Virginia Tech study on New River trotlines reveals changing traditions in fishing
While the popularity of fishing for smallmouth bass is on the rise in Virginia’s New River, the decades-old practice of fishing for catfish using trotlines is fading.
It’s not that New River catfish may be contaminated with PCBs, although that has discouraged some fishers. Instead, better times and young people’s different interests, including preferring bass to catfish, are the cause of the decline, according to research by a former student and two faculty members in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.
A trotline is a heavy fishing line with baited hooks attached at regular intervals. Most trotline fishers in the New River use trotlines sunk to the bottom, minimizing exposure to other river users.
Catfish fishing and trotline fishing have never been strictly regulated in Virginia, according to the research article, published in the August 2015 issue of Fisheries magazine, by Ben Dickinson, who received his master’s in fisheries and wildlife sciences at Virginia Tech in 2013; Donald Orth, the Thomas Jones Professor of Fish and Wildlife Conservation; and Steve McMullin, associate professor of fish and wildlife conservation.
Dickinson interviewed 39 trotline fishers, and it was a challenge to find that many. He started with marked trotlines and with fishers known to Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologists, then asked those fishers for the names of others.
Fifty years ago, harvest was the primary goal of fishing in the New River, with catfish the predominant fish harvested. Now recreation is the goal, with game fish such as bass, muskie, and walleye being the focus, many of which are caught and released.
Dickinson found trotline fishers are as thrilled by a good catch as any bass fisher, and are proud of their outdoors lifestyle and of being self-reliant — still putting food on the table through fishing, hunting, and gardening. Even though their fishing is largely unregulated, most of those Dickinson interviewed are opposed to further regulation, However, four of the youngest fishers interviewed, men in their 20s and 30s, favored reduced bag limits and stricter hook limits.
Most of the fishers learned their skills from an older relative and have attempted to pass it on, but with little success. “It is a generational thing — the younger generation is the fast food and computer generation,” said one fisher. Another said, “Kids are distracted with so many activities these days. [Trotline fishing] is a dying art, the same as gardening.”
Also, times are better. Several retired fishers said they no longer need to supplement their diets with wild-caught fish. “People around here used to grow, catch, and shoot all their food. Now they don’t,” one fisher said.
“Our findings provide a peek into characteristics of trotline fishers that should prove useful for managing or studying this or other hidden fisheries,” the article concluded.
Dickinson is now assistant Lake Michigan fisheries biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife.