Your Guide To Virginia's Best Catfish Angling
September 30, 2010
Here's a region-by-region look at the best catfish hotspots in the state. (June 2007)
Photo by Marvin Spivey.
Among Virginia anglers, catfish angling is second in popularity only to bass fishing these days, and I am fairly certain there are some anglers who would argue it is equally as popular. No matter whether you are a bank-bound angler, a big-water catman, a meat angler wanting to catch dinner or a trophy-catfish hunter, Virginia has it all for you. We will take a region-by-region look at the catfish opportunities available and highlight the best ones.
If trophy fish are your passion, there are two places in Virginia that you need to fish. Obviously, the lower James River is one of them. The James River holds the new state-record blue catfish. The record fish was caught last July 5 at approximately 10 p.m. by Archie Gold, who released the 95.7-pound fish back into the river after getting a certified weight.
The record fish is just one of many mammoth cats that have been hauled over the gunnels over the past few years in Virginia's Tidewater region. Most anglers targeting trophy catfish on the James prefer to fish the stretch of the river from Dutch Gap to Brandon.
Bob Greenlee, district fisheries biologist for the region, pointed out that blue cats were introduced into the James in the mid-1970s and finally took off in the late '80s and early '90s. Since then, abundant forage in the form of gizzard shad, herring and perch have boosted the population and size structure in an incredible way. Fish in the 30- and 40-pound range are abundant and fish upward of 50 and 60 pounds are not uncommon anymore.
Trophy cat hunters who fish the James use a fish finder and target deep cut channels with nearby structure that holds bait. This scenario seems to change little from season to season. Deep cut channels and structure are not hard to find on the lower James, and therefore, there are plenty of fishing spots.
The best trophy catfish angling on the James occurs from late fall through mid-spring, although as noted above, record-breaking fish can be caught in the hottest part of the summer!
Greenlee points out that there are a number of access points on the James that will put you near excellent fish-holding water.
Anglers targeting blue catfish in the James can access the river from the Deep Bottom Landing in Henrico County or the Chickahominy Riverside Park in James City County. Private access points include Jordan Point Marina east of Hopewell. Farther upstream, anglers can access the river at Dutch Gap Landing in Chesterfield County or Osborne Landing in Henrico County.
Although the James River is famous for large catfish, the whole Tidewater region is thick with catfish opportunities. Every tidal river that crosses the region holds catfish, mostly blue cats, which push the scales over 40 and 50 pounds.
The Rappahannock tends to play second fiddle to the James for monster catfish, but whatever it lacks in size the Rapp has the James in numbers of eating-sized fish that are safe to eat. (The James has an eating advisory concerning catfish consumption.)
Since the breach of the Embry Dam several years ago, channel catfish have spread upriver from Fredericksburg and are also fairly common downriver to Port Royal. Once below Fredericksburg, the mighty blue cat begins to seriously outcompete the channel. Blue catfish are very common all the way to Tappahannock and can even be caught below Tappahannock with regularity in the tidal tributaries of feeder creeks where the salinity level is lower.
Catching a bucket of eating-sized fish is no difficult task on the river. Bank-anglers in Fredericksburg can take channel catfish with chicken liver, worms or cut bait by drift-fishing or bottom-fishing. Wading anglers can target Mr. Whiskers upriver with the same bait in pools and deep holes, while bank-anglers or small-boat anglers will find all the fishing they can handle downstream to Leedstown. Target side channels, submerged structure, such as woody debris and tidal creeks for intense action.
Just about any bait can be used with success. However, it is hard to beat the fun that can be had by drifting bait along the bank with a float. The action really takes off after the spawn in late May and June, too.
Popular launch ramps for boat-anglers include Port Royal Fish House, aka Catfish Central at Port Royal. A daily report on the fishing can be obtained by calling (804) 742-5515. Leedstown Campground at Leedstown offers anglers a direct shot at a myriad of sloughs, creeks and backwaters teeming with feisty blue cats and channels. One does not need to fish out of sight of the dock to load up with catfish here.
