There are not many places on planet Earth where an angler can go to a freshwater fishing destination and have a reasonable shot at catching a 30-pound fish, and maybe several, of any species. For those who don't mind a little bit of work and slime, the current state of the tidal Potomac River blue catfish fishery offers one of the best "big-fish" opportunities in the East.
The Potomac is an amazing fishery for many species, but for those catfish fanatics who like 'em big, this waterway remains one of the top destinations in the nation for burly blue cats.
I have been doing the blue cat gig off and on since 2007, and found that it was an amazing, overlooked and underfished option for Mid-Atlantic anglers. Where as Virginia's James River has been the epicenter of East Coast cat fisheries, the Potomac has, for some reason, lagged behind in popularity for the big catters. I don't know whether it is that the James has small, working-class towns in and around it as opposed to the Potomac being next to white-collar professionals of the nations capitol or not. But the truth is, big fish are there to be had, all year long.
Although the Maryland DNR has been demonizing the blue cat for the past several years and encouraging "catch and kill" efforts from recreational anglers, most anglers continue to release their big fish. I recently hooked up with local catfish fanatic Alvie Sickle for another round of brawling with these big fish.
Back in April, we had pretty much a "career" day on the Potomac with more than 50 cats with 14 weighing over 30 pounds and many 15- to 25-pounders. Our trip wasn't quite as crazy two weeks ago, but we did manage 24 cats from 5-30 pounds with several upper-teen and low 20-pound class fish. We used cut sunfish and fished several areas south of the Washington, D.C. area.
One of the recent biological concerns for both Potomac and James River blue cats is the abundance of smaller 2- to 10-pound fish that have overwhelmed the fisheries. With no major predators to keep blue cat numbers in check, and anglers releasing most of their catch, these fish are reaching incredible numbers and even moving to Eastern Shore rivers and Upper Bay flows. Although some watermen are targeting smaller 3- to 10-pound class blue cats for local markets, it continues to puzzle me as to why fishery management officials are trying to promote and encourage this specie as a prime food fish when there are so many consumption advisories on the tidal Potomac.
Yes, they are delicious. But ... are they safe?
Although a 20-pounder is a nice cat on the Potomac, it would raise few eyebrows among the big-cat crowd who routinely boat 30- to 50-pounders during prime months of October through March. Hot summer times tend to see lots of smaller fish, and some of the local experts do the night gig to get some relief from the heat. We have taken them up to 44 pounds in the stillness of the summer nights.
Tackle for big blues is simple, and most saltwater anglers may already have gear that will do nicely. Most prefer 6000 or 7000 series baitcasters on fiberglass, 7-foot rods that will handle 30- to 50-pound monos as a mainline. Many catters prefer mono due to the stretch and forgiveness when big blue cats do that final dive and surge at boatside. Fishfinder rigs with 6-8 ounces of weight will be needed to keep baits down in the heavy current. Flat, in-line sinkers are also used and a short, 12- to 18-inch, 50-pound leader, snelled to the hook, completes the Carolina-style rig. Hook sizes are 6/0 to 8/0 circle hooks.
Prefered baits are cut gizzard shad that are netted the morning of the trip, but hat can be tough in the colder water of fall and early winter. Check all regulations before you attempt to net gizzard shad in the tidal Potomac and its tributaries. As a back up bait, cut bluegills, crappies or white perch can catch the cats as well.
Boat positioning and tidal phases are critical. Always anchor upcurrent from marked fish and allow them to come to you. Toss baits out, let them settle to the bottom, and tighten up on them in the rod-holders. You will likely get a lot of tentative bites from smaller fish. However, when the rod pegs over and stays down, it's almost always a big boy. Hooksets will not be needed, but have your drag set so that it will take some effort for the fish to run. Favored structures are channel drops and edges and small dips or rises in the river bottom that can conceal cats during tidal currents. We have found that the last two hours of incoming or the first two hours of outgoing tides produce well.
Recently, there has been some regulatory efforts made by both Maryland and Virginia concerning both the blue and flathead catfish populations in the Potomac and all Chesapeake tributaries that involve the reduction of the current populations. The ongoing terms "non-native" and "invasive" continue to crop up in the language of these current concerns. Talks of total eradication to "significantly reduced numbers" are also being batted around by governing bodies of both states.
Without getting into a whole lot of political commentary, I just want to say that I find it astonishing that fisheries managers are not more savvy in promoting large, aggressive gamefish like the blue cats of the Potomac and the James. Many of our most popular sportfish in the region are non-native, and some are invasive. The blue cat fishery on the James has brought lots of money into a very depressed area for many years through guide services and related industries.
Although that has not followed suit on the Potomac, it is still one of the top big-fish, freshwater bites in the nation and early winter can be a time for giants.