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Virginia's Catfish Angling Outlook

Virginia's Catfish Angling Outlook

One of the surest bets in angling is that in Virginia no one lives too far from some good catfish waters. Here is a guide to some of the best across the state. (June 2009)

Although of the "big three" catfish the flathead is probably least often targeted, Virginia anglers do have a number of trophy flathead fisheries.
Photo courtesy of Mark Fike.

Virginia has hundreds of thousands of square miles of fishable waters and the majority of that water is home to one of three common species of catfish -- blue, channel and flathead. With so many waters to fish for catfish, it can be tough trying to figure out where your best chances lie in hooking up with a bruiser or a stringer of eating-sized fish. We have done the homework for you here, breaking down the information by region to point you to the best locations in your area to have a successful trip.

The Tidewater region of Virginia is nationally famous for producing mammoth blue catfish and even trophy flathead catfish. The bulk of this action occurs on the Tidal James River, which is full of good forage year 'round in the form of shad. With so much food available, the blue catfish on the James grow big very fast. The state-record blue catfish came from the James River and tipped the scales at over 95 pounds.

There are large numbers of trophy blue cats in the river and it is not uncommon for a knowledgeable angler to take a half dozen citation-sized blue catfish (over 30 pounds) in a leisurely day of fishing. The best places to look for blue catfish and big flatheads is over structure along the banks, over channel ledges and drop­offs, and holes or secondary channels in mud flats.

We spoke with VDGIF fisheries biologist Bob Greenlee about the flathead population and where anglers might best locate them. Greenlee noted that flatheads are expanding their range.

"Flathead catfish are increasing in number in the upper sections of the Tidal James River from the fall line in Richmond downstream to Hopewell," he said.

I observed this action first hand on a guided trip with Captain Mike Ostrander, who took my father-in-law, Larry Stewart, and I out for a winter trip this year. The first big catfish that Stewart caught was a citation 28-pound flathead that took a cut hunk of fresh gizzard shad, which according to both Greenlee and Ostrander, tends to be a favorite on the catfish menu.


Captain Ostrander explains that he often encounters flatheads on the James and even specifically targets them when the water is warm. Live shad, herring or sunfish and very fresh cut bait will entice these chocolate-colored fish to bite.

The Tidal James not only has a reliable fishery for trophy catfish, but there is an abundance of blue catfish in general of all sizes. Greenlee says that since the blues were introduced in the mid-1970s, they have really taken off. The first 50-pound blue cat was caught in the late 1990s and then size has only increased since.

"Today catches of fish over 50 pounds are common, and anglers regularly report catches of fish in the 70-pound range, with occasional catches in the 80-pound range. Several anglers have recently reported catching fish in the lower 90-pound range, and it would not be surprising if this river produced a 100-pound blue cat in the near future," he said.

There are dozens of private and public landings on the river where anglers can launch anything from a johnboat to a large powerboat to fish from. The best section of the river to fish for trophy catfish is from downtown Richmond to Hopewell.

Anglers need to be aware of two things. First, only one blue catfish over 32 inches may be creeled, but unlimited numbers of catfish under 32 inches may be taken on the tidal portion of the river. Second, anglers should check the Virginia Department of Health Fish Consumption Advisory Web site to determine what is safe to eat.

Farther north in the region anglers would do quite well to cast a line into the tidal Rappahannock River. The tidal Rappahannock River is teeming with an abundance of eating-sized blue catfish and good numbers of channel catfish too. The river offers outstanding fishing from the I-95 bridge just above the fall line downstream to Leedstown. There are bank-fishing opportunities at Fredericks­burg at the City Dock and along the banks of the city. Farther downriver, anglers can fish at Little Falls boat ramp, the $5 Hole, Wilmont Landing in King George and Leedstown Campground in Leedstown near Oak Grove.

Both bottom-fishing and float-fishing work very well in this stretch of the river. If you are float-fishing, be sure to cast near the bank where the logjams and stick ups hold large numbers of fish. Most of the fish caught in this stretch of the river will be blue catfish in the 1- to 5-pound range.

