumped into action.
He quickly stepped over the slow-moving James River, from one boat into another, to take control of the wheel as flathead catfish emerged one by one.
For 30 years, Lucchesi has worked as a fisheries biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department. During a recent morning, he maneuvered a boat back and forth near Kelly’s Cove, northeast of Yankton, as his partner, B.J. Schall, netted and unhooked the whisker-faced creatures as a part of a two-year state study on catfish.
“That was a heck of a line,” Schall said after five flatheads were pulled from one trotline, a method GF&P uses to capture the fish.
Lucchesi and Schall are co-principal investigators for the study, which began in mid-May and is being conducted on about 40 miles of the James River, from Olivet south to where the waterway flows into the Missouri River.
It’s the first time GF&P has studied catfish on the James River in about 20 years. Officials will spend about 1,200 hours total researching the fish between now and July and again next year during the same time frame. Biologists catch the cats, document certain information, tag them (some tags worth up to a $100 reward) and release them back into the river.
A main reason for the study? Vocal catfish anglers.
“They’re worried about the potential overharvest of trophy mostly flathead catfish on our South Dakota rivers,” Lucchesi said. “They’ve even pushed a little bit for more restrictive regulations.”
South Dakota does not have a size restriction for catfish, which are mainly targeted by shore anglers. The daily limit for all catfish species is 10.Catchin’ fish
The goal is to catch and tag 300 flathead and 700 channel catfish each year. Through three weeks, the study is on target for flatheads with 150 tagged, Lucchesi said, but “we’ve really struggled on channels. We should have close to 300 by now based on the study design.” Instead, fewer than 100 have been tagged thus far.
Trotlines is one of three main methods officials are using to capture fish.
“We put live bullheads on a long string that has 10 hooks,” Schall said. “They’re set for 24 hours and we check to see if they caught anything.”
Hoop nets and electrofishing are also methods. Tandem hoop nets allow fish to swim in one direction due to some smelly bait - such as rotten cheese or soybean cakes - but they can’t swim out.
“That cheese is pretty smelly,” said Alex Luke, GF&P summer intern who attends South Dakota State University in Brookings. “I wore gloves for that cheese and I don’t wear gloves.”
Channel catfish are scavengers, which makes smelly bait placed in hoop nets optimal for catching them, Lucchesi said. The state record channel, caught in 1949 on the James River, is 55 pounds. But that record is currently under dispute due to a photo that suggests the fish is a different species.
Low frequency electrofishing is the best method to capture flathead cats. That sends an electric pulse into the water and stuns the fish but doesn’t kill it. Trotlines also are effective for channels, which target other fish primarily for their diet. The state record flathead is 63 pounds and was caught in 2006 on the James River.
When Schall and Lucchesi buzzed up and down the lower James checking lines and traps, fish that were caught then got tossed in a live well and later tagged, some worth a bounty.
Ten percent of the tagged fish will have $100 tags, 60 percent have $10 tags, and 30 percent won’t be worth anything - but all tagged fish reported to GF&P earn the angler a certificate.
“GF&P is hoping all anglers report all tagged fish caught as that will provide us with a lot more information on this study,” Lucchesi said.
Each reward fish will only be paid out once, and anglers can either call 605-367-4941 or go online at tags.sd.gov.
“Hopefully next year we can recapture some of these fish that we put tags into,” Schall said. “Knowing the abundance of the population will help in how different regulations and harvest levels will impact that.”Quite the effort
Today, there’s a good chance a few of those reward cats will be hooked.
Miltown Island Park, southeast of Mitchell, is holding its annual spring catfishing tournament. The 24-hour event is held anywhere on the James and the proceeds go toward upkeep for the park. There’s also a Sunday fish fry, but many of the fish are released.
And that’s not the only catfish tournament on the river.
Topher Cisar, 40, has participated in the Catfish Days in Scotland nearly each year since its inauguration. The 1996 Scotland High School graduate who now lives in Sioux Falls loves chasing huge cats. He was one of about 10 people who attended GF&P’s meeting in May to inform the public of the study.
“My understanding of it is they’re studying to see if there’s continued growth for these larger flatheads and some of the biggest channel catfish that these trophy anglers are going after,” he said, “and making sure that they’re not being harvested too much and the sizes are being restricted over time.”
A trophy channel is 15 pounds and larger, while a huge flathead is 35 to 50 pounds. To ensure those fish continue to reside in South Dakota waters is the reason GF&P is putting in all this effort. Earlier this week, Cisar rode along with Lucchesi to check trotlines and nets and saw first-hand the work GF&P is putting in to learning about cats.
“It’s not easy, that’s for sure,” Cisar said. “The fact they’re taking their time and money to do this study, I’m thrilled to death.”