The Big Bad Bay Blues
By Dennis Doyle
The rod tip didn’t even twitch, the whole top of the stick just slammed down hard as a powerful fish picked up my bait and headed away. I feared the rod holder would fail before I could reach my tackle and wrestle it out, transferring the strain to my forearms.
My drag was firm enough to set the 10/0 circle hook but it hardly slowed the fish in its determined departure and after collecting my rod I further tempted the fates by pressing my thumb on the turning spool and adding to the strain. The 20-pound test line I was using was fresh and I wasn’t worried about any hidden kinks or flaws in the line as it stretched, creaked and scorched my thumbprint.
Still the fish didn’t slow and it was only the thought that there was plenty of line in reserve that calmed my nerves as the mono disappeared into the distance. I soon noticed that the speed of the devil’s departure was not as rapid as it was determined and that patience was the solution. It was the correct tactic and the brute’s pace eventually slackened and then stopped.
Changing direction, the fish started another run, stopped after 20 yards, changed direction again and resumed pulling but for a shorter time, always deep on the bottom. From then on it was a bulldogged battle, with the outcome frequently in doubt. I soon assumed that my quarry was not a rockfish and suspected either a drum or a catfish—with the odds strongly favoring a big cat.
The event was well into extra innings as the fish finally broached the surface behind my skiff and the broad lavender blue flank gave away the thug’s true identity. It would weigh about 30 pounds.
A heavy blue cat can make your day real interesting if you don’t mind its lack of beauty.
Native to the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Rio Grande river basins, blue catfish have been introduced to 20 other states in the nation; it’s no surprise they finally arrived in the Tidewater. First released in Virginia’s James River in the ridiculous belief they couldn’t migrate into the Bay, they spread throughout the Bay and its tributaries in a matter of a few years. Taking further advantage of federal and state fishery management failures and a plunging striped bass population, the species has firmly established itself all the way into the headwaters of the Chesapeake.
On the plus side, the blue catfish is high quality on the table and can reach prodigious sizes. With an estimated life span of over 20 years, a 200-pounder may not be out of the question sometime in the future. A 143-pound state record fish was taken in Virginia in 2011, by Nick Anderson out of Kerr Lake near Clarksville. It was 57 inches long and took almost an hour to land on 30-pound line. The recent explosion of the mud shad population in Bay tributaries may well accelerate the growth of some of these big guys.
My first big blue was, of course, an accident. A friend and I were fishing big cuts of fresh menhaden last season hoping for a big migrating rockfish when the blue hit. The species is definitely partial to menhaden, shad, herring, spot, and other oily baits as well as crab, shrimp and even worms. But they also won’t hesitate to inhale a large chunk of chicken breast whenever they’re hungry, which is always. Also known to occasionally strike lures, their primary means of feeding is smell oriented and bottom fishing fresh baits is as sure a method of seducing a bite as any.
An electric fish knife has made the previously onerous task of filleting a blue a quick and easy 4-minute task. The best eating sizes are four to 10 pounds. On the table they are excellent in finger-sized pieces, fried crispy with a panko coating. Broiled fillets with a light coating of spices and mayo or baked with potatoes, onions and carrots will also please most palates as will shredded catfish tacos along with your favorite salsa.
There are some really big striped bass being taken and released by anglers practicing for opening day of the trophy season and hopes are high that the weather will remain cooperative enough to get out and chase some. Trolling is the traditionally top method of scoring big fish with the size limit remaining at 35 inches for the season that runs from May 1 through 15. Possession limit is one fish per angler. Trophy-sized fish can be taken on cut baits but finding the fish can be a problem as they are constantly on the move this time of year. The best tactics are to fish often and long and use either jumbo bloodworms or big cuts of fresh menhaden (aka alewife or bunker). Circle hooks are mandatory.