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Catfishing on the James River

Catfishing on the James River

The James River is Virginia's best body of water for catfish. The river boasts the state-record blue cat and remains for many anglers the state's best bet for a trophy.

You've heard it before: "They fight like a wet log," or "They're just dead weight."

If you hear someone say that about catfish, though, it's a safe bet they've never tangled with a big James River blue cat. In recent years, Virginians have come to know and embrace this "fish without scales," and in the heart of Virginia, catfish anglers are rapidly showing signs of being as dedicated as diehard bass casters.

If you battle with a big cat, you are in for a fierce struggle. These "wet logs" have gumption. Next time you're at the local tackle shop spinning yarns, ask someone who has landed a monster cat from the notorious James River, and you'll hear exactly how difficult fighting a bruiser kitty cat can be.

High-profile blue catfish destinations are mostly in the South: South Carolina's Santee-Cooper lakes, Virginia's majestic James and Rappahannock rivers, North Carolina's Cape Fear River, the Tennessee River drainage and the Big Muddy. Blues do flourish in many other parts of the country, but below the Mason-Dixon Line, they reign supreme. The James is one of Dixie's best for these monster-sized fish. If 20- to 40-pound blues - and bigger - get you revved up, come check out what the historic James River has to offer.

The Old Dominion's catfish records are impressive: 71 1/2 pounds for the blue, 66 1/2 pounds for the flathead and 31 1/2 pounds for the channel. (Larger channels have been caught, but the anglers didn't comply with state record procedures.) The eastern half of the Commonwealth is without question home to the largest of these particular species. The state-record blue, flathead, channel and white catfish all came from this region, and nowhere in the state is better than the James River.

Blue cats are a 12-month fishery on the James, and trophies (20 pounds minimum or 34 inches in length) are a real possibility all year long, too.


We tapped a fisheries biologist and two local guides (both of whom are members of the 50-pound blue catfish club) to share their tips and findings with Virginia Game & Fish readers.

Author Marc McGlade hefts a 39 1/2-pound James River blue catfish. Blue cat populations and growth rates are high in the James, making the river a prime destination for anglers set on a trophy cat. Photo courtesy of Marc N. McGlade

Fisheries biologist Bob Greenlee, with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), says the James' blues are in excellent condition.

"Based on electrofishing surveys using low-frequency electrofishing gear targeting catfish, blue catfish dominate the catfish assemblage in the tidal James River system," he said.

Major tributaries such as Herring Creek, Upper Chippokes Creek and Powell Creek support an abundance of blue catfish, according to the VDGIF electrofishing samples taken in previous years.

"Blue catfish in the tidal James system continue to increase not only in abundance and distribution, but also in population size structure. The frequency of 30-, 40- and even 50-pound-plus blue cats continues to increase," said the biologist.

The VDGIF conducted high- and low-frequency electrofishing in the tidal James and its major tributaries in the summer of 2001. "In early to mid-July," explained Greenlee, "when we conducted low-frequency sampling in this system, there were tens of thousands of 2- to 3-inch young-of-year blue cats swimming on the surface as we sampled most tributaries, as well as at a number of sampling sites on the main stem. These fish were too small to sample; they fell through the mesh of our nets. The number of these baby blues was incredible; they were obviously quite successful in spawning in 2001."

Based on the VDGIF's 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, these blue cats 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."

What bodes well for anglers is that the top-end for the James' population of blue cats has not yet been reached. "In 2001, we collected a number of 50-pound-plus blue cats, and the top-end length was 45 inches," said Greenlee. "There are good numbers of blue cats in this population between 30 and 50 pounds, and fish over 50 pounds are becoming more frequent. The state-record blue, measuring 48 1/2 inches and weighing 71 pounds, 12 ounces, was caught out of the tidal James in 1999. We expect this record to be topped soon, and it's possible we will see blue cats in the James approaching 90 pounds in the not-too-distant future."

