March 2005
A Look at Tidal Catfish in Virginia
By Mark Fike


The author, pictured at right, shows a good channel cat that took cut bunker readily.

As an avid catfisherman, I have spent most of my life on Virginia's rivers in search of a whiskered meal. My travels have taken me to nearly every nook and cranny in the Rappahannock, many spots on the Potomac, some nice deep holes on the James and Chickahominy and of course my baits have disappeared into the coffee colored reaches of the Mattaponi River too. I like each river for different reasons.

The James is now well known for its monster catfish. The Rappahannock has since relinquished that role some seven to eight years ago, but what the Rappahannock lacks in size you make up for in numbers. It is nothing to catch in excess of one hundred fish in a half day of serious catfish angling. The Potomac River is not well known as a catfish destination in the larger tournament circles, which puzzles me. The fish in the mighty Potomac have busted my line so many times I simply carry a very large pool stick with me when attempting to catfish on that river. Channel catfish are HUGE on the Potomac too.

All of Virginia's major tributaries are home to catfish-particularly blue catfish. Some are recent in their residency such as in the Piankatank and the Potomac. The James and Rappahannock Rivers were stocked with blue catfish back in the mid 1970's. The Rappahannock River took off in the 1980s in terms of size structure of fish. The James was a little slower to increase its size structure but remains a powerhouse in terms of large blue cats. While the population on the Rappahannock is pretty much slowed to a stop size wise, the James River population continues to grow.

Bob Greenlee of VDGIF does regular studies of the tidal rivers. Greenlee commented that he would not be surprised to see James River catfish weighing near 100 pounds in the future. The James is a very productive river according to Greenlee. The abundance of gizzard or mud shad are the prominent reason the fishery is doing so well. The forage base does not appear to be in trouble and therefore the catfish size structure should continue to grow. Catfish that are well fed grow very fast. Fish at the decade old mark can weight twelve pounds. However, given plenty of food and a few more years they can double their weight on the James. It is important to note that the fish eating advisory on the James is also conducive to growth rates. No one is keeping the large fish due to the advisory and therefore survival rates are high. There is no commercial fishery for this reason.

Fishing the James is best done with live bait, a good fish finder to locate bait and in deeper water where bait is suspended. Find the bait and you will find the fish. Fish in the 30 pound range are not at all uncommon either. Live or cut shad are the favorite followed very closely by eels.

Eddie Brunson of King George shows off a nice channel cat.

The Rappahannock River is not as productive due to the low forage base. Unlike the James where forage comes as gizzard shad, the Rappahannock forage base is primarily white perch.

Some anglers point out that the commercial anglers are busy taking lots of large fish from the river. Anglers have gotten much better at catch and release for large fish and tournaments require it now. However, the low forage base and possible impact of harvest is having an affect. Anglers can spend a morning on the river and take more than enough fish in the 15-25 inch range though and the angling is fine. These fish are the perfect size to eat anyway.

The smaller fish are best caught from Leedstown to Hicks Landing. Small pieces of cut bait, clams or shrimp are very good bets. Night crawlers will work very well too. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi are smaller rivers but show good catch rates. Both have high growth rates with some nice fish in the 20 pound range being common. Swirling holes near log jams and ledges are the locations anglers need to look for when fishing either river. Smaller, clean channels and blue cats are also common and good to eat. Again, cut bait and eels are perfect baits for river fishing.

The Chickahominy River is an excellent place to do a variety of fishing. Catfishing from Walker's Dam downriver is great. The key to catfishing this river is to find isolated holes. Even holes back in the marshes hold really nice fish in the spring and summer. Isolated holes may only hold a few fish but they are quality fish. Use cut bait, eels, shad and even bream. Shrimp and clams are good for smaller fish.

As I stated before, the Potomac River is a good destination for large channel catfish. Forage is easy to come by on the Potomac and the fish appear to be growing fast. A chat with Maryland's DNR last year revealed that they do not really do a whole lot of sampling for catfish on the river these days but anglers report the size structure of catfish is going up in a hurry. Deeper holes near the channel, ledges and cliff sides are good spots to try for catfish. The lighthouses and bars where drop offs occur are best in the summer.

Gary Sanders hoists a
good channel catfish.

Catfishing in Virginia is fairly easy. Increasing your success is a matter of studying the water, using a fish finder and exploring the water. Catfish bite year round so you can begin your fishing season as soon as you finish reading this issue!

Good catting!

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