Fredericksburg has two ramps. The City Dock on the city side of the river has a great ramp and parking. Smaller boats wanting to avoid the crowds might try Little Falls just off Route 3 in Stafford.
The Mattaponi and Pamunkey are great catfish rivers, too, and both have numbers of channel cats in the upper reaches of the river, with blue cats dominating the scene downriver to West Point. A small boat is the best way to take advantage of these rivers, but if one has access to the riverbank via private land, the fishing is fine, too. Use fresh live or cut bait to catch the largest fish. Worms, chicken liver or shrimp get plenty of attention from the smaller 2- to 5-pound fish.
VDGIF has a ramp at Aylett on the Mattaponi. On the Pamunkey, the VDGIF ramp is Lester Manor off Route 633.
The Southern Piedmont is without doubt the home to the second-best trophy cat water in the state. Buggs Island Reservoir is a hit with many Southside cat hunters that want bragging rights to a new state record. Buggs Island has the second-largest blue cat on record with a 92-pound blue catfish caught by William Zost in 2004.
Like the James River, Buggs Island is flush with good forage to keep the monster catfish fat and happy. Gizzard shad are abundant and fairly easy to catch with a cast net. Fresh, live or cut bait is definitely the way to go for big catfish at Buggs Island.
The stretch of lake from Clarksville to the confluence of the Dan and Roanoke rivers is a very popular place to hunt trophy blues at Buggs. Anglers who find consistent success at Buggs look for structure and bait together in water down to 30 feet deep. Old channels, stumps and treetops are good indications to look for on your fish finder.
A center-console boat outfitted with a quality fish finder is standard trophy hunter ge
ar on Buggs, but small boats and bank-anglers will find plenty of good fishing from the banks. Blue cats 3 to 4 pounds and channel catfish weighing a pound are very common and are easily caught in the numerous coves and creeks off the main lake.
Try cut bait and stink bait for channel catfish and fresh cut herring and shad or jumbo minnows for blue cats.
Night-fishing is very popular at Buggs. Many anglers make use of the Hydro Glow fish lights to attract bait and then catfish during the summer. Fish shallow water at night to cash in on Mr. Whiskers.
Some of well-known launches for anglers fishing Buggs include Occeneechee State Park, Bluestone Creek, Staunton View Creek, Nutbush Creek and Hyco Creek.
Trophy catfish anglers should keep in mind two things about blue catfish. First, only one fish measuring more than 32 inches may be kept per day. Second, there is a consumption advisory for large catfish on Buggs Island.
A second possibility for great catfishing in the region would be 740-acre Sandy River Reservoir in Prince Edward County. Dan Michaelson, VDGIF fisheries biologist, reports that it is stocked every year with 10 catfish per acre. There is some natural reproduction at Sandy River, but the biologist plans to continue the stocking program for the near future.
Sandy River Reservoir is a very popular place to go night-fishing. Most anglers that fish Sandy River prefer to use stink bait and chicken liver to attract their next meal. Anglers tend to target the shallow flats of the reservoir and Michaelson concurs that his sampling is showing that to be a productive area to find channel cats.
A good trip to Sandy River might yield 15 or 20 fish in the 18- to 24-inch range. Some fish are caught weighing up to 20 pounds!
As you get farther from the tidal rivers, the catfishing opportunities slim down and the size of the fish tends to decrease as well. However, there are still several great fishing locations that offer catfish enthusiasts a great day of fishing.
John Copeland, fisheries biologist for the region, pointed to three small impoundments in his region that hold good numbers of stocked channel catfish.
"Gatewood Reservoir in Pulaski County, Lovill's Creek Lake in Carroll County and Rural Retreat Lake in Wythe County are stocked with sub-adult (10- to 12-inch) channel catfish every other year."
Copeland went on to tell us that anglers are already confirming that the catfishing is improving at all three waters.
Flathead enthusiasts will be glad to know that, according to Copeland's surveys, the New River continues to give up good flathead catches.
"Catfish catches in the section below Claytor Lake were higher in Giles County than in Montgomery County, although the catch and harvest rates were lower than those for catfish anglers upstream from Claytor Lake. Anglers are more successful in the areas upstream from Claytor Lake in the section of the New River from Fries Dam to Allisonia (in Wythe and Pulaski counties)."
