Your Guide To Virginia'™s Best Catfishing

Whether you're interested in a trophy or a meal, Virginia offers some great places to have a full day of catching catfish. (June 2006)

When looking for a meal of fresh fish in June, any Virginia angler's best bet is to go catch a stringer of catfish. Catfish are willing feeders nearly year 'round in just about any water in the state. There are three species of catfish that anglers regularly target: the flathead, blue and channel catfish. Each region has its gems that anglers should visit this summer. Check out our research to find the most productive water in your region.

TIDEWATER REGION

Tidewater anglers know that the tidal rivers get the spotlight when it comes to the best catfishing. All one needs to do is choose the nearest river and load the truck for a great day of fishing. Each tidal river offers a slightly different twist when it comes to catching Mr. Whiskers.

Bob Greenlee, the VDGIF regional fisheries guru, offered Virginia Game & Fish some data and tips as to where the fishing might be better this season.

"The tidal James River is the obvious choice for trophy blue cats. Blue cats over 80 pounds are now being caught from the James. Most blue catfish can be caught downstream of Richmond as far as the Chickahominy River. Anglers should note that most of the catfishing in the James is dominated by the blue catfish," he said.

Blue catfish on the James River grow rapidly, in part because the river contains tremendous shad and herring populations that provide the catfish with all the food they can eat.

Trophy blue catfish are most easily caught from a boat using fresh caught gizzard shad either whole or cut. Fishing the deep holes, ledges and dropoffs in the river, especially near bends, is the favored strategy. With the aid of a good fish-finder, anglers can find submerged timber and other structure where the monster fish like to ambush prey.

A second choice for trophy catfish would be the Pamunkey River. Fish up to 50 pounds are fairly common and the population is still growing. Greenlee suggested that anglers fish the lower reaches of the river down to West Point for blue cats.

Both the Mattaponi and Rappahannock rivers boast blue catfish up to and over 30 pounds, but the larger fish are not as abundant as they are in the James and Pamunkey. As with the James, successful trophy cat anglers look for sharp bends in the river, deep holes, channels and structure. Where all three habitats occur, the fishing is fine.

On the Rappahannock, anglers will find most of the larger blue cats prowling the waters from Fredericksburg down to Fones Cliffs. The stretch from Nanzatico Bay upstream to Four Winds is particularly good.

Eating-sized catfish can be caught from the bank or boat on any of the rivers. Keep in mind, however, that the James River has an advisory against consuming catfish. This is strictly a catch-and-release water for blue catfish over 32 inches, and no more than two meals a month consisting of fish less than 32 inches should be eaten.

All of the tidal rivers are chock-full of catfish in the 2- to 5-pound range. In the James and Pamunkey, the core of the fishery is blue cats. In fact, Greenlee pointed out that electrofishing catch rates have approached 4,000 fish an hour, which was keeping his crew of biologists busy with nets!

The Rappahannock and Mattaponi River have a decent mix of channel and blue catfish available. The channel catfish on the Rappahannock seem to prefer tidal creeks and the upper portion of the tidal river. On the Mattaponi, the upper portion of the river and the shallows are better locations to find channel catfish.

Catching eating-sized blue catfish is best done either in side channels or holes rather than shallow mudflats. Small pieces of cut shad, sunfish or eel are best for blues. Channel catfish prefer clam snouts, worms, crayfish or minnows.

Dan Michaelson, fisheries biologist for the upper James River, pointed out that flathead catfish are common from Scottsville downstream to Richmond.

Fish in the 20- to 30-pound range are common and can be found in deep holes by using cut bait, live herring or bream. The pool above the power plant near New Canton is another area that flathead enthusiasts like to fish.

SOUTHERN PIEDMONT

The Southside area of Virginia is home to many catfish holes that leave a catman with sore muscles and a full cooler at the end of the trip. One such water is the Sandy River Reservoir. The 740-acre impoundment, owned by Prince Edward County, was dammed in 1994. Sandy River offers good bank access for shore-bound anglers. Two different roads dead-end at the reservoir and there is a well-lit parking area as well. All three sites offer good bank access. Anglers may fish the water 24 hours a day. Channel catfish are king at Sandy River and can be found at night in the shallows on the uplake portion and near the confluence of the Little Sandy and Sandy rivers.

