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In the summer of 1951 an Alabama conservation officer working below Wheeler Dam saw two men in an old river skiff engaged in a peculiar form of fishing. They dropped a wire and sinker to the bottom, then trailed a second wire over the side of the boat. Both wires were attached to a little machine with a hand crank. As one man turned the crank, catfish began surfacing all around the boat. In a short time the fishermen had a boatful of catfish weighing up to 50 pounds.
The officer didn't know whether this form of fishing was illegal. But if it wasn't, he felt it ought to be. He made a pinch. The story of this strange method of catfishing got into the papers, and soon it started cropping up all over the good catfishing areas.
The catfish-catching gadget which wrought such seeming miracles proved to be nothing more than an old-fashioned wall-telephone magneto, the kind that used to ring a bell elsewhere on the line. With an insulated wire connected to its positive pole and lowered to the bottom, and another wire attached to the negative pole and either grounded on an outboard motor or just trailed overside, the magneto sends a strong shock through the water to which catfish are peculiarly susceptible. They are not killed, nor do other fish react to the shock. "Telephoning" is a catfishing system only.
A THREAT OF DESTRUCTION
In the last few years, however, it has grown to such proportions that it threatens to wipe out the catfish population in some areas. The practice has spread all up and down the TVA dam system, the Mississippi River, up the Ohio and the Missouri and into the hydro-impoundments of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. And the louder the complaints, the more publicity the method gets.
Catfish, categorized in most fish-and-game laws as rough fish worth no creel limit, had scarcely been considered a sporting matter until the era of hydro-impoundments created concentrations of these fish below dams. At such locations it was found that they could be caught readily on rod and reel. Thousands discovered this new angling after the end of World War II, until telephoning began cleaning out the fish.
The enthusiasm of telephoners is illustrated by the case of an automobile dealer of Corinth, Mississippi. He owned a cruiser on Pickwick Lake in the state's northeast corner, and started telephoning for sport. He caught so many fish that he found himself in business. His personal catches were so great that he reduced the Corinth market price for this prized southern delicacy from 30 cents a pound, live weight, to 10 cents.
At present, fresh-water commercial fishermen preach against telephoning, though many of them practice it. They claim to hate the destruction, yet are compelled into it to meet the competition. Thus individual morality is helpless against the prevalence of telephoning.
THE FISH ARE LEARNING
Hoy Adams, commercial fisherman at Pickwick Dam, near Savannah, Tenn., tells me he finds it no longer possible to make a living taking catfish by legal means. He also says that it is now impossible to catch boatloads by means of the telephone. His theory is that the catfish have learned about telephoning. Fish which have survived a shock flee the vicinity when they hear a motor coming or hear the positive wire's sinker bumping along the bottom.