Buggs Island and the James River offer anglers a tremendous chance to catch trophy blue cats. Don't miss this world-class fishery. (December 2006)
Photo By Tom Evans
December is not a popular fishing month in Virginia unless you like to troll for mammoth stripers off the coast -- or you know a little secret involving powerful, hungry fish prowling the depths of fresh waters across the state. While many people have by this time of year spent many weeks with a gun in search of fur or feathers, there are a few dedicated anglers shoving their boats into the icy waters of the James River and Buggs Island.
What are they fishing for? Blue catfish!
Blue catfish have certainly put Virginia on the map, especially after an angler hauled a 92-pound, 4-ounce monster out of Buggs Island Lake. Given enough food, blue cats grow fast and furious. Considering their ferocity and appetite, they have plenty to eat in our two featured waters. Anything that a monster blue catfish sees moving is fair game. Our two picks shine for big blue catfish year 'round, but particularly in the winter months.
The James suffers from pollution to the point that there is an advisory against eating catfish from its waters. The river is much cleaner now than it used to be, but the advisory remains in effect. The upside to the consumption advisory is that harvest of catfish on the James is pretty much nonexistent -- which allows catfish to grow to quite large sizes as long as the food supply holds out.
"The James River is now a nationally recognized blue catfish fishery," said Bob Greenlee, district fisheries biologist for VDGIF. "Anglers can go to the James River and expect to catch 30- to 40-pound blue catfish on a regular basis, and if they hit the right hole on the right day, they will be catching unbelievable numbers of these large blue catfish. Blue catfish in the 50- to 60-pound range are caught on a fairly regular basis and blue catfish up to 83 pounds have been caught in the James."
The blue catfish grow incredibly fast; Greenlee has documented cases of catfish growth on the James from 12 pounds at 10 years of age to 27 pounds by age 12. Once the fish begin to inhale whole shad, they grow exponentially. One amazing specimen that Greenlee came across was 51 pounds at 11 years of age! The abundance of gizzard shad is a real plus for the blue catfish. These mammoth fish love to eat shad.
Late fall to mid-spring is the best time to find and catch the largest specimens. Mike Ostrander runs the James River Fishing School and a guide service for catfish on the James River. Ostrander has a personal best day on the river with 19 fish weighing over 20 pounds. That is quite a feat to pull off in one day of fishing!
His favored bait is cut gizzard shad, which are available in the river year 'round and therefore a natural target for a blue catfish in the winter months when herring and hickory shad are not present. Some white perch are available, but the gizzard shad are the favored bait. Ostrander catches gizzard shad with a cast net after marking them on his fish-finder. During the spring, herring, white perch and hickory shad can be used.
According to Ostrander, the big blues bite very well once the water temperatures drop below 60 degrees. He prefers water temperatures to be between 45 and 55 degrees when he is fishing. However, if the temperatures drop even lower, Ostrander can still be found sinking strips of gizzard shad into the frigid waters of the James.
"If December is very cold, then that could change the way I fish for blue cats, too," he said. "If the water temps get below 40 degrees, I'll be looking for fish in the deepest holes around. In the areas I fish, that equates to water 40 to 70 feet in depth."
Where To Look
Ostrander fishes the James River above Hopewell and he concentrates his efforts on the main channel or old river channels.
There are some differences in the way Ostrander fishes each area. The main-river channel has a much stronger tidal current. Old river channels have a good flow but not as strong of a current. More weight will be needed to fish in the main channels, especially when the tide is really rolling.
Ostrander noted that good water flow is important to catching blue catfish. The cats like to lie facing into the current and await meals that come sweeping downcurrent to them. When the food arrives, they inhale it. On a dead tide you have to be much more creative and actively hunt the fish. This can be time-consuming and the slack tide is probably better spent moving the boat to a better location.
