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Virginia is for ... Catfish Lovers

Covered Up in Cats: The hardest-fighting fish in the East? Virginia's flathead and blue catfish await.

Virginia is for ... Catfish Lovers
Guide Christian Moore (right) has a reputation for putting clients on big James River blues. (Photo courtesy of Reel Country Guide Service)

Catfish own a hallowed place in American fishing lore. Aggressive and anything but fussy when it comes to foraging, they give anglers young and old ample reason to hit the water. Virginia, with its network of tidal rivers feeding toward Chesapeake Bay, offers some of the best catfishing in the country. Blue catfish, introduced from the Mississippi River system decades ago, grow to tremendous sizes. Flatheads are increasingly common in rivers such as the James, especially above the fall line, the point where the tidal waters end.

LOCAL INTEL

For 12 years, Billy Nicar guided part-time for catfish to supplement his income from a local sporting goods store. He’s hung up his guiding hat, but the Henrico County native still enjoys targeting flatheads in the James River.

“They tend to be more readily accessible [than blue catfish],” Nicar says. “They are abundant throughout the river section flowing through the city of Richmond. A lot of this water can be accessed by wading, making it easy for those without a boat to go fishing for trophy-sized fish. Plus, it can be a very convenient fishery for someone who may only have a few hours to fish or doesn’t want to go through the hassle of launching a boat on a given day.”

big catfish in net
Fishing multiple rods on a slow planer board troll will often get the job done on blue cats. Peak river flow is when blues feed the best. (Photo courtesy of Reel Country Guide Service)

During his guiding days, Nicar fished primarily from an inflatable whitewater raft. Now he launches his kayak when fishing the fresh water above the James’ fall line. He says bigger boats are necessary as you head downstream where the river widens.

Nicar likes light tackle, including fly-fishing gear. He holds four International Game Fish Association records for flatheads, including an amazing 25-pound, 3-ounce fish caught on a 2-pound tippet. He also holds the 4-, 6- and 8-pound tippet records. His biggest cats, a 44-pound flathead and a 73-pound blue, came on conventional gear. The big flathead took an artificial lure while the blue gulped freshly cut shad.

Nicar’s favored flathead baits include live sunfish, catfish, shad and goldfish in the 4- to 7-inch range. He also uses freshly cut offerings of the same. For big blues, he’ll bait up with large pieces of freshly cut gizzard shad, hickory shad, eel or sunfish, as well as live eels, sunfish, shad and goldfish where legal.

THE BIGGEST BLUES

Fulltime guide Christian Moore hails from Summerfield, N.C., but now lives in southeastern Virginia. He got hooked on catching big, powerful blue catfish nearly 20 years ago. Since 2011, his focus has been on catching trophy-size fish, and he studies their behavior along with the patterns of their prey.

Moore, a regular top-three finisher on the local catfish tournament circuit, says Mother Nature and time on the water are his biggest teachers.

“Most of my trips are on the James River for the simple fact that it seems to draw the most attention from fishing enthusiasts hoping to catch a trophy blue catfish,” he says. “But I do offer trips on the Rappahannock, Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers, too.”v

When not fishing moving water, Moore likes Virginia’s Kerr Lake, which produced the IGFA all-tackle record blue catfish, a 143-pounder, in 2011.

“Anchor fishing is my bread and butter in moderate current,” Moore says. He uses 50-pound monofilament Slime Line with a 100-pound leader when anchored, a classic doubling-up scenario. He prefers mono over braid for its forgiving stretch and better shock-absorbing capability.

“Blue catfish are travelers, man,” says Moore. “They can move 5 to 6 miles in a day depending on what they’re feeding on, whether it’s the shad, crappie or herring. I use three different baits, primarily—gizzard shad, white perch and eels. I’ve never used artificial bait to target trophy fish. Sometimes I fish these baits live or cut them depending on water conditions and time of year.”

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His rod, reel and terminal tackle are consistent across the techniques. His go-to rod is a 7-foot-6-inch, medium-heavy-power, light-action casting rod from Catch the Fever Outdoors, which he pairs with a Penn or Daiwa level-wind reel.

