Summer is the time when you can consistently put a bend in your rod and filets in the frying pan by targeting catfish. These include channel catfish in upstream rivers and lakes, blue catfish haunts and flathead catfishing in pools.
RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER CHANNELS AND BLUES
Like many of the rivers in Virginia, anglers can catch catfish in the entire freshwater stretch of the Rappahannock in good numbers. The great thing about fishing the Rappahannock is that in the upstream portion of the river above Fredericksburg, the pools and eddies hold good numbers of chunky channel catfish.
Once the Embry Dam was taken down, the fish that once dominated the lower river areas moved upstream and created another fishery for canoeists, kayakers and wading anglers to take advantage of. I personally have encountered anglers pulling their canoes out of the river at the canoe slide near Motts Landing on Rt. 618 (which is very convenient to I-95 at Fredericksburg) who tell tales of coolers full of catfish easily caught around Kelly’s Ford and even to Remington. The better areas to catch catfish, particularly once the days start staying hot, is in the stretch from Fredericksburg to Kelly’s Ford. The deep pools in the river are key to catching channel cats. While you can catch them all day long, cloudy days or low light periods are going to be best.
Fish around the log jams or boulders in the outside bends of the river or below riffles. The larger cats will hit cut sunfish or chicken liver. Worms will definitely work on a split shot rig as well, but you might get other fish tangling with your line, including the massive carp in the river. Anglers might consider using a float and hanging their cut bait several feet below. Cast up current and cover water quicker or freeline the bait along. A canoe with a long anchor rope works great in the deep pools.
Takeouts are available at Fredericksburg, Motts Landing and at Kelley’s Ford. The average size channel catfish will be between 14 to 18 inches with plenty of fish up to and even over 20 inches for anglers using larger bait.
Click the video link above to get great catfishing tips for your future trip.
Further downriver from Port Royal to Tappahannock, the blue catfish reigns. Put-ins offer access at Port Royal (where there is a pier for shore-bound anglers), Wilmont Landing in King George and at Leedstown Campground in Oak Grove as well as Tappahannoc.
For eating-sized fish in great numbers, fish the mudflats at dawn and dusk. When the sun gets high the bite slacks off noticeably. I take kids from the school where I run an outdoor club and I have no heartburn about promising the kids 20-plus fish mornings. The fish average 15 to 25 inches, with some occasional 30-plus-inch fish. Cut shad is king for bait, although cut baitfish of any species, eel, chicken liver or even shrimp will work great. While fishing the flats along the shoreline, cast bait to woody structure. Freeline the baits or let them drift under a float and keep the bait a foot or so off the bottom. If you cannot reach over the side with your rod and touch bottom with it, you are too deep unless you are casting to the shallows. Stick ups, duck blinds and logs all hold nice fish. This is the place to take new anglers, young anglers or someone who gets bored easily. Your cooler will fill quickly and there is no limit on the catfish creel here.
BUGGS ISLAND BLUES
Buggs Island is home to blue catfish over 100 pounds. To successfully catch blue catfish this large, anglers need quality rods and reels. Stout line and a good fish finder are really critical pieces of gear to enjoy the great fishing that can be had here. Guide Chris Bullock, who runs Kerrcrappieandcats.com guide service, willing shares his knowledge and teaches people how to fish the massive lake.
According to Bullock, the catfish are all over the lake now, but he focuses on two areas in July and August. He says that June is a very tough month to catch big catfish successfully and consistently because they are spawning in the upper ends of the creeks and way upriver. In July and August, however, he fishes for them during the day off points, creek mouths and river mouths, in 18 to 35 feet of water. He finds the “grocery store” (a school of shad or baitfish), and then sends down a Santee Rig and drifts or trolls very slowly through the baitfish with his bait. He likes to use crappie heads left over from his crappie trips or crappie filets woven on a 10/0 circle hook. One could use shad filets too.
He employs 65- to 80-pound PowerPro braid with 40-pound leaders on his Santee rigs; he gets the bait down to the fish with up to 2 ounces of weight. His normal summer catches are 15-20 catfish averaging 12 pounds with some 40 to 60 pounders in the mix. He also has started using planer boards like the striper guides are using to cover more water and increase his catch rate. If you are in need of professional tutoring on Buggs Island catfish, give him a call at 252-902-4039.
JAMES RIVER FLATHEADS AND BIG BLUES
A favorite catfish destination in the state has to be the James River. For flatheads, the area between Lynchburg and Bremo Bluff can be accessed at the New Canton Boat Ramp. The riverine habitat in this area includes big boulders and deep holes. These are favorite haunts of the flatheads, which enjoy dark and murky places to ambush live prey. Anglers should fish live bluegill or shad (if you can get them). Freeline them or put just enough weight to get them where you want them. Flatheads relate strongly to structure and your bait should be right next to it or actually in it. For that reason, a strong reel and stout line of up to 60-pound test is recommended. A barrel swivel will keep the brutes from getting any leverage while twisting when hooked. Some anglers employ circle hooks too.
