"I hope we can get up in here and get a few fish before the tide goes out," said Captain Joe Hecht, as we squeezed through a tight cutoff of the James River that led to an expansive, shallow bay that Hecht claimed would heat up quickly as the day warmed. In Virginia's tidal James, most catfishers were out on the main river, seeking blues in water as deep as 50-plus feet. With his shallow-draft Carolina Skiff, Hecht maneuvered us onto the flat. The tide was scheduled to drop in a few hours, so we quickly rigged up for skinny-water blues.
Fishing blue cats in water this shallow in winter was something new to both Charles Wallace and me. We joined Hecht, a veteran catfish guide based out of Richmond, Virginia, for some cold-water catfishing. I knew fishing for blues could be good in tidal rivers in winter, but for the most part I thought you had to go deep. I've heard of shallow winter bites in reservoirs of the South and Southeast, particularly on milder days in early or late winter when blues and bait are attracted to warming shallows, but I hadn't experienced this pattern in tidal rivers until I fished with Hecht.
Ninety percent of Hecht's blue cat efforts on the James River are in water less than 15 feet deep. This not only applies to winter catting, but summer fishing as well. He used to fish 30 to 50 feet and deeper, in quest of those grotesquely fat blues that this water is famous for. He discovered that big fish were not always deep, and that trophy fish spent more time in shallow water chasing bait than he previously believed. His winter clients often bag several fish in the 70-pound range. His best winter cat weighed 82.5 pounds.
Slowly cruising this shallow flat, we saw big swirls and pushes of water, as blue cats spooked and moved away from us in water that barely covered their backs. This was shallow water indeed — about two feet deep. And it had been below 30°F that morning.
We baited with cut gizzard shad. Once fish hit, they steadily swam either away from or toward the boat. Gear was lighter than typically used for main-river fishing, so fighting fish was great fun and long runs were the order of the day. We caught lots of 15- to 20-pound fish, with a few 30s. Before long, we had to get out of the bay as the tide slid out, or risk being there for another six hours.
The Shallow Bite
Winter is one of the premier times to cash in on a 50-pound or better blue catfish on the James, and several tactics can work. Most winters are mild, and ice cover and consistent freezing temperatures are unusual. Blue cats remain active and continue to feed heavily on the large population of native gizzard shad. Throughout winter, both catfish and shad can be found at a variety of depths. Overlooked in this tidal fishery, however, is that blues can be found in depths of 15 feet and frequently much shallower, forming a consistent and dependable winter pattern. Tides always keep blue cats on the move, even in the dead of winter. But during mild winters, and especially during several days of unseasonably warm temperatures, blues can move ultra shallow and provide fast fishing.
For Hecht, the winter shallow bite has been his most productive pattern for putting clients on numbers of quality fish. Not every angler wants to stare at baitcasters set deep for hours on end, in hopes of a couple of big fish. Skinny-water fishing produces higher numbers of fish running from 15 to 40 pounds. But fish in the 50- to 60-pound class make a showing on a regular basis.
Besides shallow bays, Hecht looks for other shallow spots such as mudflats, shallow banks that heat up with sunlight, and tidal tributaries that look more like largemouth bass water than big-cat territory. Shorelines with sun exposure and an abundance of wood are classic winter spots that could produce fish from 20 to over 80 pounds. Here again, the bite is in water 15 feet or less. Proper boat handling and positioning can be tricky, as only flood-tide provides water deep enough to access many of these areas. In a vast tidal estuary like the James, it takes time to learn the cuts, guts, channels, and openings where one can get a boat into a specific area for a few hours of prime fishing.
Other conditions that enhance the shallow bite are periods of warm rain and high, muddy water. Tidal blue cats can get spooky when they're shallow, and they're not quite so skittish in muddy water as in clearer conditions. With water often just 3 to 6 feet deep, cautious and quiet boating is a must.
Tackle and Gear
Shallow tidal water hosts much cover — logs, sunken trees, old barges, and debris of all kinds from high-water events. Year to year, many shallow zones of the James River and other Mid Atlantic tidal flows change with the influence of big storms. In late summer of 2011, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee dropped 18 to 22 inches of rain in the watersheds within a two-week period. These historic high-water events altered habitat in many rivers of the region. Last year's hotspot might not exist due to flooding, and new areas may now offer outstanding fishing.
