It was 1992 when NAFC blue cat guru Chris Harris of Richmond, Virginia, was fishing the James River and spotted bizarre shapes on his depthfinder. He dropped his baits to the mysterious structures and felt his sinkers tap off the tops and slide down the sides.
He wasn’t exactly sure what he was dealing with until he freed a snag and reeled in a wooden plank from a long-sunken ship. Not long after, he caught a monster blue from that sprawling wreck. Then another. It was no fluke. Over the 13 years since, he’s developed a killer pattern for finding and fishing these unique cat houses.
Some wrecks he targets sank relatively recently, such as metal barges; others date back to the Civil War. They lie in water as deep as 100 feet to just a few feet. Although some are marked on maps, Harris’ favorites are not. To find unmapped wrecks, check deep river bends—sunken ships are pushed into these spots from their original sinking site during high-water periods.
Use high-quality sonar to probe these depths, looking for mesa-like structures coming off bottom.
“When I started fishing these ships, I got a lot of snags but few fish,” he says. “I took the time to learn the shape of each wreck in detail, how fish hold on them and the best way to fish each one. Now the fishing can be fantastic.”
Part of Harris’ learning curve was dialing in how big cats change the way they relate to the wrecks during all six phases of tidal current flow: fast outgoing, slowing outgoing, dead current, quickening incoming, fast incoming and slowing incoming.
During an outgoing tide, he anchors his boat so he can cast a chunk of gizzard shad tight to the wreck on the side facing the flow. “Blues hold in front of and alongside the ships when the current is fast-outgoing. I catch a ton of blues over 50 pounds right along the front lips during this phase,” Harris says.
As the current slows, cats stray slightly. Harris casts to the flats adjacent to the ship and suspends a few baits on downlines. During dead tide, he suspends almost all of the baits and switches some to live 12-inch shad.
When the tide comes in, he re-anchors on the other side of the ship, as most cats move to positions facing the incoming current. As the incoming current quickens, Harris moves his baits closer to the front of the wrecks, sometimes even casting inside or on top of the structures, depending on whether they are open-top ships.
To handle the tough cover, he uses heavy-action baitcasting setups spooled with 40-pound Berkley Big Game or a tough superline like 80-pound SpiderWire. “Wrecks are really nasty,” Harris says. “Metal, barnacles, rusty spikes and anything else you could imagine is there, and it’ll cut your line.” An 8-ounce sinker, beefy barrel swivel and a 2-foot, 80-pound mono leader with a 7/0 Daiichi Circle Chunk Lite hook round out the rig.
Not Just Tidal Blues
Although Harris specializes in fishing shipwrecks for tidewater blues, his approach can work on any catfish species on almost any large river system (and some lakes) nationwide. The Mississippi River, the Santee-Cooper lakes, Lake Erie and the Ohio River, for example, all have a variety of cat-holding shipwrecks. Find them, fish them like Harris does, and you’ll catch more and bigger cats.