Singing The Blues At The Tidal River Cat Show

Story and Photos By Pete Robbins

Fishing for catfish on the Potomac and James Rivers with Capt. Josh Fitchett.

Photo of Potomac River Capt. Josh Fitchett with a catfishPotomac River Capt. Josh Fitchett targets only the biggest of catfish.

"Don't touch that rod," commanded Captain Josh Fitchett, a split second before I otherwise would have reached for the second fishing rod in his spread. "That's not the one you want."

That surprised me because only one of the 10 rods was bobbing and twitching and generally acting like it was seconds away from being pulled into the drink.

"Watch the one next to it instead," he said. Odd, that one was perfectly still.

The moving rod was being besieged by what Capt. Josh typically refers to as a "sniffer" or a "nibbler." Neither of those terms is complimentary. In fact, they're downright derisive. Those types of fish might eat the guts out of a pound-plus slab of freshly-caught shad, but they're not big enough to engulf the whole thing.

Capt. Josh only cares about big cats, the kind that could swallow whole shad, basketballs, perhaps small dogs or deer. Thirty pounds doesn't excite him. Eighty pounds excites him. A hundred pounds is what keeps him coming back out on the Potomac River, fishing within sight of the Washington Monument.

As predicted, rod No. 2 stopped gyrating a few seconds later. Rod No. 3 suffered no such spasms, however. Instead, after two long pulls it settled into a horseshoe arc that strained the rod holder. I pulled it free, set the hook, and in a few minutes a 48-pound blue cat lay in the net in the bottom of the boat. A short while later and with a little more struggle, my wife subdued a 59-pounder. Minutes after that, my friend TJ Maglio was eye to eye with a 51. After a while we also perceived 30-pounders, citations , as mere nuisances.

As I looked at the waypoints on Fitchett's GPS, he explained "That's every place I've caught a 60-pounder since I got this unit." It appeared to be last year's model. The waypoints were so cluttered that in some places they blacked out the topographical symbols. "Forties are OK. Fifties make me happy. Sixties make me dance in the boatyard." For a grizzled catfish veteran, he must do a lot of dancing.

Photo of Capt. Mike Fitchett netting a catfish near the Woodrow Wilson BridgeFitchett slides the net under a trophy cat within sight of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Center of the Cat Universe

While blue catfish are not native to the Potomac River watershed — or any of the mid-Atlantic rivers, for that matter — they thrive in the fertile moving waters of Virginia and Maryland. Their native range is largely in the middle of the country, where they grew big in river systems like the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio, but once introduced to the tidal James and Rappahannock Rivers in the 1970s, it quickly became evident that they'd thrive in the east as well.

The James River in particular has become a popular Mecca for big blue cats, with a thriving cadre of guides (Fitchett among them) luring anglers from near and far to tangle with what may be the biggest freshwater fish of their lifetime. In 2009, a local angler caught a James River blue that pushed the scales to 102 pounds, 4 ounces. That, in turn, was dwarfed by the 143-pounder caught at Virginia's Buggs Island Reservoir in 2010. But the big lake-bound cats don't seem to be as plentiful as the river run beasts. Fitchett thinks it's only a matter of time until the Potomac officially produces one in the triple digits. He claims to have twice lost such a fish en route to the net.

"This is such a dynamic river system," he said. "It's probably the best freshwater tidal bass fishery on the East Coast. It's a fantastic crappie fishery. Even the snakeheads are taking off and we're regularly seeing 13-, 14- and 15-pounders. Between the structure and the grass and the freshwater mussel beds, this river has got a little bit of everything and a whole lot of fish. It's a guide's dream.

"Someday, someone will set up a guide service here that'll take you out to catch a 40-pound blue cat in the morning and a 5-pound bass in the afternoon. It's something that can be done every day of the week."

Photo of a woman holding up a giant Potomac River catfishA happy client strains under the weight of a big cat. Women and children are encouraged to partake in the fun.

A Growing Legion

While the bass guys show up on the Potomac in huge numbers every weekend from March through November, towing metal-flaked boats and wearing color-coordinated jerseys, the numbers of local catfish chasers are likewise growing. It's just that they're not as noticeable. A 60-pounder's slime will require that you take your sponsor-logoed shirt to the dry cleaners every trip out, so it's not worth getting all dolled up. They're hard on bass boat carpet, too.

Still, on a blustery December weekday, we saw a number of boats with rigs spread out over key river drop-offs, ledges and humps, all looking for blue dynamite. The tournament scene is growing, too, sometimes drawing as many as 200 boats to a weekend derby. Like the secretive bass pros and wannabe pros, though, there's an increasing divide between those who "get it" and those who just follow the bent rod pattern.

Fitchett said that consistently landing the big ones, and numbers of them, requires more than just a pile of smelly bait on the river channel. In fact, while the cat gurus may not have borrowed the bass anglers' wardrobe choices, a lot of their key strategies sound remarkably similar to those employed by the best offshore bassers. If that weren't enough, the tournament circuits, while still nascent, are on their way to becoming every bit as competitive, cutthroat and eventually perhaps as lucrative as those for the largemouth hounds.

Like the bass tournament guys, Fitchett has learned that it's "not all about spots." When he goes to a new tidal water — like the Rappahannock, Mattaponi or Pamunkey, all within a short drive of the more popular James and Potomac — he's looking for structural elements that are prime time feeding areas, too.