The large amount of scattered woodcover in shallow zones calls for heavy tackle. On his rigs, Hecht uses an 18- to 20-inch leader of 60- to 80-pound-test Sufix monofilament. He likes 8/0 to 10/0 Owner circle hooks and rigs a 4- to 6-ounce flat river sinker above the leader, which is connected to the 40- to 60-pound Sufix mainline with a barrel or crane swivel. This sinker is lighter than typically used when fishing the main river. Heavier sinkers can settle deep into the soft mud, and cats sometimes drop the bait when they feel the resistance of the weight stuck in the mud. The longer 20-inch leader also allows the bait to be up off the bottom and available for cruising blues.
Hecht uses 7-foot extra-heavy rods custom built by a local rod maker, paired with Abu Garcia 7000 C3 baitcasters. For the past few winters, he has kept a couple of bass-sized baitcasters on board for times when numbers of catfish in the 20-pound range are active. The scaled down tackle enables clients to have a blast with blues streaking across the flats.
His boat is a 20-foot DLX Carolina Skiff with a 90-hp Yamaha. With the motor trimmed, Hecht can navigate in 24 inches of water, but the boat load has to be light.
More on Location
Among the most productive winter locations are smaller tributaries that wind intricately throughout the James River complex. Laced with cypress trees, mudflats, and fallen wood, these shad-rich shallow areas attract bulky catfish. High-percentage areas are depression or holes that are only slightly deeper than the surrounding water. Outside channel bends and deeper pockets at the mouths of creeks also are classic spots to check. Keep in mind that "deep" is 10 to 15 feet and you can catch fish much shallower.
Don't overlook wood, in the form of snags and fallen trees along the shoreline, that serve as current breaks for fish. Several times, Hecht pointed out obvious solitary large trees that had lost their root systems and tumbled into the river. But other lairs weren't so easy to spot.
Sometimes, only a small portion of a tree root or stump might be visible during a low-tide phase, although the spot might contain enough wood or heavy branches to deflect current and draw cats to the downcurrent side of the cover. Spots like this require further investigation and should be fished in anticipation of blues being present. The water only has to be deep enough to cover the backs of these 50-pound-class blues.
In shallow bays, Hecht sets an anchor off both bow and stern, allowing 3 to 4 feet of play on each line. At dead high and slightly outgoing or incoming tide, there's little current. He deploys 6 to 8 rods and makes long casts in various directions around the boat. In shallow bays, small groups of cats may come and go, chasing shad that have also moved shallow, he says. If a bay is losing water on the tidal fall, he fishes as long as he can, then gets out before becoming grounded.
On shallow flats adjacent to the main river, he anchors off the bow and sets six lines off the stern. Depending on the layout of the flat, lines are either set tight to specific cover, or distributed over a wider area. If he doesn't catch fish in 45 minutes at a spot, he relocates. Bites can be fast and furious once fish come in, as they are active, feeding fish.
Hooking and playing bulldozing blue cats in such skinny, wood-infested water can be challenging. Strikes from shallow fish also differ from those caught in deeper water. While deep mid-river cats confidently load the rod as it sits in the holder, shallow fish are more tentative on the bite. Often, they tap and mouth a bait for up to several minutes before committing. Then, fish swim away from or directly at the boat. Pay close attention to the line and rods to increase hook-ups. Whereas deep-water fish tend to hook themselves when they load the rod, skinny-water cats often need a sweep of the rod to set the hook on the initial run.
Hecht's best shallow-water cat trip yielded a total of 22 blue cats, 17 over 30 pounds, including three 50s and a 60, all in a three-hour period on a chilly February day, beginning with a morning air temperature of 14°F. While everyone else was fishing deeper on the main river, Hecht was riding the tide up shallow, targeting blues in water barely deep enough to cover their backs.
*Jim Gronaw, Westminster, Maryland, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contact Captain Joe Hecht at fatcatguide.com, 804/221-1951.