Will the Chesapeake’s cats continue to grow?
By Dennis Doyle
The rod at my elbow suddenly bent dangerously deep in its holder and the reel’s drag emitted a pronounced and continued groan. Since I was already occupied with getting a previously hooked whisker fish into the net, I had to ignore the second till the first fish was handled. Getting it onboard after some difficulty, I picked up the straining unit.
At that point, the fish must have realized something was terribly wrong because it just took off like a locomotive toward the horizon. I let it run, the drag was already set firm and the fish was running so hard it was obvious any more pressure might just lead to disaster.
It took quite a few long moments to get the big guy under control, I think my friend Tom landed two more nice cats before I finally got this brute to the side and into my net. I guessed its weight at about thirty pounds, it was bigger around than the thickest part of my leg.
That burst of catfishing activity was an accident. Tom Schneider and I were chumming for trophy rockfish some time ago off the mouth of the Severn and had put one striper in the box, released several undersized fish, plus one nice, 10-pound blue cat which was quite a surprise. Neither of us had run into the blue cats before but that day would change things in a big way.
As the sun rose the rockfish bite died and we went back on the search. Having had better luck in recent days near the Bay Bridge, we headed up that way but marked little until we approached the Eastern Shore side. My screen all of a sudden lit up with excellent marks, lots of them. It appeared as if we had hit an acre-sized honey hole.
Using our rigs already set with fresh menhaden chunks, we dropped them over the side and without even a chance to anchor Tom hit the first fish and I got another one minutes later. As the rowdies broached the surface, we were surprised to see weren’t rock but fat, pale blue cats.
“Well,” I said to my bud, “They’re supposed to be good eating we might as well add them to the box.” He agreed.
Then came the big guy and after that one we were continually hooked up until we finally realized what we needed was another rockfish to limit out. That wasn’t going to happen amid all the cats.
“Never leave fish to find fish,” is a time-honored maxim. Unfortunately, it also rang true that day—we never found any rockfish big enough nor could we relocate that school of catfish.
We did learn some other lessons, though. Cats love menhaden and just like rockfish, the fresher the bait the better the bite. Eventually, we also found that, although chum could start up a nice catfish bite, it wasn’t necessary. The sensing qualities of the catfish barbels are incredible and they will home in on most baits presented on the bottom often from quite a distance.
Our rockfish outfits were nicely suited to the blues, six and a half foot, medium-heavy casting rods, Swedish Abu, 5600 baitcasting reels spooled with 20-pound mono, tipped with 18-inch 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders, and 7/0 circle hooks. In subsequent forays for the big blues we wouldn’t change a thing, though confirmed catfish anglers are said to prefer 30-pound line and 50- to 60-pound leaders.
The blue cats were stocked by Virginia in many southern Chesapeake tributaries beginning in the 1970s and have had time to reach good size as they can live to 25 years. Currently, they have spread out and are present throughout the Tidewater. The Virginia record held by Richard Anderson of Buggs Island is 143 pounds, and the Chesapeake record is 84 pounds landed in August 2012 in the mouth of the Potomac by Ed Jones of Fort Washington.
The blue catfish is native to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. However, we don’t know how they will finally adapt to the Tidewater nor how the other species will adapt to the presence of the blue cats. There are millions now in residence and here to stay. It will be interesting to see the number of 100-pounders taken by recreational anglers in the next few years.