July 26, 2013
By Jim Gronaw
On a calm morning on Maryland's Potomac River, Patrick Korn and I launch at the Marshal Hall ramp. The tide is just short of high and we're pumped with thoughts of barrel-chested blue cats. Just the week before, on August 13, 2012, Ed Jones, fishing with tidal catfish guide Josh Fitchett, caught the new Maryland state record, an 84-pounder. Six months before that, Shawn Wetzel of Pennsylvania had set that record with an 80-pound 12-ounce blue from this area. We've got bait, we've got time, and the tide and winds are in our favor.
We set up on a channel edge after marking fish in 22 feet of water, rigging panfish and gizzard shad on 7/0 and 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Circle hooks. Almost immediately we get tentative bites from smaller fish. With 6 to 8 ounces of weight holding us near bottom in the tidal flow, we're not fishing for little guys. Rigged with 40-pound Trilene Big Game mono and 7-foot rods with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6000 and 7000 reels, were a little frustrated with the 5- to 10-pounders. We make a move.
At the next spot, another channel edge, the story is the same, at least for a while. Then one of the rods arcs over and the drag sings. As Korn wrestles the rod from the holder, we envision a big cat. He works the fish closer but we can't quite see it in the Potomac's coffee-colored water. The fish weakens and I slip the cow-sized net under it. Not the giant blue cat we were hoping for, but at 30 pounds, it's a good fish.
Fast forward to November, and 200 miles south, on Virginia's James River. Catfish guide Joe Hecht puts a client on a pair of 30s and another over 60. The bite's good, with a lot of smaller blues in the mix. A week later, local guide Neil Renouf puts a client on a James River giant, a 92-pounder. And on the Potomac, a pair of 70-pounders and several over 50 are weighed and released at a catfish tournament.
On the surface, things seem good for tidal blue cats back East, but signs suggest tougher times ahead. Over the past decade, the tidal James and Potomac rivers have been recognized as two of the best big fish waters in the country. A 50-pounder raises few eyebrows on the James River and in the Potomac, fish of that size aren't uncommon. Cats top 100 pounds in the James while the Potomac grows them into the mid-80s.
Few fisheries have offered a better chance for trophy blue cats. During the 2010 catfish electrofishing survey conducted by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, biologists caught blue catfish 35 inches and larger at a rate of 66 fish per hour. Virginia biologist Bob Greenlee reports that his crews have electroshocked as many as 6,000 blue catfish per hour on the James. A 2011 report from the American Fisheries Society Symposium, titled "Ecological Role of Blue Catfish in Chesapeake Bay Communities and Implications for Management" reports, "Blue catfish frequently dominate the ichthyofauna in portions of these coastal rivers, representing up to 75 percent of total fish biomass in recent electroshocking collections in the tidal James."
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has similar concerns about potential of overcrowding of estuaries by blue catfish, and effects it might have on other species. Every blue catfish update I've seen in the past 3 years has been accompanied with a Maryland DNR footnote depicting blue catfish as invasive, non-native, and threatening. Tom O'Connell, Maryland Fisheries Service Director, says, "While fishery scientists and managers recognize the enthusiasm and economic impact of anglers in search of record catfish, we don't want to encourage the development and spread of this species." DNR officials are encouraging anglers to kill all blue and flathead catfish they catch.
Blue Cat History
Blue catfish were introduced into the James and Rappahannock rivers by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in the mid-1970s and in the York River in 1985. Their expansion to other Chesapeake Bay rivers over the past 15 years has been dramatic. They're common in all Atlantic slope rivers of Virginia and inhabit the Potomac, Patuxent, Elk, and Nanticoke river systems in Maryland. They've been found as far north as the Susquehanna Flats region of the Upper Chesapeake Bay. Fishery managers are concerned that with no predators, blue catfish expansion could continue, to the detriment of native species, like white and yellow perch, striped bass, shad, herring, and blue crab.
The Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP), a team of state, federal, and private fishery managers, have decided to make blue catfish expansion an issue of concern. Their goal is to develop policy and goals to curtail and reduce their effects on native stocks. Options mentioned by the group range from eradication to status quo. But the group also realizes that eradication of blue catfish is likely not feasible. The group adds, "Increased management for trophy catfish fisheries is not one of the options being looked at."
Currently, Virginia allows recreational and commercial fishermen only one fish over 32 inches per day, but unlimited numbers of smaller blues. In Maryland, the minimum length limit for blue cats is 10 inches, with no creel limit. A large percentage of trophy blues are winter catches in both the James and Potomac, and most avid catfish anglers release all their fish. In light of consumption advisories for catfish in the James and the Potomac, harvest, even on the preferred 3- to 10-pound fish, is negligible. If they want a meal, most catfishers seek channel cats in reservoirs or free-flowing rivers.
