If you want to catch the biggest catfish of your life, there’s no better place than a tidal river. Just ask Capt. Mike Ostrander or any of the dedicated anglers who target monster catfish in these waters.
As a guide on Virginia’s James River, Ostrander has seen his share of big blues. Although he hasn’t exceeded the 70-pound mark yet, it’s only a matter of time. Twenties are as common as bass in a farm pond, and 30 and 40 pounders hardly raise the interest of local catfish fanatics. Ostrander’s best day produced 19 cats that weighed more than 20 pounds, including one 60 pounder and a couple that weighed more than 40.
“Tidal rivers are catfish factories,” says John Odenkirk, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “You’ve got anadromous species like herring, stripers, white perch and a couple of different species of shad that come up tidal rivers to spawn. That creates a huge amount of forage.”
Add the perfect habitat—deep water, current and plenty of cover—to the constant supply of groceries and you’ve got the makings for lots of big flatheads and blues lurking in the depths of tidal rivers throughout the Southeast.
Perhaps the best part about fishing tidal rivers is that unlike lakes or inland rivers, these waters’ nearly constant current changes force fish into predictable places. Ostrander and North Carolina guide Capt. Ron Genes agree that catching big cats is just a matter of learning how to find and fish the right spots.
“I look for cover on a ledge or in a deeper hole,” explains Ostrander. “Logjams, dock pilings, anything that gives cats a place to hide and ambush bait is likely to hold fish. If I can find cover on the edge of a sharp drop, that’s even better. The fish have the freedom to move up and down, and it allows me to cover more depth ranges.”
Genes targets similar structures and cover, adding that he spends much of his time anchored on outside bends of the main channel, particularly if fallen trees line the shore and extend into the river, providing a current break and an ambush spot. Intense tidal currents force fish to nudge behind the cover or directly in front of it.
Ostrander will fish as little as two feet of water or as much as 70. Ideally, he likes to anchor his boat on the edge of a sharp drop, so he can cover many different depths simultaneously.
Once you identify these prime spots, follow the tides. Ostrander plans his trips around the tide tables, targeting what he feels are crucial periods.
“I really like the last couple of hours of each tidal stage. The current isn’t pulling as hard, so I can keep my baits in position better, and the catfish seem to come out and roam more,” he says. “I have the least success on a full high tide or a dead low tide.”
The twice-daily change of the tides means the fish reposition with the direction of the current four times in about 24 hours. When the current is going out, cats will hold on the usual downstream edge of prime current-breaking structure. When the tide is coming in, the current rips upstream, sending cats to the opposite side of those same breaks.
No matter which way the current is running, Genes tends to anchor directly over the area where he expects to find fish. That way, he can drop his rig directly over the side of the boat without it rolling into a logjam. He’ll also cast, but he tends to keep his casts short. Like Ostrander, who prefers to anchor a cast length from the hole where he expects to find fish, Genes will probe all around a logjam, making sure he has covered it thoroughly or caught all of the big fish there.
“Sometimes fish are positioned above the cover (up-current) like they’re supposed to be, but sometimes they are below it. You just never know,” he says. “I’ll give each spot 30 minutes or so before I reposition the boat. Sometimes you’ve pretty much got to drop a bait right in front of them.”
To do that, he uses a three-way swivel with a sinker that weighs 3 to 8 ounces. The size of the weight depends on the strength of the current. Ostrander uses 3 to 12 ounces of lead on a modified Carolina rig. He loads 30-pound mono on his reels and uses 18 to 24 inches of 50-pound monofilament for the leader, which allows him to change weights without retying. “That’s vital because I change weights pretty often as the tide increases or decreases,” he says.
Tidal rivers present unique situations that lake-bound catfish anglers never face. The current, changing tides and endless amount of great cover can create a challenge. Follow the advice of Ostrander and Genes, however, and your biggest problem will be sore shoulders.
Where To Go
Although the James is arguably the best tidal catfish river in the country, virtually every large river along the Southeast coast has good catfish populations. Virginia also has the Rappahannock, York and Chickahominy rivers, and it shares the Potomac with Maryland. North Carolina’s Cape Fear River holds big blues and flatheads, as does the Neuse. A short section of the Cooper River below Santee-Cooper Reservoirs in South Carolina is also good, although far more anglers target fish in the lake itself. South Carolina’s Santee, Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers have good populations of blue and flathead cats as well. Call Capt. Mike Ostrander, (804) 938-2350, or Capt. Ron Genes, (910) 259-6495, for more information.