Prime Catfish Destinations: Virginia’s Tidal James River
By Brad Hierstetter
A Hot Spot for Frigid Water Trophy Blue Cats!
Approximately 40 miles northwest of Lynchburg, Virginia (VA), just below the very small Alleghany County town of Iron Gate, the James River forms at the confluence of the Cowpasture and Jackson Rivers. Here, the appropriately named Upper James flows eastward across VA, eventually passing through the capital city of Richmond, for nearly 350 miles before spilling into the Lower Chesapeake Bay. Three major river stretches comprise the James: the Upper (Alleghany County to Lynchburg), the Middle (Lynchburg to Richmond), and the Lower (Richmond to the Chesapeake Bay).
Biologists employed by the state of VA initially released blues into the river during the 1970s. Growth was incredible through the mid-2000s. While it is true that the river’s trophy blue catfishery peeked in the 2007/2008 timeframe, with today’s blues growing at a slower pace, it is still an excellent blue catfishery.
Mr. Bob Greenlee, who is the Eastern Aquatic Regional Resources Manager at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), told me in August 2016 that “data indicate it is the one water in Virginia that is most likely to sustain a trophy fishery into the near future.” The river’s continued trophy potential and VDGIF’s strong commitment to letting the best available science guide how it manages blues are two major reasons why VA’s ‘no more than one blue over 32 inches per day’ regulation will remain in effect on the James. The regulation has been in place since 2006 and is applicable to both recreational and commercial anglers,
It should be no surprise, then, that, of VA’s tidal rivers, the James “provides the best catfishing in Virginia with unmatched numbers and high abundance of large” blues. Many of these larger blues are consistently found upriver of the Benjamin Harrison Bridge, which crosses the river east of the city of Hopewell, at Jordan Point. By motor vehicle, Hopewell is approximately 22 miles southeast of Richmond.
In the mid-Atlantic region, blue catfishing during the cold water months of December through March is very productive, particularly for larger fish; the James is no exception! As long as the presence of ice or otherwise unsafe river conditions does not hinder safe navigation or fishing from an anchored boat, the chances of landing a once in a lifetime blue during the winter months are well above average. Continue reading to learn how 2 highly skilled catfish anglers with contrasting approaches consistently catch trophy blues from the James during late fall and throughout the winter.
Long-time James River guide, Captain Neil Renouf, who now spends much of the year guiding in the Florida Keys, Key West, says that an ideal time to target trophy blues is when water temperatures drop to, or below, 43 degrees Fahrenheit. In thinking about Renouf’s approach, recall that, while blue catfish certainly relate heavily to structure year-round, in colder water, they tend to hold very tight to structure, especially objects.
Generally speaking, then, and particularly during late fall and winter when structure-holding blues are much less likely to stray far from objects, ensuring that your fishing time coincides with tidal currents that are moving at a moderate to strong pace will increase your odds of encountering active blues in tidal rivers. This is because, in steadily moving water, active structure-oriented blues are more apt to consistently position themselves extremely close to certain structural objects, such as in the branches of a downed tree, or beside and immediately above a brush or rock pile. Renouf reminds us that the water depth in which you locate these specific objects is not nearly as important as finding them and carefully positioning yourself so that you are able to effectively fish them.
Renouf fishes from an anchored boat and uses one third of a fresh-caught gizzard shad for bait. He utilizes a traditional slip rig, which entails threading an appropriately weighted slip sinker (typically, 6 to 10 ounces for areas with stronger currents) to his 40-pound monofilament main line. Below the sinker, Renouf ties a barrel swivel to the main line. To the “open” end of the barrel swivel, he ties a short leader made from 80-pound monofilament. A 10/0 circle hook is tied to the open end of the leader. To ensure that his offerings are being presented primarily to active fish, Renouf relocates if he does not get a bite within 30 minutes, unless the tide is about to change and he expects active fish to move into a given spot.
Prostaffer (Bottom Dwellers Tackle, Driftmaster Rod Holders, and O&S Nets) Jason Kintner also prefers to target trophy James River blues during the late fall and winter. His approach, however, revolves around the natural tendency of the temperature of water across shallow flats to almost always be slightly warmer than the water found in nearby deeper main river areas. Kintner advises that, when main river water temperatures drop below the mid-40s, a single warmer-than-average or sunshine-filled day will often trigger baitfish to move en masse to certain shallow water locales. Not far behind these baitfish will be (you guessed it!) hungry blues. Kintner recommends that anglers focus their efforts on identifying shallow oxbows, feeder creeks, and gravel pits attached to the main river.
So, what does Kintner consider shallow? “If I can still run my boat through it, I’m good. Two to 4 feet of water is plenty!” He strongly cautions, though, that anglers carefully monitor the tide tables to avoid ending up stranded on one of these shallow water hot spots when the tide falls. Lastly, Kintner, also an advocate of fresh-caught bait, notes that smaller baits will often out-produce larger baits during the winter.
Whatever you do, do not let the chill of late fall and winter deter you from enjoying some of the year’s best trophy blue fishing on the James. Dressing appropriately, wearing your life vest at all times, and adequately preparing for the inherent dangers associated with fishing in cold air and cold water temperatures, are keys to ensuring both a safe and comfortable outing. By fishing the James when many others choose not to, you just may be rewarded with that monster trophy blue catfish of a lifetime!