Commercial fishing for blue catfish is modest, yielding about a $1 million harvest annually. Given consumption advisories, a catch-and-release ethic, and no natural predators to limit expansion of blue catfish, it's no wonder that fishery biologists and anglers are concerned. When managers from the CBP proposed changing blue catfish management direction, many catfish guides were up in arms over the threat to their livelihood, should eradication be sought. Avid blue cat anglers have been catching more but smaller fish than in past years. Still, the number of large fish is unquestionably high in the Potomac and James rivers.
Greenlee also points out that it takes a James River blue cat more years to reach 35 inches than it did a few years ago. Growth is relatively slow for the first years of life, until the fish reaches about 5 or 6 pounds, or about 9 years old. At that point, diet shifts to high-protein gizzard shad and weight gain is dramatic. But he's observed the growth rate slowing.
"To reach 30 pounds, a blue catfish now must live 15 years. Previously it would have reached this weight by age-12," he writes. If growth continues to slow in coming years, it's likely that fewer fish will reach trophy size. He added that there appears to be high mortality, up to 60 percent, for fish 9 to 14 years old. Given higher mortality of mid-size fish, slower growth, and harvest restrictions on larger fish, one might expect increased abundance of trophy fish. And increased harvest of blues in the 2- to 5-pound range should alleviate crowding of younger fish and resulting effects on other species.
From an angler standpoint, harvest and consumption of smaller, more abundant blue cats makes sense. They feed on invertebrates and juvenile fish less likely to have dangerous levels of contaminants than trophy-sized blues. Yet many tidal anglers eat only fish that are seasonal migrants to the estuaries. Selective harvest, a long-time In Fisherman concept, could play a role in this fishery management dilemma, by encouraging anglers to eat more young blue catfish.
Status of the Fisheries
Despite the shifting biological dynamics and management, the James and Potomac rivers remain the best options to catch 50-pound blue cats on the East Coast. For some reason, the blue cat craze has yet to catch on in the tidal Potomac as it has in the James River. That may be due to a strong tradition of largemouth bass fishing in the Chesapeake estuary. Other species, like seasonal runs of shad, herring, striped bass, and perch get lots of attention from local anglers.
The Potomac remains under the radar for numbers of 30- to 50-pound fish. Local experts anticipate a 100-pound blue in the near future. Although anglers are slowly taking advantage of its big fish opportunities, the Potomac remains the domain of a small but enthusiastic group of catfish anglers.
Tactics involve locating schools of big fish on sonar and presenting cutbait slightly upcurrent from marked fish. Preferred baits are cut gizzard shad or bluegills. Some anglers favor whole 6-inch bluegills. Most use in-line sliding weights from 6 to 8 ounces and attach 50-pound-test leaders 12 to 20 inches long snelled to 7/0 to 10/0 Gamakatsu or Owner circle hooks. The Potomac is generally deeper than the James, and big blues often occupy channel edges or nearby flats, or pockets and humps that deflect tidal currents.
In his report, Greenlee notes that the James remains the premier trophy blue cat fishery in the state, offering good numbers of fish to the 50-pound range and a shot at a 70. Tributaries of the James, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey, are smaller systems with fish to 50 pounds and occasional reports of blues as large as 80. Growth rates on these two rivers are also on a slight decline.
The James is more diverse in habitat than the Potomac, and many anglers pay more attention to structure than depth. Many big fish are caught shallow, even in winter, as blues herd shad or chase lethargic winter baitfish into shallow bays and sloughs. James River experts, like guides Chris Eberwien and Joe Hecht, consistently find fish in shallow water during mid-winter periods.
Cautious boat maneuvering and attention to the tides is important to keep a boat from being left high and dry when low tide approaches. Fallen logs, trees, and other wood debris along creek channels can hold fish year-round. Wing dams in the upper portions of the river, closer to Richmond, hold fish as well. Deep rockpiles and sunken barges in 20 to 50 feet of water can harbor giants.
Tackle options on the James vary. But 50-pound-class baitcasting gear, 8/0 to 10/0 circle hooks, and 6- to 10-ounce weights keep cutbaits near bottom. First-timers on either river should seriously consider hiring a guide who can put you on fish, demonstrate seasonal patterns, and share rigging and tackle tips.
*Jim Gronaw, Westminster, Maryland, is an avid multispecies angler and freelance writer. He frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications. Contact: James River guides Chris Eberwien, 804/449-6134, catfishingva.com; Capt. Joe Hecht, 804/221-1951, fatcatguideservice.com; Capt. Neil Renouf, 804-539-8023, olddominionoutdoors.com. Potomac River: Capt. Josh Fitchett, 804/836-5220, rivercatn.com.