Come late summer, most catfish anglers are looking for deep holes. Try a new approach on these two tidal rivers during your next trip and you might be in for a pleasant surprise! (August 2006)
PHOTO BY JEFF SAMSEL
Summer, particularly late July and August, is the hottest and most humid time of the year. Catfish anglers spend their time on the water at night and most are busy sinking bait in 30 to 50 feet of water where the temperatures are cooler than the balmy shallows. What many anglers do not know is that large catfish prowl the shallows of tidal rivers at night looking for an easy meal. There are two Virginia tidal rivers where shallow-water angling is particularly good business: the James and the Rappahannock rivers.
The James River has produced many trophy blue catfish and will likely continue to do so because of its great forage base of gizzard shad, herring and perch. The deep waters, the plentiful structure and the popularity of catch-and-release angling on the river is a plus that helps the fishery thrive. While the fishing is good in the deeper stretches of the river, some of the hottest and most productive fishing during the summer is in the shallow-water areas.
Captain Kevin Salmon runs a guide service for trophy catfish on the James River. He specifically likes to fish from Deep Bottom down to Prequile NWR at night, and he fishes the shallow flats that are common on both sides of the river.
With miles of flats available to anglers, I had to ask Captain Salmon what makes a particular flat worth fishing.
"I like to look for a mud flat that has a trough running through it. The trough does not have to be that much deeper than the flat itself, but if it is located near deep water where the fish can access it easily, it will hold bait."
Captain Salmon went on to say that bait washes into the troughs when the tide is running. Many baitfish are hit by boats and are easy meals for large fish that are cruising the troughs looking for dinner. Flats may only be a few feet deep, but the deeper troughs give the predator catfish a way to ambush their prey.
"I fish on mud flats that are typically 5 to 8 feet deep. The trough may be 2 to 3 feet deeper and as little as 60 to 70 feet wide. This makes for a natural funnel for bait to congregate in and therefore passing catfish will take interest in the area," Salmon pointed out.
He also said that because of high boat traffic and activity on the water, anglers enjoy another advantage at night: reduced recreational activity. Periods of high boat activity, the guide believes, make the fish skittish. Because the fish tend to be spooked easily, it is important that anglers study their maps (GMCO puts out a great map for the James and Rappahannock) and either drift into a likely position or idle up to it from at least 100 yards away.
Captain Salmon noted that he has had bites come in as few as five minutes after putting out a line, but then sometimes it takes an hour or two. Salmon also told us that he has often had clients catch two or three good fish right away and then the action dies down for an hour or two before picking back up. This is not abnormal. It is also important to understand that a moving tide is key to catching fish. A slack tide is a great time to move to the next spot.
The veteran guide likes to have a few spots picked out for his trip and he moves to each one according to the tide and the times each spot tends to be best fished. For example, some flats or troughs are better on incoming tides, while others are better during the last two hours of an outgoing tide. A good angler will note this from trip to trip and take advantage of the best times to fish each location.
A good fish-finder is necessary to find shallow or subtle troughs on flats. Knowledgeable reading of the water and looking for changes in the current certainly help to find great fishing spots. Be willing to make notes on a map and in a notebook. Within a few trips you will have built up a good supply of fishing destinations.
Heavy-duty equipment is a must for anglers wanting to do battle with a monster catfish, and there are certainly monster fish in the James. Salmon puts out six to eight Ugly Stik rods with an Ambassadeur 7000 baitcast reel mounted to them. He uses a 10/0 circle hook and 8- to 12-ounce cannonball sinkers on 30-pound-test line. His clients watch him bait hooks with bloody gizzard shad and sometimes eels. The key to using shad and catching fish is the freshness and the blood on the bait. Washed-out bait is not worth using.
"Keep the bait out of the water at the bottom of the ice chest to avoid this," our expert advised.
Good launch sites include Dutch Gap, and Hopewell, which has a well-lit lot and is patrolled occasionally by the local police.
Captain Kevin Salmon, owner of James River Catfishing Guide Service on the James, is a good source of information. He can put clients on fish year 'round. His home number is (804) 991-2319 and his cell is (804) 691-1472.
The Rappahannock River is not as notorious for producing the sizes and numbers of catfish as the James, but there are still plenty of good fish to be had. Fish up to 60 pounds are not uncommon and fish in the 20- to 40-pound range are commonly caught. The meandering and undeveloped banks of the river from Hicks Landing down to Leedstown have plenty of flats and shallow areas that the larger fish cruise at night looking for easy meals of shad, perch, bream and eels.
The most exciting way to catch a bruiser catfish is to tangle with it in a few feet of water at night. Imagine the thrashing and splashing a 40-pound fish will put forth under the cover of darkness.
Some of the mud flats on the Rappahannock occur at the mouths of the wide bays that pile up on the curves along the river. Between the flats and the main shoreline, there are secondary channels that hold plenty of bait. In fact, most of the bays and tidal sloughs are where anglers can find fresh gizzard or mud shad for bait. Find a secondary channel running parallel to the main channel and you will find fish. Don't overlook the mouth of such channels where they dump into the main river. Anchor up on the flat and cast into the deeper water. Green Bay, Port Tobago, Nanzatico Bay and any of the other wide bays are good locations to begin fishing.
As with the James River, anglers need to remember that trophy-sized blue catfish do not "live" on the flats, but simply cruise through them, much like a hunter stalking a hardwoods lot. Sometimes the fish come through regularly for an hour or two and then there may be a few hours of
slack time before more fish come through.
Serious anglers are encouraged to keep notes of what they catch, the tide and water conditions and temperature. The tide and water condition are the most important because certain water movements and depths are most conducive to bait being in the area. A pattern should soon develop and anglers can begin hitting spots at certain tides to maximize their fishing efforts.
A note should be made here to caution anglers about the number of logs and stumps that lurk just below the surface on the flats. Before heading across a flat, be sure the route is clear and there is sufficient water to safely navigate. Carry a stout pole with duck feet on it to use in case the boat gets stuck.
Eels, whole white perch and, of course, shad are great baits. Keep the bait fresh and use enough weight to keep it down near the bottom. Don't be afraid to put out a few lines and use a variety of baits to find out what the fish are after that particular night.
Popular launch areas include Port Royal Fish House at the Route 301 bridge, Hicks' Landing off Route 17 in Caroline County, Wilmont Landing, King George County and Leedstown Campground in Westmoreland County near Oak Grove.
August may be a hot month, but the catfish action in the shallows can be even hotter. Give the skinny water a try this month and be sure to bring plenty of bait, bug spray and a big net. Good fishing!