Article written by Bill Hunt
Monster blue catfish that is. If you are interested in landing some really big citation fish, year round, blue cats on the lower James are your ticket. According to the VDGIF, in 2004, only 3 citation large mouth bass were reported from the lower James. In contrast, 995 citation blue cats were reported. So many in fact, that on January 1st, 2005, the VDGIF raised the citation weight/ length requirement from 20 Lbs, 34 Inches to 30 lbs, 38 inches. There are still plenty of fish in the 30 lb plus range, with 60 lbs not uncommon and a whopping 83.5 lb fish caught in late 2004 . Blue cats were introduced into the tidal James River in the mid 1970’s. Some fish biologists believe that under the right conditions, blue cats can live 30 years. That would put those 1975 fish at there biggest ever right now. That all being said, I will share with you my tips and tactics on catching these huge fish.
One of the best things about cat-fishing is, you don’t have to spend a lot on tackle. Just buy good quality at good prices. Start with a 6′ 6″ Medium/Heavy rod. Use round, level wind, bait-casting reels. The kind designed for heavy fresh or light salt water fishing. Shakespeare and Okuma have never let me down and they are very reasonably priced. Spool them with Berkley Big Game 30 lb test. It has very good abrasion resistance and chances are, you’re gonna need that. Now just Carolina rig it. I use a 5 oz. weight on a big snap swivel that has the plastic tube slider to protect your line from chaffing. Use a glass bead and then a good quality 1/0 or 2/0 barrel swivel. Then tie on about 2 feet of 50 lb mono leader and an 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. I only use Gamakatsu circle hooks and that’s because they work so well. With the heavy line and tackle, I can’t tell you enough how important it is to make sure that you have perfect knots. Without going into the art of knot tying, suffice it to say that nothing’s worse than losing a good fish to a bad knot. It’s happened to me, learn from my mistakes.
The first thing to do is forget about every kind of catfish bait and catfish bait system you have ever seen in a fishing department. Yes, dough balls, stink baits, dip baits and the like work fine if you want to catch eating size cats in a pond or reservoir, but that’s not what we are fishing for here. We need big fresh bait for that big hook and the big fish. Are you starting to see the pattern here? If you want to catch big fish you have to fish for big fish. I have caught small fish on big bait, but I have never caught big fish on small bait. The best possible bait to use is fresh shad from the river. There are plenty of them in the barge and spray pit areas of the James, but you wont catch them on hook and line. They are mud feeders with small mouths. You need to be able to throw a cast net with some proficiency or know someone who can. You will want to net whole fresh shad in the 8-12″ range. Next, scale them, and expose the brain to maximize scent. Cut them in half, using the head for one 4-6″ bait and the tail section for a second. Now, if you don’t have access to a cast net you do have a couple of other options. You can go to a bait store and buy a few of the biggest eels that they have, then cut them in 6″ lengths and butterfly them open to present a big bait. You can also just stop by a fresh seafood store like B&B Seafood and buy several of their biggest, fresh, whole white perch. They are cheap and if you tell B&B that its for bait, they will usually even knock the price down a little more. Fish the perch just like you would the shad. The last citation caught in my boat was on white perch.
Tips and Tactics
Blue catfish are big river fish. You wont find many above the James fall line or in ponds or lakes. Big, deep, reservoirs are an exception. Blue cats are active and will bite year round. In the heat of summer the biggest are often caught at night. The rest of the year, any time is a good time. I’ve had my best month in December and in the middle of the day. You don’t have to be out at the crack of dawn for these fish. I fish the lower James river from Dutch Gap landing down river to the Jones Neck loop area and all in between. Its close to home and all the fishing grounds I need.
For a couple of years, I made two very big mistakes trying to catch trophy size fish. One of the mistakes I made , and one I still see cat-fisherman doing, is to look for the deepest hole you can find on the river and sit on it for hours waiting for a big fish to come by. The second mistake I made was using bait that I thought was big enough, but the fish didn’t. I learned from experience.
Now that you have your tackle and bait, lets fish. Instead of deep holes, we are looking for current breaks. Think a little like a bass fisherman. A 60 lb fish needs to get behind something to break the current while it waits for dinner to come by. Look for favorites like old wing dams, blown down trees, bridge or dock pilings, sunken barges and creek channels into the river. All will be relatively close to shore and you will probably be fishing no deeper than 12 feet. Anchor up current of the cover, within casting distance. Cast out as many rods as you can handle, in a fan pattern, as close to the up current side of the cover as you can. Place them in rod holders and engage the reel with the drag set at around 10 lbs. When the catfish smells the bait he will swim up current to find it. Once he picks it up, he will turn with the current and head straight back to cover. Don’t pick up the rod yet. Let the rod load up and do the work. This loading will set that circle hook right in the corner of his mouth. Now grab the rod, crank down some more drag and try and keep the fish out of the cover he so desires now. Do not give the fish any slack line, as they can sometimes dislodge the hook if you do. Now be ready with a big net and hopefully you have your citation. A couple of more pointers, when you get a big cat near the boat, they often dive, or roll. Be prepared. If your fish of a lifetime does get back into the cover, branches, logs etc., don’t give up. Remember you are using heavy line and tackle. Try pulling, try giving, try moving the boat around, or just do nothing for a minute or two. I had one wrapped in a downed tree for 30 minutes once before it finally came up. And lastly, don’t fish a piece of cover for more than 20 minutes. If a big fish is there, they will let you know pretty quick. Usually within the first 15 minutes or so.
And finally, if you are new to big cat-fishing, I hope this will save you some of the countless hours it took me to learn it. Good luck out there!