The diet of these monsters is based upon their daily preferences. What do 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."

The primary forage for adult blue cats is gizzard shad and white perch. "In addition," Greenlee said, "anglers have found success catching blue cats using live eels and fresh threadfin shad as bait."

Mike Ostrander and Roger Jones are two local guides who have focused on James River blues in recent years. Ostrander, 37, has been fishing for the James' blues for the past seven years. To date, his largest blue weighed 50 pounds, 4 ounces. Jones, 49, has been guiding on the James since 1988, primarily for bass, but in 1990 he quickly recognized this incredible whisker fishery and found the allure of catfishing. He has boated massive James River blues up to 55 pounds.

Most successful anglers like Jones use simple rigs for catfishing in the James and its tributaries. "I use a modified Carolina rig and a three-way swivel rig," he said. "With either rig, I use a leader length of about 2 feet." On Jones' three-way swivel rig, he uses an 8- to 10-inch leader from the swivel to the sinker.

Pyramid, egg, bell, bank and disc-shaped sinkers all have a following among trophy-catfish stalkers. Jones opts for an egg sinker on the modified Carolina rig and a bell sinker for the three-way swivel rig, while Ostrander prefers a bank sinker. The current

on the James smokes, and 2- to 5-ounce weights are required during a ripping tide. The tides are even stronger during a full or new moon phase.

Use stout gear when fishing for these beasts: Trying to land a 40-pound or bigger catfish with 8-pound-test mono is like trying to hogtie a calf with yarn. Contrary to what many believe, catfish are wily prey and have the wherewithal to take you into the toughest cover to break you off or wrap the line. Standard James River catfishing gear typically resembles rod lengths of 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 feet with medium-heavy or heavy action. Jones uses baitcasting reels with clickers, and Ostrander uses baitcasters and spinning reels equipped with a bait-runner feature.

Line classes vary widely in catfish circles, but they typically range from 20-pound-test line up to 40-pound-test. Both Jones and Ostrander use 20- to 25-pound-test primarily, although Ostrander always rigs one pool stick rod with 50-pound line in his quest for the new state record.

"Circle hooks in sizes 6/0, 7/0 and 8/0 are excellent hook choices and really keep the fish hooked," Ostrander said. He'll use each of the three sizes, depending on the live bait choice. "My sinker weight varies from 2 to 4 ounces, depending on current and the depth of water I'm fishing. I prefer to use a fish-finder rig with a bank sinker."

Jones also favors circle hooks, but he chooses sizes that run considerably smaller than Ostrander's. "They're small, but they have excellent hooking and staying power," said Jones.

A trick of some catfish gurus is to use a longer, heavier leader than the standing line. "I like to use a leader of about 3 feet. A long leader with heavier-pound-test helps prevent the whipping action of the tail from snapping the line," Ostrander said.

One last piece of equipment that's mandatory: an oversized landing net. These bruisers can measure 4 feet in length, so leave the trout or bass net at home and come prepared. Catch-and-release is important for sustaining the trophy fishery that exists on the James, so an accurate scale and a camera are also good items to bring to capture the moment.

Both guides advocate using a cast net to gather bait. "Very rarely do I bring frozen bait, unless I plan to use it in a chum bag," Ostrander said. "I believe live, fresh bait catches more and bigger fish. It's like eating a previously frozen steak versus having one sizzling fresh on the plate at a restaurant."

Jones also avoids frozen bait. "I always use a cast net," he said, "unless I plan to use cut eels." Jones favors cut eels, live threadfin and gizzard shad or white perch. Placing some ice into the bucket of eels slows them down and makes cutting them much easier than having to wrestle with a slick, lively one. Jones cuts the eels into five pieces. Once he cuts the eels, he impales the hook through the tough outer skin and exits the hook through the exposed meat of the steak. Eels remain on the hook even through long and repeated casts.

