Where's the best place to catch blue catfish in August? The answer might just be the Tidal James.
The first time I specifically went to the James River for catfish was May of 1995. My guide that day was Roger Jones, who then and now operates Hook, Line and Sinker Guide Service. On that outing, the biggest catfish that the Richmonder and I caught was a blue that weighed around 10 pounds. As someone who is primarily a bass fisherman, the fish seemed humongous, but Roger noted that it was merely a "nice" one and that a big fish would run several times the weight of that individual. Keep in mind that for an angler to earn a citation for blues, the fish must weigh at least 30 pounds or measure 38 inches.
Guide Roger Jones with a 10-pound blue catfish that he caught from the Tidal James. Fish this size are unbelievably common in the river.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.
Flash forward to 2008. I contact Jones to plan another junket to the Tidal James for catfish. And I inquire about the size of fish that he and his clients now catch.
"A 30-pound blue may be a citation, but I would not label it as a nice fish anymore," Jones said. "Today, people start to become excited when they catch a blue between 40 and 50 pounds. In 2007, my clients caught fish up to 65 pounds."
Not surprisingly, the state-record blue came from the James on June 15, 2006, a brute that weighed in at 95 pounds, 11 ounces. Archie D. Gold landed the creature -- what else could it be called? And even more amazingly, the guide expects that soon, some skilled or lucky Virginia angler will not only smash that record but maybe also obliterate it -- perhaps even this year.
"I have no doubt that blue catfish weighing over 100 pounds are right now swimming in the lower James," Jones proclaimed. "I know fishermen are actively trying to top that 100-pound barrier. Can you imagine the havoc a fish that size would cause?"
Bob Greenlee, district fisheries biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), was similarly confident that the 100-pound barrier could be broached and that it could happen on the Tidal James.
"I would not be surprised," Greenlee said. "For the past three years, we've had increasing numbers of 80-pound fish caught, with reports of several 90-pound-plus fish caught in addition to the state-record fish. Blue catfish have unreal size structure and unreal abundance.
"Anglers and guides have come to expect the upper end of their catch to increase by 10-pound increments every two or three years, as this has been the case since the mid-1990s. In addition to the upper limit of the catch expanding, the abundance of big fish in the system available to reach these sizes has been skyrocketing -- our catch rates for these fish have increased dramatically as has the distribution of these fish within the system."
Interestingly, blue catfish are not native to the James Watershed. Jones said that since their stocking several decades ago, the fish have continuously boasted larger average sizes and also dramatically increased in number. He emphasized that it is not uncommon for several individuals on a guided trip with him to duel with 40 to 50 fish per day.
"The population has just exploded, especially in the past 15 years," he exults. "I think a major reason for that is the increase in baitfish."
In fact, there are logical reasons for the blue boom, and increasing shad numbers are a part of that equation. The VDGIF instituted a restoration program for American shad in 1992 and millions of fry have been released into the James. Every year since 1999, shad have passed through the fish ladder at Bosher's Dam and have been doing so in ever-increasing numbers. Shad runs occur in April and May, and catfish are taking advantage of that phenomenon.
Jones added that from his experience, gizzard shad and white perch numbers also seem to be on the upsurge, and many fish of these species are finding themselves engulfed by the gaping maws of blues. Alewives are also improving in numbers, and the guide said that the past four years have all been good ones for baitfish reproduction.
In an era when guides like Jones expect their clients to catch numerous fish and some well past 40 pounds on any given excursion, and given the fact that catfish are among the best tasting fish, I had to ask the Richmonder if anglers were harvesting too many of the blues.
"I do ask my clients to consider releasing the trophy blues," he said. "And people are doing so after I take a few pictures for them. People seem to respect the necessity of catch-and-release in order to maintain this trophy fishery. In fact, a real catch-and-release ethic for blue catfish has come into existence on the Tidal James, and many guides are following it. What some fishermen are doing is taking their catfish to a local tackle shop, officially weighing the fish, and then returning them to the river and releasing them.
"But I also think that many fishermen don't want to clean a 30-pound blue. So when a catfish is kept, it is usually a 1- or 2-pounder. Folks seem to think that size fish tastes better."
Jones said that he is glad that the catch-and-release ethic on the James has come into existence. He said state anglers should be aware of what happened to the trophy catfishery that once existed on South Carolina's Santee Cooper. Anglers kept so many of the larger specimens that the quality of the fishery noticeably declined.
The guide related that commercial businesses also ply the James and take a considerable number of catfish. But he added that they mostly haul in small fish (1 to 3 pounds) and release the larger ones because the fillets of the former will more easily fit onto a restaurant plate.
Greenlee makes note of the commercial fishery as well.
"While the trophy aspect of this fishery gets most of the talk among anglers, there is an abundance of eating-sized blue catfish to be had throughout the Tidal James and its tidal tributaries," he said. "For several years now, there have been over 1.25 million pounds of catfish harvested annually from this system -- and this is not a bad thing.
"If anything, the commercial harvest has been one of the factors allowing blue catfish growth to remain at a level sufficient to sustain the outstanding trophy component of the fishery. In all of Virginia's tidal rivers where blue catfish occur, abundance of smaller fish, say up to 5 pounds, is almost unbelievable."
WHEN TO GO, WHAT TO USE
Jones said that there is no down season for Tidal James bl
ues. August is certainly a very good time to go, but the fall and winter months are even better -- especially for trophies. Greenlee agrees and notes that the winter period is a time when serious cat anglers target trophy-sized fish.
The hot bait currently, continued the guide, is a gizzard shad. Jones sometimes employs live baitfish (when he does, he hooks a shad through the nose with a No. 7 Mustad circle hook), but most of the time he cuts the bait into 5-inch strips and frequently replaces those used strips with fresh ones. Blues seem to much prefer the full-flavored strips than the washed-out ones. A good strategy involves replacing a cut bait every time a catfish is caught or when a solid run takes place.
Conventional wisdom states that anglers should be armed with heavy weight baitcasters and braided line when after trophy blue catfish. Interestingly, Jones opts for a medium action 7-foot fiberglass rod and 20-pound-test mono.
"For those big blues, you need a rod that has some flex to it, so that when a fish makes an unexpected major run, it won't break off," the guide explained. "That's the same reason I prefer mono -- it has plenty of stretch for those runs. Heavy-action rods with braid have no give at all."
Jones rounds out his tackle with a three-way swivel, which features an 8- to 10-inch leader with a 2- or 3-ounce weight attached, and on the third swivel, a 3- to 4-foot length of 20-pound-test with a Mustad hook.
WHERE TO GO
Jones said that he mostly concentrates on the main river, especially flats that border the main channel.
"Blue catfish often feed on the flats, but they will enter the main channel if they have to," he explained. "And, of course, the tide influences where they hold. When the tide is coming in, look for the fish to be in 10 feet of water on flats. When low tide is taking place, expect the fish to move deeper, often into the main channel."
Besides the main stem of the Tidal James, Jones often travels to the Appomattox River, as well as Herring, Wards and Chippokes creeks. This quartet offers plenty of water and large entrances at their mouths. Many smaller tributaries feature narrow mouths and mud flats -- which can lead to anglers' boats becoming sidelined.
IF YOU GO
You may contact Roger Jones at www.hooklineandsinkerguides.comor (800) 597-1708 or (804) 276-1924; the Richmond Visitors Bureau can be reached at www.visit.richmond.comor call (888) RICHMOND.