By TJ Maglio
December 21, 2011
Reading the back page notes in fishing magazine and seeing pictures of men and women straining to hold up slimy, gray beasts got me curious. This curiosity grew as I started to see more and more boats decked out with rails and rod holders, buzzing about the Potomac River like jacked up spider-riggers. Finally, it peaked when I watched two men anchored out in the channel hooting and hollering as they high-fived over something clearly more fun than my inane dissection of a tidal grassbed.
I had to know what they were doing and why they appeared to be having so much fun. After a couple hours on my Google machine (thanks, Tony Kornheiser) I determined that they were either dragging the bottom for treasure or chasing the largest North American catfish species, the Blue Catfish. Some of the information I dredged up on my initial search was downright amazing – I really had no idea these fish even existed, much less grew to such gargantuan size.
As it turns out, the blue catfish (ictalurus furcatus) is native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River basins but has been introduced in many other places including the tidal river systems in Virginia. What stood out to me as I was perusing the various websites was the incredible size these fish reach. Since 2001, the all tackle world record blue catfish has been broken an astonishing five times, culminating with Nick Anderson’s monster 143-lber out of Kerr reservoir in June of this year. That’s big for any fish but for fresh water (easily and cheaply available to many of us), it’s a game changer.
At that point, they had my attention and I decided to see if I had what it takes to pull a freight train off the bottom. I promptly reserved a trip with Captain Josh Fitchett at River Cat’n Guide Service on the Potomac River.
I met up with friend and and fellow Inside Line writer Pete Robbins and his wife, Hanna, at 7:00 am at Leesylvania State park. After a short boat ride up the river, one of my initial questions was answered as we set the anchor at our first stop: what do you use to catch giant blue catfish? Huge chunks of cut gizzard shad are apparently just the temptation they need. Within 20 minutes, one of the 10 rods he had expertly placed across a sharp channel slope began to bow over.
Hanna drew the short straw when it boiled down to who was going to get the first fish, and within a few seconds she was hooked up to a massive Potomac River blue cat. The strain was evident; even with big rods and 50-pound line the fish put up an amazing fight, refusing to come off the bottom for several minutes. In the beginning I wasn’t sure I really knew what to expect from this trip. I mean, it’s just a catfish, right? But when that first fish finally came up and showed itself, it looked more like a school bus than a fish. I was a goner.
Hanna’s fish weighed 42 pounds and the Captain laughed off our exclamations of shock while shaking his head and muttering something like, “That’s an alright fish.” To me, 42 pounds is about as much fish as I had ever seen, and it certainly made an impression.
From that point on the action wasn’t quite as fast and furious, but we caught fish at every stop but one and the size didn’t get much worse. We ended up with 11 fish to the boat with our best five totaling 245 pounds (to put it in language a bass fisherman would understand), or an average weight of 49 pounds per fish. Our biggest was 58 pounds (also caught by Hanna) and we had another that went 51. These are some serious fish and the fight is certainly not what one expects when the word “catfish” is mentioned.
My biggest for the day was 51 pounds, and I can tell you it was a heck of a battle. The fish came out of 55 feet of water and just getting it up off the bottom was a feat in itself. Now don’t go imagining screaming drags and long exciting runs; these aren’t tuna. They do, however, put up what I would describe as an incredibly strong, bull-dogging fight that you can definitely feel in your arms once it is over. Blue cats are big time head shakers and rod benders, though they will take some drag every now and again. I had so much fun bringing up a 50-pounder; I can’t imagine what a 90-pounder in the warmer water of the summer feels like.
It might seem odd to be writing a piece on fishing for catfish on an esteemed bass fishing forum like Inside Line (ed. – we are so not paying TJ to say that), but I have one phrase to share with anyone who would scoff at the notion of fishing for anything but bass: Try it. If you’re not grinning from ear to ear after being slimed by something that looks like it could eat a small dog, you need to see a doctor or start playing poker because your deadpan is amazing. I can’t think of a better way to hook up with a heavyweight fish. You can find these things in most of America’s backyard and likely at a significantly reduced cost compared to your average saltwater charter.
How It’s Done
Talking to Captain Josh, I learned more about the presentation and tactics which I found to be much more complex and “bass like” than I had previously imagined. If you think catfishing is just throwing something stinky out on the bottom and waiting, go do that on the Potomac and see if you can catch a giant. Josh thinks that the bigger fish are almost a different breed, not only can they be quite selective of the offering on your hook, but it takes skill with electronics and mastery of boat handling to even get your baits in front of a super-sized blue.
The key is in bait choice and location (sound familiar?), and fresh and local are the two key words when it comes to bait selection. If you can catch fresh bait each trip out you will maximize your chances at a giant, though frozen shad will catch an occasional big one. Josh was hesitant to divulge too many of the secrets to finding the big ones, as it is a competitive business (and we’re a secretive bunch by nature), but he did say that you want to look for transitional areas close to deep water, preferably with a little bit of structure that the fish can relate to. Channel swings, underwater points and ledges are the typical places the big ones stack up on.
Captain Josh uses 7’6” specialty catfish rods and large spool Shimano Tekota reels loaded with 50-pound Cajun mainline, up to a pound of lead and a 2-3 foot shock leader of 100-pound mono. This is all tied to an 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hook at the business end. The setup works wonders as almost all our fish were hooked perfectly in the corner of the mouth and were all easily unhooked. Conservation has recently become an ever more important part of the business, as the benefits of catch and release were realized a little later in the catfishing game. Almost all the guides on the James and Potomac don’t allow you to keep anything over 10 pounds but if you like the idea of having an ugly, whiskered beast on your wall, there are several highly skilled taxidermists available that will make a beautiful replica of your trophy.
Though it is certainly possible for most of us to get the necessary equipment and go out and try for ourselves, unless you want a 50-pound slimeball rolling around on the carpet of your brand new bass boat, it’s probably easier and actually more cost effective to book a trip with a guide. A skilled guide will take much of the hassle out of the job (e.g. finding bait, cutting the bait, getting all the lines in the water without tangling) and allow you to focus on the fishing and the fun.
If you’re interested in checking out any of the Virginia tidal waters that the blue cats haunt, you couldn’t do better than a day out on the water with Captain Josh Fitchett and River Cat’n Guide Service. Captain Josh fishes out of a very comfortable 24 foot Sea Pro boat with a 225 Yamaha that got us up and down the river quickly and safely. Josh is also one of the best in the business with 37 tournament wins since 2004 and held the Maryland state record for the blue catfish from 2006 until 2008.
Another great thing about the blue catfish, especially in the tidal waters of Virginia, is that it is an year-round fishery except for a small window during the spawn from mid May through early June. Captain Josh fishes during the day from mid September through the spring and once the heat turns on, switches to night fishing which he says can be a real blast. Expect to catch anywhere from 10-40 fish on an 8 hour trip and Josh guarantees a citation (30 pounds in Virginia) or your next trip is free.
You’re not going to see my bass boat for sale anytime soon, nor am I planning on trading my Senkos for circle hooks, but hoisting that 51-pounder up for photos was one of the highlights of my season and it is definitely something I can see myself doing a couple times a year. You don’t have to travel to some exotic location and it is relatively inexpensive, particularly if you figure it in dollars per pound of fish caught.
If you are interested in having the opportunity to catch a fish over 50 pounds in fresh water and want to check out the blue catfish fishery on the tidal rivers in Virginia, contact Captain Josh Fitchett and River Cat’n guide service at www.rivercatn.com. Giant blues are also found in many other rivers and reservoirs around the country so do a little research and keep an open mind, you just might catch the fish of a lifetime.