Dan Goetz, fisheries biologist for VDGIF, noted that when the water level is normal or even slightly high and with some color to it, the fish seem to hold closer to the boulders. If you can see the bottom, the fish may be more scattered. He also shared that the average flathead is likely to be in the 30-inch range.
Further downriver from the City of Richmond to below Hopewell, there are multiple guide services, including Capt. Mike Ostrander (www.discoverthejames.com) offering chances at blue cats ranging up to 60 pounds. There are also bluecat and flathead opportunities upriver to Bosher’s Dam.
Capt. Ostrander noted that the most popular tidal ramps are likely Jordan Point Marina and Osborne Landing. In the non-tidal section, for kayak anglers, Huguenot Flatwater is an excellent area to target both blue catfish and flathead catfish. Anglers should focus on using fresh cut shad and deploying baits along the edges of the channel or in swirling eddies along cut banks coupled with structure such as fallen trees. In the tidal James, old wing dams are perfect fish attractors. Use your fish finder to locate such areas and then mark them when you find them. Fishing at night is best in June through August. Capt. Ostrander also suggested putting baits at various depths using an 8/0 size circle hook and 3 to 8 ounces of weight on a fish finder rig. A stout rod able to handle fish up to 60-plus pounds of angry catfish would be prudent.
SANDY RIVER RESERVOIR CHANNELS
Sandy River Reservoir (740 acres) is in Prince Edward County and has an excellent channel catfish population. Biologists stock the reservoir annually with 7,400 channel catfish. Anglers commonly catch 16- to 24-inchers (2- to 5-pound fish). A fish up to 10 pounds is not out of the question, though, so bring your better gear to fish here.
Biologists say that they see channel catfish while sampling gently sloping banks and areas near woody structure. VDGIF has dropped hinge trees into the lake which are easily seen. Fish around these and if you are using a fish finder, look for the piles of used Christmas trees that have been sunk into the water too. A third target would be the coves with structure or vegetation in them. Of course, fish the bottom to find the most fish.
Setting out multiple lines with various baits at various depths is a good strategy. Chicken liver, gobs of night crawlers, cut perch or shad and minnows are good choices. Once you find what the fish are after, switch to that. On any given day, catfish in a reservoir tend to be found all at the same depths and around the same cover for the most part. If you are not getting bites in 15-20 minutes, move around until you do. When the bite wears off, move again.
The fish don’t seem to prefer one end of the reservoir over the other but they do tend to bite better on a summer night versus daytime. Sandy River Reservoir does allow fishing 24 hours a day. Boats and motors up to 10 horsepower can be used. There is a 15-inch minimum size limit and 8 creeled catfish are permitted per day. The reservoir has a double lane concrete ramp, a 150-foot fishing pier (don’t overlook fishing around the pier at night with chicken liver), paved parking lot and restrooms. No trotlines are permitted.
LAKE ORANGE CHANNELS
Lake Orange in Orange County is 124 acres. The lake is stocked annually at a rate of 15 fish per acre. The creel surveys done at the lake indicate that most fish taken home are approximately a pound in size, but the average size catfish is bigger. Channel catfish are the second most creeled fish at the lake and the fishery is in good shape.
The lake is not so large that it is hard to find the fish. In fact, many catfish anglers report success all over the lake. However, the midlake and upstream half of the lake from the pier up gets a lot of attention from bait dunkers. The downstream right bank of the lake also tends to hold decent numbers of fish under the trees. Fish the low-light times of day during the summer to work towards your 10-fish limit.
A medium-action rod with a simple bottom rig or even just a small slip sinker and a No. 2 or No. 4 hook will do the job well. Look for the fish attractors, dropped trees or other structure to have the best chance at enticing a catfish. Using stinkbait or cutbait keeps other fish off your hook, but worms or minnows will work well too. Fish depths less than 10 feet deep during the summer. At night you can fish even shallower as the fish move up to look for a meal.
The lake has a boat ramp and a concession stand (540-672-3997) that can help direct you to the current haunts of the fish as well as provide snacks, bait and other gear. There are picnic facilities and plenty of shoreline access. Only electric motors can be used at Lake Orange. The lake is not very close to many stores so be sure to bring your gear and necessities or call ahead to the concession stand to see if Darrel Kennedy has what you need.
Grab your catfish gear and head to one of our featured destinations to ice down a tasty meal of catfish filets. The fishing is very productive and fun. Try night fishing too — for a great way to beat the summer heat.