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Bill May: Searching for Potomac blue catfish

Rick Bruce celebrates one of our big blue catfish.
Rick Bruce celebrates one of our big blue catfish. (Bill May Photo)

Blue catfish get big.

When we fished with guide Mike Starrett three weeks ago he told us his best blue cat was 86 pounds, 49.5 inches. Rick and Joe Bruce and I topped those numbers a couple of times over; we just needed a bunch of fish to do it. Our biggest individual weighed 22 pounds, but we took a couple of dozen lesser specimens.

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Fishing for blue cats can be about as basic as it gets — for the fisherman. But Starrett and his partner Dave Snellings of Indian Head Charters have added some refinements that make it more productive.

We met Mike at Fort Washington Marina. His “big boat” is a 22.1-foot Mako center console powered by a 200-horsepower Mercury. An array of 10 rods was in the holders. Mike asked if we noticed anything unusual about the rods. We didn’t.

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There were several different brands of 7-foot medium-heavy rods, most with Ambassadeur level-wind reels and a few with Shimano Baitrunner spinning reels. Each was set up with “fish finder” rigs, where the main line is run through a heavy duty plastic sleeve with a large clip to which a sinker can be attached, then a swivel is tied on and a leader tied on the other end. The hook was a heavy gauge 8/0 Octopus Circle hook slightly offset.

With some exasperation, Mike pointed out that all 10 braided lines were different colors. He had the wrong audience: Rick was wearing orange-tinted glasses, Joe is color blind, and I’m oblivious. The braided lines were 50-pound test, the 2- to 3-foot leaders were 40-pound monofilament. Clearly this is a setup for big fish.

On a trip this summer Joe Bruce came across a flat with big groups of carp. He quickly decided this was worth exploring and called Mike Seal.

We motored almost directly across the river from the marina and Mount Vernon, and Mike and I began scanning the screen of his large depth finder. The screen showed a lot of bait but little on the bottom at the 12-foot level Mike was targeting. Moving out the sloping bottom we saw big fish at 20 feet.

We continued moving downriver and along the slope, but 20 feet continued to be the honey hole, so we anchored and set up.

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We clipped 4-ounce sinkers to the fish finder sleeves while Mike scaled a frozen river mullet, sliced off 1-inch strips and ran the hooks through the skin side.

“I get a shipment from North Carolina to the fish market every Thursday. Fresh bait makes a difference,” he explained.

Then we cast out a spread of bait and waited. Mike’s instructions were simple: Let the fish run a ways on the BaitRunner reels, then pick up the rod and throw the reel into fighting gear. On the rods with Ambassadeur reels, wait till the rod bends over then grab it out of the holder and start reeling. Either way, do not set the circle hook.

Basically Rick and I in the stern scanned the four rods on our sides; Joe at the console scanned the two rods amidships. We didn’t have to wait long. Most hits began with a brief bob or two of the rod followed by a solid take. The only pattern to which rod would get the hits was that those working deeper water seemed to do better. All the fish fought with slugging runs, but violent head shakes quickly signaled double-digit cats.

We had doubles a couple of times, but mostly had intermittent action with single fish.

The cats validated Mike’s colored line rod untangling solution a number of times. It worked; with the highly visible and distinctive lines, we could easily untangle rigs, before things got out of control.

Joe and Rick quickly got the number of fish they wanted under the recommended DNR consumption advisory limit of 30 inches. Fish over this size and small fish were quickly released, a simple process with circle hooks.

Fishing slowed as the tide decreased. We moved to the spot where Mike took his 86-pound blue cat, but our action was about the same. When we checked with Dave’s party, their results were similar except they boated one about 40-pounds. They described the action as a brawl.

This fishing generally begins in late September and continues until cold and ice make things dangerous and miserable. The fishery is now an established sport and commercial enterprise. But blue catfish comprise a dire threat to Chesapeake waters.

This shot of me last year demonstrates two things: blue catfish will hit spinnerbaits, and they have migrated on their own to waters where they were not stocked, in this case, the Piankatank River.
This shot of me last year demonstrates two things: blue catfish will hit spinnerbaits, and they have migrated on their own to waters where they were not stocked, in this case, the Piankatank River. (Bill May Photo)

Blue catfish were introduced into several Virginia western shore Bay tributaries by state biologists beginning in the early 1970s, and later flathead catfish were added. These fish are native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River systems and are prized for their size and eating qualities. The goal was to boost recreational freshwater fisheries, a common practice in those days. Since they are not native, they, along with snakeheads, are classified as invasive species.

Blue cats are invasive in the common meaning of the term, too, spreading throughout Bay tributaries. This is largely due to natural factors. They are apex predators, feeding on all forms of vegetation, fish and shellfish, highly mobile and reproductive (even guarding their young) and can live up to 20 years and weigh over 100 pounds. Their comparatively high salt tolerance and the large rains of recent years have allowed their populating more waters, and unauthorized stockings to new waters has also occurred.

As a result it appears they could be a major and “irreversible” ecological and economic threat, including defeating efforts to restore species such as river herring and shad, as well decimating other fish species, blue crabs and native mussels.

The next few months offer so many fishing and other outdoor options, it’s hard to decide what to do.

Federal, state and scientific agencies are working together in several groups and subgroups. To date the primary proposed control method is promoting sport and commercial fishing and increasing processing operations.

Blue catfish are popular menu items in restaurants and fish markets. Joe Bruce described their taste as similar to walleye; others compare the cats to stripers.

So for the sake of the Chesapeake, it’s a fisherman’s duty to catch and eat them. Just don’t transplant them.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

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