TIDAL AND BRACKISH-WATER CATS
Over the past couple of decades, some of the hottest blue-cat fishing has surfaced in tidal rivers, particularly along the mid-Atlantic seaboard. Non-native blue cats forage on plentiful gizzard shad and herring, leading to some of the most productive fisheries today. In rivers such as the James and Potomac in Virginia, and the Cape Fear in North Carolina, among others, anglers are tangling with big numbers of trophy-class cats. Yes, the blue tide has come in, and there’s good fishing all the way to where rivers meet salt.
As an example of the burgeoning fisheries, blue catfish were stocked in the James River in the 1970s and really took off in the 1990s. “Blues were putting on 10-pound increments each year, says Bob Greenlee, district fishery biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “Fifty-pounders were unheard of in the 1990s; now 70s are common and a handful of 80s are caught each year. The state record 95-pound 11-ounce blue was caught in the James in June 2006,” he says. “There’s an unbelievable biomass of blues out there. We see electrofishing catch rates up to 2,000 fish per hour.”
WEIR ON THE JAMES RIVER
Jimmy Weir, a blue cat specialist from Virginia Beach, Virginia, has a knack for producing big blue cats in almost any weather or water condition and is a consistent performer in local tournaments. He and his partners have logged 10-fish creels pushing close to 300 pounds. Time now to follow his approach to finding and catching big blue cats in tidal rivers. His tactics are deceptively simple, having been refined through years of experience, and should help you catch more and bigger blues from the lakes, rivers, and reservoirs you fish.
Creating & Sustaining a Trophy Fishery
In-Fisherman Publisher Steve Hoffman: Many catmen are surprised to learn of the abundance of trophy blue cats in the James, Rappahannock, and other tidal rivers. Why are the cats in these rivers getting so big, so fast?
Weir: Tidal rivers like the James contain diverse habitat—huge flats, small tributary creeks, and lots of main-channel habitat like holes and steep ledges. The two major rivers that feed the James, the Appomattox and Chickahominy, also contain similar habitat and support their own populations of resident blue cats. This diversity, coupled with an abundance of baitfish and a strong catch-and-release ethic, has made the James River one of the best rivers for blue cats anywhere.
Hoffman: As the average size of blue cats in the James River has increased, anglers seem more willing to release big fish—those weighing 40 pounds or more. How have local catfish tournaments promoted the release of large blues?
Weir: Many of the best anglers in this area fish tournaments, and most realize that this is a finite fishery. The resource will continue to improve only if we conserve what we already have. Rules requiring the release of big fish should be mandatory for all tournaments. All of our Virginia Catfish Association tournaments require fish to be weighed alive, but we realize that rules alone aren’t good enough. Keeping a 30- to 40-pounder or bigger fish alive requires a large livewell with a good circulation system.
Livewell systems with this kind of capacity aren’t a factory option on most freshwater boats, but transforming a 120-quart cooler or other container into a suitable livewell is easy. All you need is a 750-gallon-per-minute, through-transom pump; about three feet of 3/4-inch hose; a short piece of 3/4-inch PVC pipe; and a 3/4-inch PVC end cap. Drill a series of holes in the PVC pipe and mount the spray bar inside the cooler. If the water is changed every hour or so, large cats can be kept alive for several days.
Hoffman: Many tournament organizers I’ve talked with claim that live-release tournaments lack support, particularly in the Southeast. They say participants and spectators want to see numbers of big fish—dead or alive.
Weir: That lacks vision. No fishery can support numbers of trophy fish and unlimited harvest indefinitely. These tournament promoters should reduce the creel limit to increase fish survival, particularly on big fish venues. At our tournaments, participants are allowed to weigh only three fish. Five fish were permitted a few years ago, but the average size of the fish has increased dramatically.
Big Fish Location
Hoffman: You tend to fish each spot differently, depending on water conditions and the activity level of the fish. What are your basic location and presentation guidelines?
Weir: I consider how fish behave in their environment. When I’m fishing secondary channels or feeder creeks, for example, I know the fish are there to eat. I employ a run-and-gun approach by setting up on deep holes or hard structures like trees or docks for no longer than about 30 minutes. If I don’t get bit by then, I move. Since these areas tend not to be as deep as main-river spots, though, I also know the fish will be more suspicious. I motor around the core of the hole, then drift back into casting range by releasing more anchor rope.
Creeks and side channels are especially productive during the Coldwater Period from early winter through midspring. By the time water levels start to stabilize, I begin looking for fish in the main-river channel. Blue cats have gained something of a cold-water reputation in recent years, but some of my best fishing for big fish on the James River occurs during midsummer when water temperatures reach peak levels. This is when blues move onto shallow flats adjacent to the main channel to feed after dark. Be there with the right bait and you’ll get bit.
The Right Equipment
Hoffman: You consider a boat to be one of your most important pieces of fishing equipment. What features should catmen who fish big rivers for big cats be looking for in the ideal catboat?
Weir: I prefer a wide-beamed catfish boat, about 20 feet long. This type of boat is plenty stable when two fishermen are landing a big fish on one side of the boat. It also has enough room for a large livewell and other gear. But my ideal boat also must have a shallow draft so I can navigate across shallow bars at the mouth of tributary streams, particularly during low tide. There’s no such thing as one boat ideally suited for all conditions, but my Carolina Skiff is the best compromise I’ve found.
Hoffman: You use a simple sliprig for most situations, but you’re quite particular about your terminal components. What type of hooks and sinkers do you use?
Weir: I use a 6/0 Mustad 37160 hook almost exclusively, because the wide-gap design allows for large baits and it holds up well to big fish. Then I attach a 2-foot piece of 50-pound monofilament leader to the hook with a snell knot. The rest of my rigging consists of a 3- to 5-ounce flat river sinker held in place above the leader with a barrel swivel. Flat sinkers don’t roll around on the bottom like egg sinkers, but I prefer the line to run through the center of the sinker instead of using a separate line attachment eye.
Take Time for Bait
Hoffman: You’re even more passionate about bait than you are about sinkers. How important is good bait for blue cats?
Weir: Good bait is absolutely essential for big fish, particularly during weekend tournaments when fishing pressure is high. I typically spend two to three hours gathering enough large shad for a day’s fishing, and I never regret a minute of it. When bait’s not abundant in shallow water, I move back and forth across ledges along the main river channel while watching sonar for large schools of baitfish. I keep an eye out for big-fish arches too, since this can help pinpoint the depth where blue cats are feeding.
The James River is blessed with a huge population of gizzard shad, a reason this river produces so many big blue cats. Some throws of an 8-foot cast net yield so many shad that I have to struggle to pull them over the gunnels. Shad from about 8 to 14 inches long are the best bait year-round. I get two baits out of a shad this size by cutting once behind the gill plate and again in front of the tail fin. Some days, blue cats seem to prefer shad heads, while other days, the body section produces more fish.
I also use live 8- to 12-inch eels, or larger eels cut into 3- to 5-inch pieces. This bait is particularly effective during the Spawn Period or during summer when water temperatures reach peak levels. Eels can be kept alive on a bed of ice for more than 24 hours, and cut eel can be stored in a freezer for weeks or even months. Another advantage to using eels is that frozen chunks work almost as well as fresh ones.