CROSS, S.C. - Linwood Thornhill can remember the days when he would take fishermen around Lake Moultrie and come back with catfish weighing about 30 pounds each.
These days, he says, his group is lucky to get one fish that big with most weighing just six or seven pounds.
The trend worries people like Thornhill who make their living from the tourists who for decades have flocked to lakes Moultrie and Marion for the renowned fishing.
Thornhill and fish camp owners say a lack of regulations and overfishing by commercial fishermen are depleting trophy catfish stocks and hurting a $125 million tourism business in the five counties surrounding the Santee Cooper lakes in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
"It's not like it used to be," said Ken Childers, a resident of Mooresville, N.C., who has been fishing the lake for more than a decade.
"These people come here from out of state to catch the trophy-size fish," Thornhill said. "If they don't, it's not worth it, and they won't come back. My business is probably off 50 percent."
Other fishermen, however, say there is not problem. "There's no shortage of big fish in the lake," said Earl Conner of St. Stephen, who has been selling fish he's caught in Lake Moultrie for nearly 25 years. "I don't understand why the public can't catch them."
Still, some are asking lawmakers to limit recreational and commercial fishermen to no more than one Arkansas blue catfish larger than 34 inches per day in Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. That's about a 20-pounder.
"What a joke," Conner said. "They don't need to be releasing the big catfish because they are destroying the game fish. It's nothing to cut one open and it have 10, 15 or 20 bream in it. That law is uncalled for."
Similar regulations passed the Senate in the past legislative session, but died in the house.
The chairman of the committee that oversees fishing said the bill stalled because committee members wanted time to sit down with recreational fishing business owners and commercial fishermen to come up with a plan that would make everyone happy.
"The sport fishermen don't like the idea of the trotline boys coming in there, but they are really doing a favor trying to catch some of the Arkansas cats to reduce the population," Rep. Billy Witherspoon, R-Conway and chairman of the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.
The state Natural Resources Department see commercial fishermen as a plus. "We believe there are fewer big catfish than there used to be," said Miller White, fisheries biologist with the agency.
While he said commercial fishermen help maintain a healthy balance on the lakes by removing the smaller catfish, they also take about two-thirds of the big fish that are caught. "We would like to see that harvest redistributed so rod-and-reel fishermen catch a bigger portion," White said.
Tourism and fishing license statistics show fewer out-of-state residents are getting fishing licenses. While taxes from hotel room stays for the five-county area - Berkeley, Calhoun, Clarendon, Orangeburg and Sumter - have increased every year since 1998 to about $1.2 million last year, fishing license sales were down from five years ago to about 31,760 last year.
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