Ostrander favors cut bait when seeking monster blues, and he's apt to use one-half of a 14-inch shad. But, like Jones, Ostrander experiments with shad fillets, river herring and whole, live threadfin shad.

If home is where the heart is for us humans, home is where the food is for blue cats in the James. It's important when catfishing to fan-cast your offerings in likely areas. Jones and Ostrander both spread four to six rods in a fan-cast position. "I also drop one straight down beside the boat and another well behind the boat," said Ostrander. The two catfish experts agree that an anchor is very important. Sometimes they will use two anchors - one for the bow and stern - if the wind and tide are twisting the boat's position.

Likely areas to target are deep-water locales close to flats. "Deep water to me is 40 feet or more, and I'd define a flat as 5 to 10 feet on the James," said Jones. He advises newcomers to this catfish marvel to fish areas where fish can hold in deeper water and move up shallower to feed. "I like to fish current breaks, especially rocks," he said. "The structure gives these fish an area to hide in, a safe harbor and an ambush point."

Some of Jones' favorite catfish lairs are the 295-bridge area on the main stem of the river, Deep Bottom, Hopewell and the Benjamin Harrison Bridge area. The Hopewell area and the Benjamin Harrison Bridge are located near the mouth of the Appomattox River, which is the home of the former state-record blue cat.

Ostrander fishes many of the same spots as Jones, with Dutch Gap, Deep Bottom and Hopewell areas being among his favorites.

"Edges of river channels are one of the best bets on the James, both day and night," Ostrander said. "I like to target shallower areas at night, but not always. You have to look around each trip for bait. If you can find a hump between two channels - which do exist on the James - that can be a good spot."

These two experts rely heavily on tidal movement. "I like incoming and outgoing tides, as long as the water is moving," said Jones.

Ostrander agrees. "The best times to focus on catfish are when the tides are moving good in either direction," he said.

The fishing is good day and night on the James, and these guides will fish both times. "Obviously, the creature comfort is better during the day," said Jones, "but night-fishing for blue cats is very good. I've caught plenty of trophies in both conditions."

Ostrander prefers night-fishing when he's targeting big blues. "If you don't want to fish at night, try to get out there at first light or in the early evening," said Ostrander.

Ostrander indicates anglers can expect to catch a good number of fish in the 2- to 12-pound range, but he advises that there is always the chance to get into citations. "Once you pattern the trophies, the bigger ones come easier down the road. A 40- or 50-pounder is not out of the question at that point. If you start catching fish this size, you had better match your gear to handle them. They are incredibly powerful.

"Don't get discouraged if you don't do well. You have to spend the time to learn the spots. Pay attention to channel markers and experiment each time out," said Ostrander.

It's important to point out river traffic concerns. "Be mindful of barge traffic and heavy ocean-going cargo ships on the river," Jones said. "They can sneak up on you if you aren't paying attention."

Right now, the James is one of the best blue catfish destinations in the country. A trip to Richmond could pit you against a brutish bottom dweller. In Virginia's coastal plain region, there is no bag limit on tidal river blue catfish, but the experts agree that catch-and-release fishing is necessary to sustain the trophy fishery.

While not every catfish you'll catch will weigh as much as your Blue Ribbon hunting

dog, the size range here is sure to please every angler, so don't stand around the boat ramp with "the blues" if you didn't catch a trophy. There are plenty of big bottom dwellers waiting for you next time.

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 close to Interstate 95: Osborne Landing (Henrico County), Dutch Gap Boat Launch (Chesterfield County) and Deep Bottom Boat Landing (Henrico County).

For questions concerning the James River fishery, contact the VDGIF at (757) 253-7072, or go online at

To contact Mike Ostrander, call the James River Fishing School at (804) 938-2350, e-mail mike@ Visit his Web site at Roger Jones' Hook, Line and Sinker Guide Service can be reached by phone at (800) 597-1708 or (804) 276-1924, or by e-mail at

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