The keys to stalking James River catfish

April 24, 2012 · 6 minute read

By Andrew Chase, Richmond native and self-described “insane fishing addict”

A fog horn sounds. Only the passengers and crew of the boat are present to hear the sound. The paddle roars through the water, finally docking in Memphis after a night of ferrying passengers across the river. If one could see through the thick fog, they would see a massive brown river slowly rolling through the land, perhaps even an alligator gar surfacing for air or “rolling”. The year is 1880, and the boat is on the Mississippi River, prior to most of the damming, pollution, species introductions and habitat destruction. This is a catfish river, the natural habitat where our American catfishes grow to mammoth size. It is still this way to an extent, though things have changed tremendously.
Today one of America’s top catfish rivers, the James, has only known the fish for 40 years. For better or for worse, the blue and flathead catfish are here to stay. The James is in interesting river. Starting its journey as a collection of cool, clear trout streams in western Virginia’s mountains and finally emptying into The Chesapeake Bay as a massive tidal river. The falls of the James is a seven-mile stretch in which the river drops 105 feet in elevation, producing the best urban whitewater in the country. Thankfully the James River Park System maintains over 500 acres of river access, attracting over 500,000 visitors a year.
Excellent fishing is to be had in the falls, notably for flathead catfish, though mostly unknown to people outside of local circles. In the dog days of summer when the river drops below four feet at the Westham Gauge fish are often corralled into deep holes between the rapids, often in overwhelming numbers and concentrations.
When I’m fishing for flatheads in the James this time of year, I know where they are, I know what they want, I just have to tempt a bite. There are many areas where you can don a mask and see the fish close up; quite readily I might add. I’ll often pass my kayak over a hole, and as I glance down I see a shoal of anywhere from a few fish to several dozen, but once you are seen they become far too finicky to tempt.
I imagine a grid over the water as I stand either on a rock or in my kayak (careful not to cast my shadow over the fish). I know where the water is deepest, I know where the rocks are, so I concentrate on those areas. Most anglers look for deep pools, I look for the features inside of the holes. I’ll toss a bait to that rock and that deeper area, wait ten minutes and reposition my baits.
The key, really, is to not be seen. I know of one place where between 8 and 16 flatheads will be under one rock, but if I swim down to place my bait in the hole I’ll never catch anything, even with a dozen hungry maws staring my poor bluegill down. The purpose to this, really, is to place the bait as close to as many fish as possible as quietly as possible.

The author with a haul of flatheads

Things are a little different at night. The fish spread out to hunt for food, which can be a curse or a blessing. The fish are more likely to bite, however harder to find due to being spread out. Instead of predicting where they are, you have to predict where they will be. Usually the fish begin moving around dusk, and that’s when the most fish will be active, then as night falls, the fish will roam their hunting grounds in search of a meal. This all takes place in around an hour, though in fewer numbers they do prowl readily throughout the night.

Usually at dusk and dawn, just for a short period, maybe 45 minutes, I’ll us an extremely effective method I like to call interception. Interception simply is intercepting the fish on their way too and from their hunting grounds. Flathead catfish hunting behavior is not completely understood, scientifically, but we can hypothesize that the fish follow a common route when moving to and from their hunting areas. My own anecdotal evidence supports this tremendously. In typical catfish habitat (such as the lower James) it is very easy to find these “highways.” They are usually the shallowest areas in the main river channel. Fish, like most matter in the universe try to find path of least resistance, usually meaning the least current. This is the key to finding fish “funnels”. For example, if there was a large hole surrounded by rapids and immediately upstream there wis a shallow flat holding many sunfishes, the fish would select the rapid with the least current to surpass on its journey.
Fishing in the middle of the night is probably the simplest of the three times, yet many anglers don’t do it correctly. Most anglers simply fish the same locales night, day, dusk and dawn. This will catch fish, no doubt, but to constantly stay on good numbers of fish, different locations should be fished at different times. Night time is time to sit and wait, this isn’t run and gun fishing at all, we reserve that for the day. The key here is to locate their hunting grounds, usually shallow flats near (though they can be up to a mile apart on larger rivers) their daytime haunts. You locate hunting areas by locating the baitfish. In the James, the baitfish are usually sunfish and smallmouth bass, but bullheads, minnows, and small carp are possibilities as well. I suggest doffing your flathead rods one day to pickup something a bit lighter for panfish. I usually opt for a one inch Mr. Twister white curly tail grubs with a small round head lead head and a slow constant retrieve. Once you locate the food source you’ll locate the predators, or at least their hunting grounds. When night fishing, it is often better to cast your rods in the same area rather than to make a large spread to concentrate the scent, electro-magnetic force, sound/vibrations, etc. in one smaller area and attract them to that spot. If the baits were spread, the fish would have more choices and might go to your bait or a wild baitfish. If you were the fish, would you rather hunt down a whole school of fish or individuals?

The tidal James is full of blue cats, like this 66-pounder.

One night I was fishing with a friend and we went to one of my better holes, only to find some people already there. A group of five or six guys; I asked if they minded if we joined them and they didn’t so I setup. The sun was just going down so I said “perfect” because I had discovered a rock in the hole with a large cavity full of flatheads a few days prior. You can’t get a bait in there during the day, but when they’re leaving at night they have to come out the same way, so I placed three baits at the entrance. Within five minutes my friend and I had caught 4 fish, including a 21 and 28 pounder. The other group still hadn’t caught anything. After those 4 fish, we didn’t catch any, but a few minutes later the other folks’ luck seemed to change. They caught 3 fish in 15 minutes, granted not as good as my prior experience, but extremely respectable at least. The reason was that they had set their rods on an adjacent flat, and I had stubbornly left my baits at the mouth of the cavern. After repositioning my baits I proceeded to have an extremely successful night, with many more fish only leaving when I ran out of bait