Dan Michaelson noted that the fish are healthy and the perfect size for eating.

"The average size channel catfish that anglers will typically run into will be 14 to 18 inches. The cats are very fat and healthy, too."

The limit of catfish that may be taken at Sandy River is 20 per angler. VDGIF will begin stocking 10 fish per acre in October.

No Virginia catfish story would be complete without a rundown on Buggs Island Lake, which has gained notoriety for just about every species of fish, including the monster blue catfish that prowl the depths of the lake. The state-record blue catfish was hauled from Buggs during late June of 2004 and weighed 92 pounds, 4 ounces!

Vic DiCenzo, the fisheries biologist who keeps a pulse on Buggs, told us that there is plenty of forage at Buggs in the form of shad, which is the preferred bait of anglers who want to see a trophy blue cat. Live shad can be caught fairly easily with a cast net. DiCenzo suggests anglers try fishing 15 to 20 feet deep at night from Clarksville to the confluence of the Dan and Roanoke rivers. Nutbush Creek is also a good spot and is located on the North Carolina side of this massive waterway.

Most blue catfish average 3 or 4 pounds, but there are a number of blue cats pushing well past the 20-pound mark. A good center console boat outfitted with a quality fish-finder is the best tool to use when targeting trophy fish. Subtle humps and creek channels are key to finding the big fish. Keep in mind that there is a fish consumption advisory (PCBs) on the larger catfish at Buggs.

Whil

e the trophy blue catfish are found in the depths, channel catfish anglers will find unlimited action from the bank, in a johnboat in coves and just about anywhere else. Channel catfish are very abundant at Buggs and average a pound in size. They are perfect eating size. Any stink bait, live bait or cut bait will work well. Fish the shallows at night for channel catfish.

Popular boat launches for anglers fishing Buggs for catfish include, but are not limited to, Occeneechee State Park, Bluestone, Buffalo, Staunton View, Nutbush and Hyco creeks.

MOUNTAIN REGION

Most catfish opportunities in the mountains are found in smaller impoundments that are stocked with channel catfish. The fishing is not meant to be a trophy fishery, but the chance to put dinner on the table is very good.

Tom Hampton, who covers the southern end of the mountains, suggested two impoundments for channel catfishing. Both are relatively small but offer good fishing opportunities.

Hungry Mother Lake is 108 acres in size and permits electric motors only. Located in Smyth County, the lake is close to I-81, but is still very peaceful and offers amenities such as cabins to rent, a boat ramp, shoreline access to bank-fish and other family activities close by. The channel catfish are stocked at 10 inches in size. The average fish caught is about a pound. Successful channel catfishermen spend time night-fishing under a glow lantern with worms or chicken livers during the summer. Tight-lining for channel catfish is also productive. For more information about the park, contact Hungry Mother State Park at (276) 781-7400

North Fork Pound Reservoir is the second water that Hampton chose to send anglers seeking catfish in his neck of the woods. The 154-acre water located in Wise County also offers campgrounds and other family focused activities. The reservoir is very narrow and long (six to seven miles). A gas motor is permitted but may not be run at more than wake speed.

Channel catfish are abundant in two size groups at Pound Lake. Catfish in the 15-inch slot are common, as are those in the 18-to 20-inch slot. Hampton also relayed that there were a handful of channel catfish weighing 15 to 20 pounds at the lake. As with Hungry Mother, the fishing can be done from the bank, where anglers bottom-fish with worms, chicken livers or minnows. The bulk of the catfishing at Pound is done from a boat, though. More information about camping or picnic facilities can be obtained from the U.S. Forest Service Clinch Ranger District at (276) 328-2931.

Farther north in the mountains, fisheries biologist Paul Bugas covers the territory. Bugas pointed toward the Bath County Recreation Ponds as his choice for catfish angling. The lower pond has good bank-fishing opportunities. The upper lake is best fished from a canoe or light boat.

Bugas observed that most catfish anglers at these ponds "tight-line" with night crawlers or commercially prepared stink bait. The average size channel catfish is 2 pounds. Shoreline access is plentiful and there are numerous parking and camping facilities nearby. Anglers are advised to take bait with them, as the nearest bait shop is several miles away. While fishing at the Bath County Recreation Ponds, anglers should keep in mind that there is a 15-inch minimum size limit and a five-fish creel limit. More information about the ponds can be had from Dominion Resources at (540) 279-3289.

A third catfish destination in the northern portion of the mountains would be Lake Robertson. While Roberson is small (30 acres), it has a great channel cat fishery. The minimum size limit for channel catfish at Robertson is 20 inches. Fish measuring 15 to 30 inches are common. Bugas suggested that anglers get a lake map from the concession stand and fish in deeper water. Old roadbeds and house foundations are good places to target. The average depth of Robertson is 18 feet. A handicapped accessible fishing pier is available and there is ample shoreline access. The concession stand handles bait sales and boat rentals as well. For more information, call (540) 463-4164, or www.co.rockbridge.va.us/ departments/lake_robertson.htm.

NORTHERN PIEDMONT

The Northern Piedmont region is a transitional region where catfish are abundant in the river systems and in small impoundments. The two waters that shine in the region are the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers.

The tidal Potomac down to the Route 301 bridge is fast becoming popular among anglers looking for large channel catfish and blue catfish. Tidal tributaries of the Potomac, such as Potomac Creek, Aquia Creek and the Occoquan River, are full of catfish. Deep holes, riprap and ledges in the main river as well as the lighthouse just downriver of Fairview Beach are very good locations to try for a trophy catfish. Cut bait such as perch or shad is a top choice on the Potomac River system. An egg weight and a large hook covered with bait is a good way to get your blood flowing during twilight or nighttime hours.

Anglers with access to any portion of the shoreline are sure to hook up with a good channel catfish and possibly a blue catfish. There are boat ramps at Pohick Bay, on Aquia Creek and another private launch at the Fairview Beach Yacht Club farther downriver.

The upper portion of the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg is a great destination for shore-bound anglers. The rocky section of the river at the fall line offers numerous pools where floating cut bait or dropping chicken livers in the water will take channel catfish. Anglers may also wade the upper portion of the river and will find numerous catfish in the 1-pound range. Cast bait to swirling eddies and pools among the rocks or along the bank to find fish.

Old Mill Park is another great shoreline destination with hundreds of yards of bank access. A small johnboat or canoe can be put in at the Stafford Little Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant or the City Dock. Woody structure is plentiful and catfish are found near the logjams and undercut banks. Some blue catfish are being caught near Little Falls now and they are quite large; some push 30 pounds.

Another possibility for catfish anglers would be the trophy flathead fishery at the Occoquan Reservoir. The flatheads tend to like the reservoir proper and the tailrace below the lower dam near the water treatment plant. There are many snags below the dam, but the fishing can be quite good.

John Odenkirk, who works out of the Fredericksburg VDGIF office, commented that the state-record flathead was caught from the reservoir. He and his crew have seen several large flatheads while sampling for bass near Fountainhead. There are gizzard shad and alewives as primary forage for catfish at this location. Anglers typically use live bait, such as minnows or small bream.

Anglers who prefer a quiet lake will find that small VDGIF-owned waters, such as Orange, Burke (in Northern Virginia), Brittle and Curtis, are all good bets. They each receive annual stockings of channel catfish and have good bank access for anglers without a boat.

Odenkirk pointed out that urban anglers should take advantage of Locust Shade Park in Prince William.

"Locust Shade receives a large annual allotment of adult (catchable) channels. Night crawlers and chicken livers are favorite baits in these waters."

A final water that should not be overlooked is Motts Run in Spotsylvania County. The reservoir is well managed and catfish thrive at Motts (see last month's article). Anglers may take advantage of the extended amount of bank-fishing or rent a boat and fish any of the coves. Target brushpiles with night crawlers or minnows for the best luck. Call (540) 786-8989 for more information.

The waters we listed are just a sampling of destinations where you can fill your stringer and have a great time on the water. Remember that only one catfish over 32 inches is permitted per person. When things get hot this summer, try your luck at catfishing. A cool summer night under the stars is just the ticket for a great catfish outing!

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