Wind can be a consideration if it is blowing opposite the tidal flow. Ostrander mentioned this to me and I had to agree, having experienced the problem myself on a number of occasions. The solution to this problem is to find a bend in the river where the wind is blocked and deep water is near the shoreline and anchor up until the tide changes.
What To Look For
One of the best places to begin looking for monster catfish is near structure. A lump, hump, channel ledge or large boulder will work just fine for holding fish. Mark bait near such structure and you are likely to be in business. Put out as many rods as you can handle and put them out in various locations. For instance, put a few lines in shallow water on top of a ledge and a few lines near the edge of the channel and then a few lines in the channel. Pay attention to where you get most of your fish and then refocus your efforts on that type of water or structure.
I asked Ostrander how much time was reasonable to fish a spot when one is trying to figure out whether or not the fish are there. After all, December can be a very cold month and a tough one to sit still in a boat waiting for a bite.
The veteran guide noted that he gives a spot 20 minutes unless the water is really cold, in which case he will add another 20 minutes or so to the time he spends at the location. The guide pointed out that on really cold days, or after a front has passed through, the fish tend to be a little less active but are still catchable. You just have to wait a bit longer. However, even his favorite locations get no more than 45 minutes of his time before he moves on.
A Good Day
The definition of a good day fishing varies from just being able to get out of work to catching a citation. For Ostrander, a good day in December means he or his clients have boated four to six fish over 30 pounds. He expects most trips on the James to give up a fish or two over 40 pounds, coupled with what he calls medium-sized fish up to 25 pounds.
"Last December, on an outing, we landed four fish on a full-day fishing trip
of nine hours," he noted. "Three of the fish weighed over 50 pounds and the fourth one weighed more than 60 pounds."
When huge fish are involved, quality gear is a must. After checking with Ostrander, we got the rundown on what he has his clients equipped with to horse in the bruisers.
He starts with a Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000 C3 reel spooled with 30 Trilene Big Game, solar collector green color mounted on a 7-foot medium-heavy Fenwick Seahawk rod. His rig is composed of an 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Circle Hook, a 1 1/2-foot leader of 50-pound fluorocarbon tied to a barrel swivel with a fish-finder rig. Typically, he uses anywhere from 6 to 10 ounces of weight to keep his baits down on the bottom.
Anglers will find launch sites at Osborne Landing or Deep Bottom Landing in Henrico County, Dutch Gap in Chesterfield County, and the ramp at the end of the Benjamin Harrison Bridge located at Jordan Point Marina.
Buggs Island is home to Virginia's record blue catfish, taken by William Zost. That fish pushed the scales to 92 pounds, 4 ounces. Buggs is full of forage, which equates to a great catfish fishery. VDGIF biologist Vic DiCenzo also pointed out that the blue cat fishery is growing.
"The blue catfish are expanding their territory. Once, they were most common above Clarksville. Now, they are being caught in good numbers and size lakewide."
Forage possibilities for catfish at Buggs come in many forms, but gizzard shad and threadfin shad once again get the spotlight as the main course in a blue catfish diet. Catfishing is very serious business on both sides of the lake and many catmen gather at local country stores to trade tips, stories and plan the next trip out on the big lake for a monster cat.
Weston's Grocery Store is just one of the locations where catfish anglers gather. Warren Weston is one of the sponsors of The Catfish Showdown, which runs tournaments on Buggs. Weston's is also a good place to get local information, tackle and bait. One of the regular customers at Weston's is Chan Puryera. Puryera is an eighth grade science teacher at Parkview Middle School in Southhill, Virginia. When he is not in the classroom, he is prowling the lake in search of his next big catfish. Puryera loves to fish Buggs when the temperatures drop and the water gets cold.
"Once the water temperatures drop, the bait gets concentrated and the big blue catfish key on bait, which makes it easier for me to find the fish," he said.
December is a great time to fish Buggs, according to Puryera, for this very reason. Not only do gizzard shad become more concentrated and the blue cats easier to find, but also catching fresh bait is also easier.
