Huge blue catfish swim the waters of the James River and Buggs Island Lake. Experts target these trophies in cold weather. Here's how they do it. (December 2005)
Monstrous blue cats, like this 47-pounder held by guide Mike Atkinson, are common in the James River and winter is a great time to catch them.
Photo by Marc N. McGlade
If you're as sad as a hound dog's eye about your fish-catching success during the winter months, perhaps a blue catfish venture to a Virginia location serving up ridiculously big specimens would ease the suffering. Blue cats can turn an otherwise uneventful winter day into a memory that will last a long time.
Unlike other fish species -- particularly the photophobic striped bass -- blue catfish bite in Virginia when sunny conditions are present, or under a gunmetal sky. Day, night or in between, these bottom dwellers feed throughout the year. Cold, hot or comfortable air temperatures do not matter much to blue cats.
This is hardly a news flash; this "secret" has been spreading for years like kudzu across Virginia and the rest of the South. Blue catfish are voracious predators and dine upon a broad range of prey. They tend to favor medium to large rivers (particularly tidal rivers in Virginia) that have deep channels, although they are prolific in some large lakes, too. Nowhere are there better examples of prime blue cat fisheries than Richmond's James River and Southside's Buggs Island Lake.
JAMES RIVER BRUISERS
"Large blue catfish prefer deep channels, and gravitate to areas, such as sunken barges, old pier pilings or downed trees in the channel or adjacent to channel dropoffs," said Bob Greenlee, a fisheries biologist from the Williamsburg office of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). "Blue cats under 10 inches prey upon small fish, including smaller blue catfish, invertebrates and mollusks, while larger blues are primarily piscivorous, feeding on gizzard and threadfin shad, white perch or eels."
Electrofishing samples taken by VDGIF personnel have shown that Major tributaries, such as Herring Creek, Upper Chippokes Creek and Powell Creek, support an abundance of blue cats. Based on the age and growth data, as well as population size structure, it's safe to say recruitment of blue cats in the James has been consistently strong.
"Growth is consistent, too," Greenlee said. "By age 5, they average 22 inches in length and weigh 5 pounds, and by age 10, the average blue cat in the James system weighs over 22 pounds and measures 34 inches."
The diet of these monsters is based upon their daily preferences.
"They eat anything they want," Greenlee joked. "These fish are limited only by the size of their mouths. Young catfish eat invertebrates, including mussels, clams and small fish. Once blue cats reach 12 inches, their diet is dominated by fish."
Capt. Mike Atkinson, owner of CAT-MAN-DO Guide Service, has a rapport with the monsters that lurk in Richmond's murky water. Atkinson, 41, has been guiding professionally since 2001, but has fished the tidal James since he was 16.
"I remember when big channel cats were the norm and blue cats were nonexistent in the James," the affable Dinwiddie native said. "Today, it's not uncommon to catch two blues that weigh as much as 100 pounds."
This whiskerfish guide generally spreads out only four rods, where many other catfish experts will cast six to eight lines around the boat. Sometimes catfish anglers anchored in the James resemble head boats in the Chesapeake Bay fishing for spots or croaker with all the crisscrossed lines in the water. That can make for a headache if a stud catfish decides to tangle the many lines dangling in the fertile water.
"The way that I cover water, I don't see the need to have that many rods out at the same time," Atkinson said. "Many times I've had three of the four rods go down at the same time, and having four versus eight reduces the confusion immensely when the bite is hot."
Atkinson uses a slightly different approach (compared with most anglers) on the business end of his catfishing setup. He normally runs two fish-finder rigs, with the exception that he pegs a cork about 4 to 6 inches above the bait to suspend it slightly off the bottom. As for the other two rigs -- they're fish-finder rigs, too -- he'll use a large spinner (above a series of beads) above the circle hook to promote vibration, acting as added attraction for catfish. A spinner blade will have no problem spinning when the tide is smoking on the James, thus producing sound vibrations that Atkinson feels is key to success.
"I believe a fish feeds off all of his senses, not just one," he said. "A catfish is nothing but a huge tongue, but they also pick up sensory movements well and the thump of the spinner blade above the beads helps. I snell my own circle hooks because I think the straighter and more rigid line off a snelled hook allows the hook to pull into the corner of the fish's mouth with ease."
This guide uses massive sinker sizes, ranging from 8 to 14 ounces. He believes the baits will hold on the bottom and will not roll with weights that heavy.
As for bait choices, Atkinson captures his own with a cast net, and is a firm believer that the fresher the bait, the better the fishing.
"If there's one secret to catching catfish on the James, it would be fresh bait," he added. "I like to use gizzard shad or river herring the most. I know a lot of people have success with eels, but I don't fool with them much because the shad and herring work so well for me.
"Once I have my bait, I like to look for any type of depth change or hard bottom. I think catfish relate well to hard, sandy or rocky bottoms. Any depth change from 5 to 20 feet can hold fish. Rockpiles, brushpiles or sunken barges that are related to ledges or any feature change can be phenomenal."
Atkinson varies the depth that he fishes depending on the weather conditions. For instance, on a sunny day, the water temperature will be slightly warmer in shallow water (10 to 15 feet) over a rocky bottom, he said. The shallower water warms up faster and fish will migrate there.
"The usual depth for blue cats on the James in winter is 15 to 40 feet," he said, "although in bitter cold, they could be in the 40- to 80-foot range."
Atkinson uses 7 1/2-foot medium or medium-heavy rods. A long, limber rod allows the fish more room with the circle hook before the slippery critter feels any tension. He spools his bait-casting reels with 30- to 40-pound-test monofila
ment for the standing line and 50-pound-test mono on the leader. Atkinson chooses leader lengths of 18 to 36 inches.
"Some of my favorite areas are from Osborne Landing down to Shirley Pit," he said. "A good wintertime hole is at the point of Presquile Isle. That point is 77 feet deep and if the weather is cold, it's a good place for big cats. There's also good fishing in the Deep Bottom area."
Wintertime is the time to catch some incredible fish. December through February is big-fish season, he said. You may or may not get many bites, but the fish are big.
"In winter, four or five blue cats ranging from 30 to 60 pounds is about average," Atkinson said.
For dead-of-winter freshwater fishing, it sure is hard to beat those numbers. James River catfish are formidable foes and test any tackle you throw at them -- and Atkinson knows the watering holes the big fish frequent.
THE BEST OF BUGGS
Angling for catfish at Buggs Island Lake is gaining popularity among whiskerfish die-hards. That might surprise some folks, but not fisheries biologists.
"In our 2001 creel survey, we found 15 percent of anglers were strictly targeting catfish -- blue, channel and flatheads," said Vic DiCenzo, a fisheries biologist from the Farmville office. "Monster-sized blue and flathead cats are now somewhat common. Who would have thought any place in the state could rival the James River for catfish popularity? Catfishing here is very popular today, and for good reason."
The great bass fishing on Buggs is no secret, nor is angling for blues and flatheads, now that word has seeped out. The blue cats first appeared in VDGIF studies back in the early 1990s.
They conducted their sampling over the entire lake, and the best concentrations were upstream of Clarksville. Their gear didn't collect large fish because of the limitations of the equipment.
"Don't think for one minute there aren't big cats in Buggs," said Dan Wilson, another VDGIF biologist. "There are enough big fish to really spark interest."
His statement has obviously been proven true now that Buggs Island is the current state record holder for blue catfish. When that 92 1/4-pound pig of a blue cat came from Buggs, die-hard cat gurus took serious notice. With the forage menu available, it's to no one's surprise that they are reproducing and growing so fast.
Steve Tollerson, co-owner of W&W Outdoor Adventures, a full-featured guide service in Clarksville, has boated flatheads as big as 48 pounds, 6 ounces, and blues to 37 1/2 pounds. Moreover, Tollerson, along with co-owner Chris Coleman, have caught their share of 30- to 35-pound blue cats in cold weather: Fishing here in December through February is worth the effort.
"As a rule, bigger fish tend to bite in the winter at Buggs," Coleman said, "because their larger body mass allows them greater energy and mobility in the cold water."
Coleman said blues at Buggs will hole up in deep water, particularly during an extended cold spell (which is not very common), although even during an average winter they are going to favor deeper water.
"If you can find where the fish are stacked in deep holes, you can really clean up," he said, "and school fish tend to run in similar size."
Coleman believes if you get the bait to the big blues -- served on a platter -- they're going to eat. Regarding bait, Coleman prefers to use cut bait in the wintertime.
