BENTON TWP. – John Lewis remembers a time when the glow of lanterns dotted the surface of Lackawanna Lake at night.
It was a decades ago, the Chinchilla resident said, and the lanterns were used by anglers targeting the monstrous channel catfish that inhabited the lake.
"You always saw the lanterns on boats, and they used to get some really big ones," Lewis said. "But it really dropped off about 10 years ago."
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is trying to reverse that trend.
Since the early 1980s, the agency has been stocking channel catfish fingerlings in the lake – approximately 3,000 annually. Rob Wnuk, area fisheries manager for the PFBC, estimated 100,000 catfish fingerlings have been stocked in the lake over the years.
But still, the population isn't what it once was.
"The channel catfish doesn't reproduce naturally in this lake so we have to stock them," Wnuk said, adding that predation is a problem.
"The fingerlings are like candy for bass, and this lake is really good for bass. It's difficult to stock fish and get survival," he said.
On Wednesday, the PFBC demonstrated to the media how they go about trapping catfish to monitor the population in the lake. Utilizing five Pennsylvania-style trap nets (a long net that funnels fish into a holding area at the end), agency staff targeted channel catfish roaming the shoreline.
Wnuk said channel catfish patrol the shallows this time of year in search of food after the water temperature begins to drop.
When the five trap nets were pulled on Wednesday, they were loaded with fish, but only one was a channel catfish.
Wnuk attributed the low catch to a storm that passed through the area the day before and possibly altered fish behavior.
To justify the stocking program, Wnuk said the agency wants to see a catch rate of .018 channel catfish per hour in the nets. Trapping from previous years produced results close to that goal, he said, and even if the number is down this fall the stocking program won't be halted next year.
But it's unknown what will happen beyond that.
"It does cost money to raise and stock these fish, so we want to make sure we're getting a return," Wnuk said.
The catfish fingerlings come from adult brood stock that are trapped from Lake Wallenpaupack in the spring. Channel catfish begin spawning at 3 years old and adults can weigh up to 40 pounds. The adult catfish are taken to the Linesville State Fish Hatchery in Crawford County. Bill Smoyer, a fish culturist with the PFBC, said the Linesville hatchery is used because it contains ponds with warmer water. Channel catfish need water temperatures of approximately 75 degrees to spawn, he said.
Less than three months after the eggs hatch, the channel catfish reach fingerling size – approximately 3 inches in length -- and are ready to stock.
"I stock them in more than one spot at Lackawanna Lake because of the bass," Smoyer said. "If 10 percent survive that's pretty good."
Several anglers turned out to watch PFBC personnel check the nets and measure fish. Dalton resident Joe Rappenglueck, who fishes the lake regularly with his family, said he used to see channel catfish spawning on the rock ledges in the upper part of Lackawanna Lake.
He doesn't target the channel catfish while fishing the lake, but Rappenglueck said that could change if the population increases.
"The Fish Commission is doing a tremendous job managing this lake considering the amount of pressure it gets. I'd like to see the catfish take hold here as well," he said.
Walker Loveland of Wallsville said most of the catfish anglers fish the upper end of the lake because there is better shoreline access.
Loveland caught a 41-inch channel catfish from the lake three weeks ago, and like Rappenglueck he'd like to see the population come back.
"It's always nice to catch something big, and they do get big," Loveland said.
Both anglers agreed that they'd like to see the agency create more structure for catfish in the lake, such as spawning boxes that serve the same purpose as the rock crevices that the fish prefer.
Wnuk said habitat work is a possibility in the future, but the numbers have to justify it.
"We have to get the adults going first so there's enough to spawn and utilize the habitat," he said.
While Lackawanna Lake relies on stocking to build its channel catfish population, Rob Wnuk said other waterways in the region provide healthy numbers of wild fish.
The Susquehanna River is among the best places, he said.
"The river is loaded with channel catfish because there's a lot of good spawning habitat," Wnuk said. "They're all wild there. We don't stock them."
While the five trap nets yielded only one channel catfish from Lackawanna Lake on Wednesday, plenty of other species turned up, including: