Tidal River Catfish Angling In Virginia

Eastern Virginia anglers can fill a cooler with catfish in short order on the top tidal cat rivers. Here's a guided tour of the best river fishing.

Photo by Tom Evans

Catfish are, increasingly, not only a regular staple on the outdoorsman's table but a targeted game species. Summer months are the hottest in terms of temperature and catfish angling opportunities. While the entire state of Virginia boasts good cat angling, the eastern tidal waters of our Commonwealth is where the best angling can be found. Filling a cooler with catfish in a few hours is easily done with the right technique and approach.

We went to the district fisheries biologist Bob Greenlee for the Tidewater Region of Virginia for some answers about the catfish fishery in tidal waters of Virginia. Greenlee studies, samples and manages the tidal James, Chickahominy, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Piankatank/Dragon Run and the lower Rappahannock rivers. Greenlee has spent hundreds of hours studying these rivers, as well as the catfish and fish communities on these waters. We found out that each river is different in terms of the fishery it supports and the reasons for the status of the fishery.

According to Greenlee, blue catfish have been introduced to all of Virginia's major tidal tributaries. Most recently, blue catfish were introduced (probably by anglers) to the Piankatank River.

Blue catfish are very aggressive fish that grow extremely fast given the right conditions and amount of forage. They now dominate the catfish fishery in the Rappahannock, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy and James rivers.

Greenlee noted that the Piankatank/Dragon Swamp is for the time being the only tidal river system in his area that holds large numbers of quality channel catfish and native white catfish.

THE JAMES RIVER

Any angler wanting to catch a trophy catfish in Virginia knows that they need only to travel to the James River. Anglers from all over the country have heard of the James River and its monster catfish. Catching a mammoth catfish on this system is not an unrealistic expectation by any means.

"Anglers can go to the James River and expect to catch 30- to 40-pound blue catfish on a regular basis, and if they hit the right hole on the right day, they will be catching unbelievable numbers of these large blue catfish. Blue catfish in the 50- to 60-pound range are caught on a fairly regular basis and blue catfish up to 83 pounds have been caught in the James," Greenlee observed.

Blue catfish have been in the James River system less than 30 years, having been introduced in the mid-1970s. Greenlee's records show that the species did not really take off until the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s.

"The blue catfish population continues to expand to this day, both in numbers and in size distribution of fish in the population. It would not surprise me to see the size of blue catfish available for angler catches continue to expand upwards, with the potential of blue catfish approaching 100 pounds at some point in the not too distant future," he said.

Why do the catfish grow so fast and so large in the James River? Forage is the big answer. Greenlee noted that the James is very productive and the forage base of gizzard shad shows no sign of depletion up to this point. Once the blue catfish grow to a size where they can inhale a gizzard shad, they grow at an impressive rate. Data shows that a 10-year-old fish on the James averages 12 pounds, but two years later, the fish have more than doubled their weight to an average 27 pounds. The growth of the blue cats differs among individual fish as Greenlee pointed out.

"Growth is highly variable among individuals after about age 5," he said. "In fact, one of the heaviest individuals we aged weighed 51 pounds and was just age 11!"

Bryan Hall of Caroline County is an avid catfisherman who prowls the James looking for big fish. Hall offers four spots to tap into this great fishery. Two of the spots are accessed from Osbourne Landing and take anglers downriver to the Dutch Gap area. Hall suggests that once they are at Dutch Gap, anglers watch the fish finder and find a dropoff that has bait suspended on it near some structure.

The second destination Hall likes to fish is even farther downriver at Jones' Neck Cutoff near the Shipping Cut.

Another spot Hall frequents has him putting in at the Jordan Point Yacht Club Marina where he goes upriver to the green buoy 111.

"At the 111 'can' there is a lot of great structure and deep water. Fish in the 30-pound range are very common here," he said.

Downriver from the marina, Hall can often be seen fishing at the powerlines. He likes to find an isolated hole with his depthfinder and fish it with a 5-ounce egg sinker above his baited hook. Again, Hall looks for bait before putting out lines.

"Even if you do not see a big fish on the finder, you can often outwait them if the bait is there," he advised.

Although trophy blue cats can be caught throughout the year, anglers tend to agree that the best time to catch trophy blue cats is from late fall through midspring, with the catch dropping off somewhat during the spawn.

RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER

The Rappahannock was stocked with blue catfish at about the same time as the James, but does not boast mammoth fish in the same weight brackets and numbers as the James River. The Rappahannock River, however, was once known for its giant catfish. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the fishery was booming. The productivity has dropped off sharply with the decline in numbers of mud shad (gizzard shad). The primary source of forage in the Rappahannock River is white perch at this time.

According to Greenlee, the Rappahannock has the slowest growing blue catfish in any of the four major river systems studied (the James, the Rappahannock, Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers). It is interesting to note that the Rappahannock River also have the slowest growing largemouth and smallmouth bass populations on any Virginia river systems.

All is not lost for anglers who want to fish the Rapp, however. The sheer numbers of eating-sized blue catfish is tremendous on this river. Anglers wanting to catch fish in the 15- to 25-inch range can do so all day long most months of the year.

The best fishing for blue catfish occurs from the Hicks Landing down to Leedstown. In this stretch of the river, there are numerous marshes, mud flats and tidal creeks that feed the river. The deep river bends and cut edges of th

e channel are the best spots for the larger blue catfish. Blue catfish up to 20 pounds are not uncommon, and the occasional fish weighing more than 50 pounds can be caught as well.

Anglers wanting to catch lots of fish can find them near the channel on the flats during both day and night. The creek mouths are excellent locations to fish for pan-sized fish. The creeks themselves are also dynamite areas and are best fished with a floating rig (described later) along the weed edges. Both pads and cattails provide cover for forage at high tide.

At low tide, anglers do best to float out of the creeks, casting a drifting or floating rig to the steeper bank and wood structure.

Anglers wishing to fish the river proper can anchor near the shore in the shade during the day or on a flat at night and cast toward the channel. Most of the time, two rods are more than enough for smaller fish because they are so willing to hit. Any water more than 4 feet is a good bet, although 8 to 10 feet of moving water will hold larger fish. Hard structure such as the Port Royal Bridge, old barge walls and pilings and logjams provide the best angling for the 20- to 25-inch fish.

An observation this writer has made over the years involves the availability of channel catfish. Anglers preferring channel catfish will catch more fish downstream of Leedstown and upstream of Hicks Landing to Fredericksburg at the fall line.

There are several put-ins for the Rappahannock. The first one is at Fredericksburg at the City Dock (free). Next is Little Falls in Stafford County just south of Fredericksburg (free), followed by Hicks Landing in Caroline County ($7) off Route 17. Port Royal Landing is just downstream of Hicks at Route 301 and Route 17 ($7), followed by Wilmont Landing (free) in King George near Westmoreland off Route 3 and Route 681, and finally the private landing at Leedstown Campground in Westmoreland County.

PAMUNKEY RIVER

The Pamunkey River is an up-and-coming trophy blue catfish destination, according to Bob Greenlee. Currently it has the highest growth rates of any Virginia tidal river. Much of this may be attributed to the fact that the fish recently moved into the system from the nearby Mattaponi River. Greenlee reports that 20- to 30-pounders are common in the river. He expects this trend to expand upward in size and numbers as the population increases its range.

Because the Mattaponi River, one of the cleanest rivers in Virginia, is so close to the Pamunkey it should not be left out of the mix as a good destination for catfish. The quiet flowing, tea-colored stream is full of a number of species of fish, including catfish. Fish in the 20-pound range are not uncommon on the Mattaponi, with larger fish being landed throughout the year.

Greenlee advised us that there are several access points for both rivers.