For more information on Capt. Ostrander's Guide Service, visit or call (804) 938-2350

The Southern Piedmont Region is home to some very good catfish angling opportunities, including Buggs Island, which we feature each year, the upper James and Sandy River Reservoir.

We went to VDGIF's fisheries biologist Dan Michaelson to get his take on the catfish opportunities in the region. Michaelson suggests that Sandy River Reservoir is a great place to fish for channel catfish. The reservoir is providing great forage in the form of gizzard shad and sunfish for the channel catfish, which grow fast.

"Growth is good, with fish reaching 16 inches by year five. Fishing pressure has increased in the past five years, with fishing tournaments for the channels occurring since 2006. The largest and oldest catfish sampled at Sandy was 28 inches and was 10 years old," Michaelson said.

Michaelson also notes that the channel catfish was tied as the "third most fished for" species here, just behind largemouths and crappie. Most of the channel catfish caught at Sandy River are around 15 inches long, but there are some fish up to 25 inches.

The second water that we are featuring this year is the middle James River. Michaelson tipped us off that not only is the New Canton pool great for channel catfish, but fall fishing for flatheads is quite good, with a number of fish weighing over 20 pounds being caught each season. Live sunfish are dynamite bait when fished on a slip-sinker rig or a bottom rig at New Canton. Cut bait is also a good choice for flatheads. Use the freshest bait possible to get the largest fish.

Buggs Island is, of course, a real hard water to beat in terms of catfishing. The lake is so huge that anglers

can fish anywhere and catch catfish. However, there are a few things that will tip the scales in favor of anglers. First, focus on tributaries such as the large creeks that feed the lake; second, be sure to fish old roadbeds and creek channels where the fish suspend on ledges and dropoffs.

The sizes of catfish in Buggs vary tremendously from a few pounds to 50 or 60 pounds. Don't go out under gunned, though -- blue cats over 90 pounds have been caught at Buggs.

In this region, Claytor Lake is likely the top place to wet a line for either channel catfish or flathead catfish. We went to John Copeland, fisheries biologist for VDGIF, to find out what he could tell us about Claytor Lake catfish.

Copeland told us that there is a healthy population of channels at Claytor and a good population of flatheads too. As would be expected, most anglers use bottom rigs to catch their dinner. However, Copeland cautioned that fishermen should focus on points less than 30 feet deep because of low oxygen levels in deep water during the summer. Copeland had a few additional tips for catfish enthusiasts fishing at Claytor.

"Freelining near the thermocline during the summer might work well for locating catfish because the alewives pile up at that level. The upper end of the thermocline runs about 40 to 50 feet deep in most summers. I would look for schools of bait on your depthfinder to try to locate good areas."

Another tip that Copeland had for anglers was a choice of bait many might not think of for channel catfish.

"Imitating one of the prey items of channel catfish, which is Hexagenia mayflies in June and July, is done by many locals," Copeland said. "The hatch of these large-bodied, burrowing mayflies peaks on Claytor Lake in late June, but the hatch usually begins in early June and persists into mid-July. I have met anglers at Claytor Lake who collect adult mayflies, and then bait hooks with them. Some people even freeze some of the mayflies they collect and use them for bait later."

Copeland did add that cut bait or live bait would work best for flatheads.

The Shenandoah River and the South Fork have outstanding populations of catfish that offer great angling. Steve Reeser, VDGIF biologist, regularly samples the river and keeps a good pulse on what is happening on this beautiful waterway.

He says that as you travel farther downstream the channel catfish densities increase. Some of the specimens that are turned up on the electro-shocking trips weigh between 8 and 10 pounds. Most channel cats, however, are in the 2- to 4-pound range.

If he were fishing for catfish, Reeser says, he would spend a lot of time on the main stem of the river in the slower current areas near structure. If the South Fork is your water, then hit the area in Page and Warren counties for the best fishing.

In this section of the river, there are large boulders in the channels or just out of the channels, rock ledges and logs, which stay dark during the day. You can bet that the bigger catfish are haunting these areas, waiting for a meal to come within ambush range. Reeser also confides that biologists did some night electrofishing work last fall and found that the catfish did move into shallow water and to the headwaters of pools after dark to feed.