According to the electro-sampling data, the better flathead water includes the river at Austinville, Foster's Falls and Rich Creek.
In Claytor Lake, the most abundant catfish are the channel catfish, which are most often caught during the summer months in the upper end of the lake. Flatheads are caught in the midlake and lower end of the lake. Some flatheads up to 30 pounds are now being taken in Claytor Lake. Look for major underwater points near the main-lake channel and use live bait such as bluegills for the big flatheads.
The Shenandoah River system has a great channel catfish fishery. The deep power pools and abundance of structure in the form of woody debris and rocks are prime habitat for channels. Use dead minnows and stink baits to drift-fish the pools while canoeing or even while fishing from the bank. There is a consumption advisory on eating the catfish in the main stem of the river due to PCBs. Anglers fishing the South Fork of the river are advised not to eat more than two meals per month because of mercury.
Paul Bugas, VDGIF fisheries biologist, also suggested that channel cat enthusiasts visit Lake Frederick, Lake Roberson or any of the other small impoundments in the region. Nearly all of them have good channel cat populations and the water quality poses no problem for anglers wanting to take home a stringer of fish.
Target sloping points, deep holes and coves for the best catfishing. Get your bait down to the bottom. A medium-action spinning or spin-cast setup will work well for catfish in the mountain impoundments.
Maryland DNR technically manages the Potomac River, but a Virginia fishing license is valid while fishing the waters. It is the opinion of many anglers that the Potomac will soon rival the James River in size of blue catfish.
Most anglers are still catching channel catfish, but blue catfish are making haste to change that. Most of the better blue catfish fishing is found just upstream of the Morgantown Power Plant to the Indian Head area. A good fish finder mounted on a center-console boat makes a good catfish boat on this wide river. Look for deep holes and ledges coupled with structure. Be advised the fast-moving weather can make the water rough in short order; therefore, anglers are encouraged to keep an eye on the weather.
Channel catfish are abundant in the river from the Harry Nice Bridge all the way to the West Virginia line. On the tidal section of the river, it is hard to beat bottom-fishing a piece of cut perch, peeler crab or shad. Stout 7-foot baitcasting or heavy-duty spinning rods and reels are necessary to battle the fish you may encounter in this stretch of the river. It is not uncommon to hook a skate while catfishing during the summer, either.
To catch channel catfish, find the edge of the channel, a dropoff, a shoal or riprap with baitfish around it and the fishing will be hot. The downtide sides of shoals are particularly good locations.
A map that will help anglers pinpoint the shoals is put out by GMCO Maps (GmcMaps.com). A good fish finder will do the rest. Some fish finders, such as the later model Lowrance models, have excellent mapping software that leads anglers to such locations. These units are incredible aids to finding perfect fish structure. Look for bait balls before dropping a line overboard.
Upriver, catfish can be caught in any of the creeks or off the bank with ease. Worms, cut bait and chicken liver are very effective on channel catfish. Keep in mind that there is a consumption advisory concerning catfish.
Anglers looking for a pond or lake to fish will find Burke Lake in Fairfax County, Lake Brittle in Fauquier County, Lake Curtis
in Stafford County and Lake Orange in Orange County offer northern Virginia anglers a good selection of destinations with a real chance to take home a fresh meal of clean channel catfish. All are regularly stocked with catfish.
Anglers may expect to harvest fish in the 2- to 3-pound range, but fish up to 20 pounds are possible. The old standby technique of dunking chicken liver, stink bait, night crawlers and minnows on the bottom works well. However, some anglers will find that using a johnboat or canoe with a fish finder to locate humps or ledges with boulders, treetops or stumps nearby will increase their take of channel catfish. Most of the catfishing pressure occurs in the summer months during the day and night. Remember that the harvest is limited to 20 per day/per person.
Catfishing in Virginia is as easy as going to your local river or lake. Most waters have a thriving catfish population and the fight that even a 2-pound fish will put up makes the trip exciting. Take a child with you and show them how much fun fishing for Mr. Whiskers can be!