"Access to the Mattaponi can be made from Melrose Landing and a private landing at Walkerton. Access to the Pamunkey can be made from the Lester Manor landing in King and Queen County and Williams Landing (Putneys Mill in the Gazetteer), a private landing in Hanover County off Route 607."

Both rivers are smaller than the James or the Rapp, and fish are somewhat easier to locate as a result. Look for logjams, overhanging trees in conjunction with deep water and bends in the river. Float-fishing with a johnboat or canoe works great in these two beautiful rivers. On the downriver stretches, a johnboat is a bit more comfortable as boat traffic increases. Weighted baits in the lower sections of these two rivers are more effective than floating if you are in search of larger fish.

FLOATING RIGS

Float-fishing tidal water allows anglers to effectively cover more water at a rapid rate and catch more fish as a result. Generally the floating technique is used for eating-sized catfish, while traditional-weighed rigs are used for trophy fishing. There are two approaches to set up a floating rig.

The first rig is best used in smaller waters such as tidal creeks, smaller rivers, such as the Piankatank, Chickahominy, Mattaponi or Pamunkey. Attach a stick float above the hook so that the bait will drag just above the bottom. This depth set should be customized to avoid snags if the area is full of tree roots or underwater grasses. Using a stick float allows the anglers to see the fish take the bait and provide minimal resistance to the fish pulling on it.

Cast the rig to the shoreline and fish with the tide, allowing the bait to drift naturally. When a fish takes the bait, wait a few seconds and set the hook. It is important to keep the line fairly tight so that the amount of slack needed to be taken in is minimal. Once a few fish are caught in a particular stretch of water, be sure to run back uptide and fish the stretch again.

Some stretches are particularly effective during various tides. I find that a high tide is good along vegetation where the forage is hiding in the weeds, while a low tide is best fished near woody debris, rocks and steep banks. When the sun is high in the sky the fishing slows a bit, but shaded banks still produce fish with regularity.

The second type of floating rig is used more often in the main river channel or deeper waters for larger fish. The use of a slip-sinker or heavy split shot is employed to get the bait down into the faster moving water column. When using a slip sinker or egg weight, anglers can pinch a small shot on the line to keep the weight from smacking into the bait as it is fished. Put the boat upstream of the area that is to be fished and either play out line behind the anchored boat or drift along with a set amount of line out. Vary the depth the bait is drifting by adding or taking away weight as dictated by the speed of the moving water. Drifting cut bait, whole herring or jumbo minnows under a bank or along a barge wall in any of our tidal rivers is a sure way to hook into a monster fish. Smaller baits will take a number of fish.

Anglers who fish set baits use weights and anchor the boat near deep channels that are located next to adjacent shoreline structure. Anglers also set baits over submerged structure such as sunken boats or barges. Use a fish-finder to search for sudden dropoffs and structure in conjunction with bait.

A moving tide is essential to catching almost any species of fish, including catfish. The lull in the tide is a good time to get a snack, stretch or move to a different location. Some anglers with fast boats will run with the tide and fish their favorite tide most of the day or night. This technique can be effective, but requires precision, a fast boat, a wealth of knowledge of the river and several locations up and down the river to fish.

Catfish face into moving water and catch food as it drifts or moves towards them. They eat their prey headfirst. It is essential that anglers give the fish time to mouth the bait, especially larger baits, before setting the hook.

Good baits for catfish include any live bait such as herring, shad, minnows, crayfish or eels. Anglers using dead bait will find cut pieces of the bait listed above, pe

rch, bluegills and shrimp are very effective. Pan-sized catfish will hit clam snouts, night crawlers and insects with a vengeance.

Tidal rivers are extremely productive places to fish for catfish. The moving water, abundance of forage and numbers of fish to be caught will make any outing on Virginia's tidal water well worth the effort. Summer is a great time to fill a cooler with a great tasting meal. Try the tidal water near you and see for yourself.

Good fishing!

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