Tue07222014

Last updateWed, 19 Nov 2014 8pm

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Catfish moving upriver in Rapp

Last weekend I made a quick trip to Fredericksburg to check out the shad and herring run. I made a stop at Old Mill Park and wandered down to the river for a firsthand report for you. While there I was able to observe a Marine and his daughter on the opposite shoreline fishing. The weather was cool and even a bit dreary. However, all that was forgotten when the man’s rod doubled over and he ran across the gravel bar to grab the rod and set the hook. A few minutes later I was impressed to see a big catfish approximately 2

feet long being lifted from the water. Later I saw another fish even larger being caught. Both were fat with fresh fish no doubt.

The scene reminded me of many anecdotal things concerning catfish and the upper river. We have plenty of quality size fish in the tidal stretches of the river, but fishing the upper river is a different experience altogether. The water is shallower overall and the bottom is composed mostly of rock, sand and gravel. The current is swift and the ideal rod is quite a bit smaller than what one might use in the lower river.
 
Years ago I fished a few times on the Shenandoah River and the upper Potomac River. Being used to catching only panfish and bass on the upper Rappahannock I was surprised to tangle with very nice sized channel catfish. It was a great experience to float along and have the light action rod throb in pain with a whiskered giant on the end of it. While fishing those rivers you never knew what you might get into.

Fast-forward 20 years to the time when the Embry Dam was blown. Once the dam came down, fish of all species were able to move upriver. Shad, herring, suckers, catfish, white perch and striped bass could now spawn in traditional waters. A few years after the dam came down I recall doing a float trip with my kids down the river. I use polarized glasses all the time so I can see the bottom and find fish easier. While floating near the I-95 Bridge I noticed a school of fish that were all approximately 20-24 inches. A closer look revealed that they were blue catfish. A nightcrawler lobbed into the water amongst the fish confirmed it. I should not have been surprised.

Then I ran into a guy and his wife who were pulling out of the river at Motts Landing. My father and I began asking him about his fishing trip as he floated down. He raved about the great fishing. When we asked him what he caught he stated in a matter of fact manner, “The channel catfish of course!” He went on to tell us how feisty, clean-looking and dark colored they were. He mentioned fish over 24 inches, which is a very nice channel catfish. At first I wondered if he were stretching his fish tales a bit. But, after consideration and chat with VDGIF fisheries biologists I decided it was completely possible and honestly, quite likely.

Consider the facts.  White perch, shad, herring (and their fry when they hatch and begin their trek downriver), minnows and a whole world of new forage can now swim upriver. The smallmouth size and growth rates have exploded due to the forage base improving. Striped bass have been documented much farther upriver. Catfish of various sizes have been sampled far upriver past Ely’s Ford. Shad have been found much farther than that.

OK, so what? Who cares about the catfish upriver when we have so many downriver? Well, it is true that there are more catfish downriver than we could ever catch and keep. But as I stated at the beginning of this article, fishing the upriver stretch is quite a different experience. One can get a mixed bag of fish quite easily, you can sight fish, and the tackle used in the shallows as you float along is very different. Given a light action spinning setup, a hook with a split shot and your favorite bait and you really do not have any idea what you might catch, particularly in the spring. Typical catches used to be redbreast sunfish, rockbass, smallmouth, an occasional crappie, possibly a largemouth and maybe a sucker. Now you can add channel catfish, some blue catfish, an increasing number of largemouth bass, striper, some white perch in the spring and maybe a shad or herring in the spring.

The dynamics of the fishery above Fredericksburg has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. If you have not done a float trip on the river lately you might want to consider it. The float from Motts Landing to town is the quick trip but good enough to get a taste of the fishing. A trip from Ely’s Ford to Motts is a great trip. Check out the water levels and watch the weather when you go. Take a camera in a Ziploc bag. The best time of year to fish this stretch is late April to May and then again in October once we get some more water in the river after the hot, dry summer.

If you decide to try the trip, take your time, take a snack and have a picnic along the way. It is a beautiful stretch of the river to see. Good fishing.

Mark Fike

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