"Whatever bait Steve (Tollerson) and I don't use, we freeze for wintertime fishing," he said. "It's more of a comfort thing for us so we don't have to throw the cast net in the dead of winter and get wet and cold."
Coleman and Tollerson rely on the standard fish-finder rig. They use a 2-ounce barrel (egg) sinker above a swivel. Tied to the bottom of the swivel is a 24- to 30-inch leader. They opt for 8/0 Gamakatsu octopus circle hooks.
"Don't be afraid to put three or four pieces of shad on that big hook," Coleman said. "Sometimes the more the better, although we put out about eight rods on the same side of the boat -- one might have a shad head, another a large shad cut into two or three pieces, a belly fillet on another, etc."
Tollerson prefers shad heads in the winter, while Coleman favors the section from about the shoulders to the tail. Tollerson also uses live bait during winter's chill, such as threadfin or gizzard shad.
"Sometimes if the water is cold during a cold snap, there will be a winterkill in the backs of coves and it's easy to scoop them (threadfin shad) up and use them for bait," Tollerson said. "During a winterkill of shad, blues will really feed on them."
"We like to use bait-casting reels with clicker models for detecting the lightest of bites, plus the sound makes it easy to detect a bite when multiple rigs are in the water," Coleman said.
Tollerson uses medium or medium-heavy rods in a 5-foot, 9-inch model, with Ambassadeur 6500 reels. This guide generally uses 30-pound-test for the standing line and 20- to 25-pound line for the leader.
Tollerson said finding a concentration of blues is the absolute key to success. "If you can find them, they are going to be good sized and plenty of them, but finding them can be difficult," he said. "They can be anywhere, but 25 to 35 feet is somewhat normal in places we usually catch them; however, we can catch them deeper and shallower than that."
"A good fish-finder is a must," Coleman said. "A catfish's signature is a flatter arch than that of a striper."
Tollerson believes visitors should target creek mouths (Rudds, Grassy and Bluestone) that have well-defined, deep channels. Sharp dropoffs that paint a clear break on the depthfinder are tops for Tollerson.
"I can't emphasize enough that people should not come down here and just throw lines out -- you have to find the fish first on the depthfinder," he said. "Sometimes Chris and I will ride around for an hour or more before ever fishing. If you find them on a certain day in the winter, they are unlikely to move much in the following days. Likely areas are old river channels and channel banks."
"A prime location in Grassy Creek is past the Route 15 bridge," Coleman explained. "Come out of the Longwood Ramp, turn left, go under the bridge and follow the channel to the mouth of Buckhorn Creek. There are ledges, channels and flats here that are attractive to blue cats.
"Another good spot," Coleman continued, "is at the mouth of Bluestone Creek on the main lake. Bluestone is a good creek all around, but the mouth of the creek dumps into the Staunton River channel in 35 to 40 feet and is an excellent winter hole."
According to Tollerson, 2
5- to 30-pound blues are not uncommon in the winter and the numbers can be good if you find the pods.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
The most productive areas of the tidal James River are from Richmond and points southeast to about Queens Creek. This 30-mile stretch has deep water, channels and flats, baitfish and gravel pits. The following launch sites are in close proximity to this area: Osborne Landing (Henrico County), Dutch Gap Boat Launch (Chesterfield County), Deep Bottom Boat Landing (Henrico County), Hopewell Yacht Club (Hopewell City) and Jordan Point Yacht Haven (Prince George County).
GMCO produces the Pro Series Map of Tidal James River that details the stretch from Richmond down to Chickahominy River and the Pro Series Map of Kerr Reservoir (Buggs Island Lake). Contact them via e-mail at email@example.com, by phone at (888) 420-6277 or visit their Web site at
For questions concerning either fishery, contact VDGIF at (804) 367-1000 or visit
To request a brochure or to book a guided trip with Mike Atkinson's CAT-MAN-DO Guide Service, call (804) 469-7874 or (804) 691-2570, or on the Web at
To contact W&W Outdoor Adventures, call Chris Coleman at (434) 374-4011 or Steve Tollerson at (434) 374-2245. They can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. W&W Outdoor Adventures' Web site is
For general Buggs Island Lake information, go online to
www.kerrlake.com. Buggs Island has numerous public and private launch facilities. The public ramps are open year 'round, barring high or low water. Two ramps in close proximity to sections discussed in this article are Occoneechee State Park and Longwood Ramp (Grassy Creek).