Moore downsizes to 20- to 25-pound line (again doubling-up on the leader) when using planers, especially on reservoirs when fish are on shallow flats. “The smaller diameter generates less resistance in the water column,” he says.

“All of my blue catfish hooks are 10/0 in size, some with thicker wire than others depending on scenario. For instance, I’ll use the thinner wire Mustad Demons when pulling planer boards,” says Moore.

The only time he doesn’t use circle hooks is when he’s flathead fishing. Then he’ll use an octopus or J-style hook to better hook his fish for his clients.

DEEP IS RELATIVE

Nicar typically looks for trophy blue catfish from December through March. This is when cooler waters and slowed catfish metabolism tends to make them gravitate to structure in deeper water or river channels. Humps, big rocks, sunken trees, log jams, sunken boats, barges and old wharf structures act as current brakes and let the fish remain mostly stationary in the current without expending unnecessary energy and burning valuable calories, Nicar explains.

Moore targets similar river features depending on the season and the forage species the cats are targeting.

“I rely on traditional 2D sonar and side imaging to mark them,” he says. “Some of my peers have started using LiveScope, experimenting with the newer technology, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist. You need to learn to read the water to catch your fish.”

FISH THE DAY

Popular lore often references fishing for big cats at night, but both guides prefer daytime fishing.

“Everything is easier and safer in the light of day,” Nicar says. “The only exception to this is when fishing for trophy-size blue catfish during the summer. Larger catfish tend to be more active at night during the warm-water months.”

Moore notes that the same catfish that can travel miles daily, feeding voraciously in warm weather, can be homebodies during cold periods or on bright, sunny days. “Darkness presents a feeding paradise for predators then,” he says. “It’s easier for apex predators to hide themselves and ambush. On bright summer days, I’ll target deeper water.”

Finally, note that the bite can vary substantially on tidal rivers depending on the flow of the water. Moore says he finds that bigger fish, those weighing 30 pounds or more, tend to feed better in slower currents.

“Most fish are feeding fairly heavily when the water approaches peak flow,” Moore says. “As you approach slack tide, it’s easier for the bigger fish to move and feed.Whether the bite is better on incoming or outgoing is a location thing. Either way it’s a fishery that enables fishermen to fight and land some of the largest fish living in the waters of Virginia.”

Commonwealth of Catfish
  • Three top flows for Virginia whiskerheads.
cooler full of catfish
Channel cats might not grab headlines like the larger blues and flatheads, but a cooler full will yield many delicious meals. (Photo by Ken Perrotte)
  • James River

The James is blue catfish central in Virginia. Decades of electrofishing and catch reports from anglers show abundant blues in and around the mouths of major tributaries, such as Herring Creek, Upper Chippokes Creek and Powell Creek. Last year, movement data from tagged fish, ranging in size from 16 to 45 inches, showed that blue cats were often found in colder months near Weyanoke and Coggins points upstream or near the mouth of Upper Chippokes Creek. Summertime fish pushed upstream, above Presquile.

As waters warm, fishing near creek mouths can be productive. In the summer heat, daytime fish often hold in the river’s many deep pools, especially if structure is present. The stretch of main-stem water near the huge I-295 bridge area and the Benjamin Harrison Bridge, both near Hopewell and not far from where the Appomattox River merges with the James, are noteworthy, as is the area above Hopewell known as Dutch Gap. Flathead catfish in the James like the broken water punctuated with huge boulders and lots of structure and underwater debris near the fall line in Richmond. Flatheads are also commonly reported above Lynchburg.

  • Rappahannock River

Blue catfish are abundant throughout the tidal Rappahannock, from the fall line in Fredericksburg downstream. The area between Port Royal and Carters Wharf near Warsaw has a reputation for producing chunky blue cats. The river’s deep oxbows are migratory paths for forage fish.

  • Chickahominy River

Locally known as “the Chick,” this river flows into the James. Like most of Virginia’s tidal waters, big cats can often be found near the mouth of the river. On the Chick, both sides of the Route 5 Barrett’s Ferry Bridge have been known to produce big blues.


  • This article was featured in the May 2024 East edition of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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