Where To Look
Puryera has been fishing for blue catfish for a long time and has learned a few things about the fish at Buggs.
"Once the water gets cold, I have noticed that the big fish move out of the main-lake channels and begin showing up in the major creeks and tributaries. This is where I fish in the winter," he said.
Contrary to what many anglers think, Puryera finds most of his larger fish in relatively shallow water in the winter. Most of the major tributaries will have holes as deep as 40 feet, but Puryera prefers to fish in water depths ranging from 4 to 20 feet. His theory is that the sun warms these depths a bit faster on sunny days and draws baitfish, which are in turn attracting the attention of blue catfish. Some of the major creeks Puryera points to as good starting points include Bluestone, Grassy, Rudds and Eastland creeks.
What To Look For
Obviously, anglers want to find bait in order to find fish. Our Buggs Island source tells us that he catches his own bait in the above-named creeks by relying on his fish-finder to locate bait balls.
"I really rely more on my fish-finder to find bait in the winter rather than the summer months. The bait is easier to see, as it is a compact ball on the screen," he said.
Once he finds and catches bait, he does not move far. Puryera often finds nearby structure in 20 feet or less and then puts his lines out. Structure that he likes to focus his efforts on includes crappie piles that other anglers have sunk in the lake, shallow points and old roadbeds. This Buggs Island cat angler will spend his days off from teaching school sitting in his boat awaiting his next citation fish. Sometimes, he sits as long as two hours patiently awaiting the bait clicker to go off before he pulls his lines in and heads to the next potential spot.
A Good Day
For Chan Puryera, a good day includes at least several fish in the 20- to 30-pound range. He pointed out that it is not uncommon to catch up to 20 fish in this range per day of fishing at Buggs.
Puryera's view of the proper gear is much in line with our expert from the James River. Puryera prefers to use an Abu Garcia 6500, 7000 or 10,000 model baitcasting reel mounted very securely on a medium-heavy- to heavy-action cat stick. He spools his reels with 30-pound-test and uses a Ragin' Cajun 60-pound leader. His hook choices include Gamakatsu Octopus hooks in at least an 8/0 size. He also rigs his lines with a bait runner rig.
On Buggs Island, there are countless private and public ramps. However, for the four large creeks mentioned, there are ramps in each creek owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On Bluestone, the ramp is just off Route 15 north of Clarksville. At Grassy Creek, the Longwood Ramp is off Route 15 south of Clarksville. Rudds Creek has a ramp on Hwy. 50 east of Clarksville, and Eastland Creek Landing is found off Route 4 after driving down a few secondary roads.
Fishing in December may not be the first thing on your mind, but rest assured that blue catfish are very willing and active feeders. These wide-mouthed creatures will make you work hard to get them to the boat and leave you with a memory you will never forget. Close out the year with a gift to yourself and consider catching a trophy catfish and put a citation on the wall before the New Year rings in.
Winter Fishing Considerations
When fishing in cold weather, be sure to take food to snack on to keep your body temperature warm. Dress for the occasion. There are plenty of companies that now make fishing clothing for cold weather. Dress in layers so that if the sun comes out, you can remain comfortable yet prepared. Also, be aware of the weather forecast and do not take unreasonable chances. Make sure your boat is in good working order and you have a cell phone that works well in the area you plan to fish. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Finally, wear a personal flotation device. Be prepared for the unexpected.
Sources for Trophy
James River -- Capt. Mike Ostrande, James River Fishing School, (804) 938-2350, or e-mail mike@ jamesriverfishing.com, and on the Web at JamesRiverFishing.com
VDGIF offices -- Region 5, (540) 899-4169; Region 1, (804) 843-5962.
Bait and Tackle and Information: Weston's Grocery Store, (434) 735-8106.
Local club and tournament info: TheCatfishShowdown.com
VDGIF regional office -- (434) 392-9645.