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Local waters offer anglers plenty of catfish action

It is no secret that we are definitely part of “catfish country”. While the Deep South may have been well known for being the heart of catfish country, our local rivers are full of the whiskered beasts of all sizes now and we get a portion of that title as our own.

Some feel there are too many catfish in the rivers, while a few devout catfish trophy anglers take offense to such a statement. It is probably safe to assume that at this point the blue catfish is here to stay, no matter what you feel about its existence in our waters. Another safe assumption is that no matter how many of us fish for them, nor the number we want to keep, will likely not put much of a dent in their population.

When I was a kid (more than a few decades ago), the channel catfish reigned in our rivers and shared the murky bottom with what we called a “mudcat”, which is actually a bullhead catfish. Channel catfish don’t get nearly as large as the blue catfish and they appear to be a cleaner fish and a much prettier fish than the blue catfish.

The channel catfish were also stocked in the Rappahannock, probably around the turn of the 1900s. They quickly made a place for themselves in the river system and remained there until the big blue cat was introduced in the mid to late 1970s.

Once the blue catfish became established the channel catfish quickly become outnumbered and outgunned. Blue catfish grow much bigger and also tend to grow faster. However, the state record channel catfish was caught in the Rappahannock River in 1992 by Sue Stanley and weighed 31 lbs. 8 oz.

The state record blue catfish was caught in Buggs Island Reservoir two years ago and weighed 143 pounds! Someone once made the comparison of a blue catfish to an underwater Hoover vacuum that sucks anything up in its path.

Blue catfish upwards of 70 pounds have been caught in the Rappahannock and some very large blue catfish are caught on a regular basis on the Potomac as well. The channel catfish is still caught in good numbers on the Potomac River and its tributaries these days. The visible difference between the two species besides size is the anal fin on the two. The channel has 25-29 rays and the blue has 30-35 rays. The blue cats anal fin is straight edged and the channel has a rounded edge to it.

So what is the difference in the fish from an angler’s perspective? Blue catfish will eat anything, but they do tend to prefer fresh cutbait and whole fish. Shad are the primary bait or quarry but sunfish or perch are also high on the menu.
Smaller blue catfish can be caught on worms but are more easily caught on fresh cut shad or bream. Channel catfish like stinkbait, chicken liver, worms, shrimp or smelly doughballs.

Does the bait make a difference? Some may say not, but I beg to differ. I recently took Greg, Blake and Gavin Brobjorg out for an evening jaunt for catfish. The previous day I was working on the boat and testing some controls on it and my daughters and I decided to wet a line and fish for an hour while we were on the water. We started with worms but did not catch any catfish. When I switched over to fresh cut bream the bite was on.

When Greg and the boys were out with me the next day I just used the cutbait and they scored big on the blue catfish up to approximately 23 inches long. Bait does make a difference to the fish. If you are not getting bites with what you are using then you better switch over.

Things do change and it is important that anglers be flexible too. I used to do all of my eating size catfish trips with floats and hooks. We did not bottom fish. The last few times I have ventured out on the river and tried using the floats I came up nearly empty on fish. I am not sure why the fishing died off while using floats but it did. Perhaps the spots I was fishing just dried up. Regardless, I figured out pretty fast that the bite was on thebottom and mostly on cutbait or shrimp. The change was simple as the question of, “Fish or no fish?”

Some people have asked me about the difference in the table fare between the species of catfish. My opinion is humbly offered to reflect or state the following. Large catfish do not taste near as good as the smaller fish that weigh less than five pounds. In fact, I won’t eat a catfish over five pounds these days. There are too many smaller ones anyway and they taste worlds better. They are not as strong tasting or fishy tasting.

When asked about the ranking of the species of catfish on the table I would put the channel at the top, followed by the blue cat and then the bullhead. I don’t care to eat the bullhead unless it has come from a clear farm pond or very clear river tributary and the fish is not more than two pounds in size.

The filets on a bullhead are bloodier than the others. Soaking them in a slightly salty ice water for an hour will draw out that blood.

Channel catfish filets have a yellow strip of fat at the top of them. I don’t mind the fat strip. I suppose it can be trimmed off. When cutting off the filet anglers will notice that the meat on a channel catfish is more firm than that of a bluecatfish. I prefer that.

The water that a fish lives in impacts the taste too. Keep that in mind. The cleaner the water the better the fish. Catfish are a delight on the table and can be served in a variety of ways. Certainly fried is the most common way to cook them.
However, grilled or broiled filets are tasty too. Cut the skin off the filets with a sharp knife for the best flavor. I will do my best to get a video of how to clean a catfish to the editor here in the next week or two and get it online for those of you that are just starting your fishing career.

Catfish are a great choice of species to catch for a variety of reasons. They are good table fare, they are very easy to catch and they are in just about all our local waters. Do yourself a favor and go catch your next dinner fresh from the water. You will be doing the rest of the fish population a favor and it is fun for all age anglers out there. Remember to get your FIP number if fishing in tidal water and write it on your fishing license! www.mrc.virginia.gov/FIP/

Mark Fike

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