These catfish respond well to stink baits, cut bait and night crawlers cast into the river. Chicken liver is an outstanding choice, too. Anglers do need to visit the Virginia Department of Health Web site for the consumption advisory, since there is mercury and PCBs in the river. The Web site is DEE/PublicHealthToxicology/Advisories/index.htm.

The Northern Piedmont Region is pretty much my back yard when it comes to fishing. Because the choices of catfish destinations are endless, I went to the regional fisheries guru to get his take on the possibilities to whittle things down a bit.

John Odenkirk makes three recommendations: the Rappahannock River as we mentioned in the Tidewater section, Lake Orange for a small impoundment and Occoquan Reservoir for a large impoundment.

The upper Rappahannock from Fredericksburg up to the I-95 bridge and even beyond is primarily a channel catfish water now, although the blue catfish are becoming more common near the Route 1 bridge. Bank-fishing opportunities are more than ample and wade fishing in the summer is very good. While wade-fishing or fishing from the bank, anglers do quite well to use a float and suspend bait below it 18 to 24 inches. Cast the bait upstream and let it float down past rocks and boulders. When the float goes under, tighten the line and then set the hook.

If you prefer to freeline or use a split shot, the same method can be employed, but be sure to keep the line as tight as possible to avoid snags. For bait in this section of river, cut herring or shad works best, followed by sunfish, worms and chicken liver.

Bottom-fishing is better below the Route 1 bridge, where there are less boulders and wider water to fish. The water is not as turbulent either. However, when a steady rain stains the river bottom, fishing in the swirling holes upriver or the tidal section near the fall line is outstanding with chicken liver. It is not uncommon to fill out a stringer with the allotted 20-fish creel above the bridge or fill a cooler below the bridge where there is no limit. Most fish will be in the 1- to 4-pound range, although a few fish to 10 pounds may be taken. Catch and keep all you can to help the fishery.

Odenkirk seconded this by saying, "There are many small fish and they need to be harvested. Growth is slow compared to other rivers. Great habitat means reproduction is off the charts. Our Catch per Unit Effort (catch per hour in electroshock surveys) is in the hundreds of fish per hour."

Lake Orange is also a great destination for channel catfish. The water is clean, so this lake provides both a good place to have fun and the chance to take home dinner. The lake is stocked at a high rate and good productivity. VDGIF fertilizes the lake and there is plenty of good forage too. Anglers will find a bait shack that carries tackle, bait and snacks and rental boats. The bank-fishing is good, and there are plenty of places to access by boat to take home a good stringer of fish.

Many anglers use chicken liver or stink bait to entice the channels. Most Lake Orange catfish are in the 2- to 8-pound range, according to Odenkirk. In the future, the creel limit may be reduced; anglers here often meet with success, and biologists are monitoring the pressure on the catfish population. Reducing the creel limit would spread the harvest out to all anglers.

Finally, we would be remiss if we didn't mention the catfish angling at Occoquan Reservoir. The state-record flathead catfish was hauled out of this reservoir and anglers who target flatheads here with the right combination of baits and locations will usually catch flath

eads. Odenkirk stated that in their samples they also regularly see fish in the 20- to 40-pound range downlake near the Lake Ridge access. Anglers need to focus on the deep dropoffs and channels to get these bruisers. Other locations where the fish have been commonly caught or sampled are the coves near Fountainhead Park.

When fishing for flatheads, be sure to take gear that will withstand their strong runs. Anglers who have a cast net or who use fresh-caught shad or alewife are going to get the most action. The reservoir has a good population of both forage fish. Most of the angling at Occoquan is by boat, but the water is calm enough that any size boat will work.

No matter where you choose to fish this season, there are plenty of opportunities for taking home either a trophy catfish memory or a stringer of eating-sized fish. The waters we listed here are deemed to be the best of the best, but there are plenty of other excellent catfish fisheries in Virginia, including small impoundments, such as the urban fishing areas, which are stocked and VDGIF ponds and lakes. If you are able to catch a big fish or your son or daughter fills a stringer, please send us a photo for the Camera Corner.

Good fishing!

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