Summertime means topnotch catfish angling in the Commonwealth. Here's a James River primer on the "other" catfish: Virginia's burly flatheads.
By Marc N. McGlade
Many anglers are truly unaware of the sheer number of Virginia fisheries sustaining flathead populations. The beauty of this type of angling is that it doesn't require fancy gear, electronics or high-dollar boats - and it does sometimes result in hooking in to very big, powerful fish. Flathead fishing is neither hard nor expensive, and although these catfish have intricate habits, their most basic need is eating - which they do all summer long.
If you're interested in a freshwater fish as large as a Blue Ribbon hunting dog and as strong as a pit bull, look to the flathead.
While the blue cats in the tidal James and Rappahannock rivers receive the most notoriety, the flatheads of the Dan, Roanoke (Staunton), Clinch, New and James rivers are worth mentioning, too.
Nevertheless, it's safe to argue that the stretch of James River in Virginia's capital city is tops in the Commonwealth for trophy-sized flatheads - those meeting or exceeding 40 inches in length or pulling down the scales to 25 pounds or more.
RIGS AND TECHNIQUES FOR FLATHEADS
Much of the fun in flathead fishing stems from collecting bait. Live sunfish species are usually the bait du jour for flatheads. Live bream must be collected by hook-and-line methods; using cast nets to gather them is illegal. So, hop in the canoe or johnboat, or simply wade through the James in Richmond casting small curly-tailed grubs, tube lures or pieces of live worms to catch some wily bream.
Flatheads are opportunistic and certainly won't turn down an occasional offering of live minnows, shad, night crawlers or other baits, but bream are their favorite meals. One key to catching jumbo flatheads is to always use fresh bait.
Big flathead catfish roam this stretch of James River in Richmond. Catfish guide Mike Ostrander and his son show evidence that Virginia is an excellent region for these big bottom dwellers. Photo by Marc N. McGlade
A fish-finder rig is the quintessential bottom-fishing ensemble that uses a sinker, leader and hook. Circle hooks are necessary for catch-and-release and make hook removal easy. Circle hooks usually snare the whiskered fish in the corner of their mouths, rendering release simple with a twist of the hook.
"I like to attach a 90-pound (test) barrel swivel to a leader, then place a bead above the swivel, followed by a 1- to 3-ounce bank sinker," said Mike Ostrander, a Richmond flathead guide. Ostrander ties an 18- to 24-inch leader, consisting of 50-pound-test monofilament line to an 8/0-size circle hook. If you think that sounds like heavy gear, you're right - but that's what you need for big fish.
The most popular outfits for flathead angling are either spinning rods paired with bait-runner reels, or bait-casting rods with reels that have a clicker feature.
"As for line-class ratings," Ostrander added, "20-pound-test line should suffice." Virginia's state-record flathead is 66 1/4 pounds, and the city stretch of James River has a staggering population of 15- to 30-pounders, so leave the 8-pound-test at home.
"If you're fortunate enough to get a bite from a hungry flathead, wait for a steady pull of 6 feet or more before setting the hook," Ostrander said.
A true hookset isn't necessary with circle hooks; simply sweep the rod into fighting position and keep constant pressure on the fish.
Fan-cast multiple rigs to catfish lairs to get the most coverage out of a given hole. Pepper likely areas and vary the depth of each rig.
"If the bream is calm for a few minutes, and all of a sudden it begins throbbing on the end of the line, it usually signifies a flathead is approaching," Ostrander said. If a monster flathead is in the neighborhood and eyeing your bream for a quick snack, hold on because the fun is about to commence.
As the grueling fight wanes, be prepared to land the mighty flathead with a landing net, or don a glove to grab them by the lower jaw if a net isn't available. One caveat: Don't horse these fish and certainly don't bring them in too "green," or you'll have your hands full.
JAMES RIVER FLATTIES
Flatheads grow big in the Richmond section of the James River, evidenced by Ostrander's largest flathead, which tipped the scales at 35 pounds. He's also put clients on flatties up to 32 pounds. However, this introduced species grows considerably larger.
"I've seen them up to 55 pounds, caught right here in the city limits of Richmond," said Ralph White, the park manager and senior naturalist with the James River Park System. Within the confines of the park system - stretching from the Huguenot Bridge to a half-mile beyond Interstate 95 - probably lies the state's best flathead fishery.
"Bosher Dam to the Powhite Parkway is the main stretch of James River that harbors sizable flatheads," White added. Out of that stretch, he said, the hot spot is Williams "Z" Dam to Pony Pasture rapids.
"Although we look like a wilderness area, we are in the heart of the city, and these fish undergo plenty of pressure. It's important that anglers practice catch-and-release," he said.
"We don't have easy boat access to this area, and we want to keep it that way in the future," White said.
Rafts, johnboats and canoes are easily launched at Huguenot Woods or Pony Pasture, but boats on trailers won't find access points in this area.
Extending the effort to access the river makes the experience even sweeter.
"This incredible experience is what we're managing," White said.
Ostrander typically has his way with the James' burly flatheads throughout the summer months. His experience tells him to key on certain areas and have fresh bait on hand.
"Fishing for the bait is half the fun!" he exclaimed. "Floating down the James in a raft while ultralight fishing for bream knowing 20-plus-pound catfish are waiting at the end of the raft trip is very exciting."
Ostrander doesn't concern himself with light conditions or water clarity when targeting flatheads.
"I haven't noticed that sun, clouds, clear or stained water affect my success," he
said. "I do think mornings and evenings are best, although they will bite all day long, too."
The whisker guide likes to look for water depths of 4 to 15 feet, generally. "If I'm fishing in 4 to 6 feet of water, I want to have structure in that hole like logs or boulders," he said. "On the other hand, if I'm fishing deeper than 8 feet, the structure isn't as important as when fishing shallower."
However, if you can find both, you really have a winner, Ostrander said.
"Under normal river flow," he said, "there are many fishing spots where anglers can wade, but in the stretch from Huguenot Woods down to Reedy Creek, there are some deep holes that wading anglers would have to be mindful of."
It serves to note here that if you do wade, use extreme caution, as moss and algae can make rocks and logs slick. Always fish with a partner and wear a personal floatation device.
Ostrander likes current flow up against a rock or log, knowing that a fat cat could lurk underneath the cover. The guide doesn't like raging current, but enough to have a good flow cruising by.
"On a good July day, we can expect up to 30 strikes in just a few hours," he said. "If all goes well, we could land 20 of those, with flatheads ranging from 12 to 22 pounds. There's usually an occasional small one (5 pounds) and big one (over 22 pounds) mixed in."
It's been Ostrander's experience that the top-end fish weighs about 30 pounds, with an occasional moose of 32 or more pounds a possibility.
* * *
The air temperature isn't the only thing hot in summertime - so is the flathead fishing in the mighty James. Flatheads are prolific in the aforementioned locations, and the possibility of catching a trophy is within reach.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For fisheries' information regarding James River flatheads, contact the VDGIF office in Richmond at (804) 367-1000, or visit their Web site at www.dgif.state.va.us.
Flathead regulations: no minimum size, 20 per day, year 'round. Contact the James River Park System by phone at (804) 646-8911 or visit them online at www.ci.richmond.va.us/ department/parks_rec/james.asp.
To contact Mike Ostrander, call the James River Fishing School at (804) 938-2350 or visit the Web site at www.jamesriverfishing.com. Access areas for wading or slipping in canoes or johnboats (without trailers) include Huguenot Woods, Pony Pasture and Reedy Creek. Check the river level before your trip, especially if wading, by calling (804) 646-8228.
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