From InsideLine Online Magazine
Republished with permission
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 Ė I
really had no idea these fish even existed, much less grew to such
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 Andersonís monster
143-lber out of Kerr reservoir in June of this year. Thatís big for any
fish but for fresh water (easily and cheaply available to many of us),
itís 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 Catín 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
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 wasnít sure I really knew what to expect from this
trip. I mean, itís 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.
Hannaís fish weighed 42
pounds and the Captain laughed off our exclamations of shock while
shaking his head and muttering something like, ďThatís an alright fish.Ē
To me, 42 pounds is about as much fish as I had ever seen, and it
certainly made an impression.
that point on the action wasnít quite as fast and furious, but we
caught fish at every stop but one and the size didnít 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
ďcatfishĒ 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 donít go imagining screaming drags and long exciting
runs; these arenít 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 canít 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.
Ė 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 youíre 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 canít
think of a better way to hook up with a heavyweight fish. You can find
these things in most of Americaís backyard and likely at a significantly
reduced cost compared to your average saltwater charter.
How Itís Done
Talking to Captain Josh, I
learned more about the presentation and tactics which I found to be
much more complex and ďbass likeĒ 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 weíre 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
Captain Josh uses 7í6Ē
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 donít 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, itís 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 youíre interested in
checking out any of the Virginia tidal waters that the blue cats haunt,
you couldnít do better than a day out on the water with Captain Josh
Fitchett and River Catín 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.
Youíre 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 donít 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 Catín guide service at
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.