"I want to find deep turns and drop-offs with water flow hitting them and then turning," he said. "I especially like real sharp turns where the current hits the bank."

While Potomac River bass chasers often try to time the tide to be in their best spots on the last two hours of the outgoing tide, Fitchett said that the key is tidal movement. "I don't like extremely high current," he explained. " like the beginning and the end of moving tides. The middle can be a little bit slow."

Accordingly, he may leave a prime area to attain a more favorable flow elsewhere. Otherwise he may set up differently on the same ridge under varying tidal conditions. For example, an incoming tide might find him up on the ledge casting out, while outgoing could be the reverse. Or he might set up upriver for one and downriver for the other. He's always mindful to "let the current pull the bait to the fish."

Another key element most times is deep water, or at least access to it. In the summer, at night, he may catch monster blues as shallow as 8 feet deep, but there has to be a trough nearby. He's caught them as deep as 90 feet on the James, but the Potomac doesn't have as many of those ultra-deep areas — 60 seems to be the typical outer limit.

Big Tackle A Must

Fitchett will run "eating fish trips" for customers who want them, chances to catch a hundred plus smaller fish on chunks of shad, chicken liver or little pieces of herring, but his obsession is with the big whiskered freaks. Most of his clients follow suit. For those used to pursuing panfish, toying with trout or busting two-and three-pound bass, the opportunity to catch a fish that weighs more than a third-grader is too much to pass up. This requires beefy tackle and appropriate bait.

Those who try to tempt big cats with just random stinky stuff are going to leave the water without success. They may be predators, but they're not indiscriminate eaters. "The key is fresh bait," he said, and we used slabs of fresh gizzard shad he'd captured that day, probably a pound per chunk. The bait alone requires the proper rods, reels and line to manage it, but it's the hard-pulling cats that ultimately create the need for warrior-class gear.

"Most guys don't use heavy enough tackle to bring 'em to the boat," he said. "I can't tell you how many 30 and 40 pound blue cats I've caught with a bottom rig hanging out of their mouth along with a 4-ounce triangular sinker."

Indeed, his own recent break offs with 80-pound leader material had led him to beef up to 100-pound class line in its stead. If these fish keep growing, eventually he'll have to go to well rope. He uses a 50-pound main line to get the bait down and has tried a number of different reels.

Eventually, most seem to be worn down by the brute-force strength of the cats he battles day in, day out. The one that seems to be the most bulletproof is the Shimano Tekota 600 and he mounts them on rods that might seem more at home on a tuna boat than on one of the nation's best tournament bass fisheries.

The other part of getting a bait down to the bottom and keeping it there in tidal currents is the size of the lead weight that Capt. Josh employs. Many other cat chasers prefer 8- or 10-ounce weights, but his custom-poured hockey puck shaped sinkers push the scale down to a full 16 ounces.

"When I fish anything lighter, I don't get the same hookup ratio," he said. "And if I use any more weight the fish will feel it." He uses an 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hook to keep the fish safely buttoned, but admitted that he'd go up to a 10/0 if he could find one.

Don't Stop Till You Get Enough

For a die-hard trophy chaser like Fitchett, the Mid-Atlantic rivers offer a conundrum: there's no off-season to allow his arms, shoulders and back to recuperate and to gear up for the season to come. Except for a brief window between Mother's Day and Father's Day when the fish are spawning, the game is always on. During the hottest portions of the summer, he focuses his efforts on nighttime excursions — not only do the fish bite better, but he can keep some of his secrets away from prying eyes.

The year-round bounty is fine with him. He's been a fishing freak since boyhood, when he wore out the bottom of a 14-foot Sears Gamefisher Jon Boat, pulling it to local waterways — literally dragging it down pockmarked country roads until it was no longer seaworthy. Today he knows that resources have to be protected — thus his trophy trips are all catch and release. He’s seen what increased pressure can do to a fishery.

The James River remains one of his favorite destinations, but despite the relatively recent 102-pounder, he thinks it’s no longer what it once was. With 20-plus guides plying its waters, all in search of monster blues, it’s become a tougher bite.

"But up here," he said, referring to the Potomac, "just about every trip we catch a 40-pounder." That's nothing to sneeze at. Just make sure you grab the right rod — those 30-pounders are just so pesky and tiresome when the next bite could be a 50, a 60 or a whiskered heavyweight that hits the century mark.

Photo of Capt. Mike Fitchetts guide boat 'RiverCat'n'Despite the thousands of pounds of catfish slime deposited on it each year, Fitchett's boat remains remarkably clean.

Epilogue: On August 13, 2012, Fitchett led client Ed Jones from Oregon to an 84-pound Potomac River blue catfish, eclipsing the previous state record by more than three pounds. After it was weighed and certified by a Maryland DNR Fisheries Service biologist, the fish was tagged and released to aid in the future understanding of the habits and distribution of the non-native species. End of story hook

If you'd like to learn more about tidal river catfishing, or book a trip with Capt. Josh Fitchett, check out his website at He guarantees a citation blue cat on every river he fishes or your next trip is free. The catfish slime you'll bring home every time out is free no matter what.

— Published: Fall 2012

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