top of page
  • Ken Perrotte

Catfish - Big, Powerful, Tasty & Controversial - Catch Them in Maryland & Virginia Tidal Waters


man with flyfishing gear and big flathead catfish

WARNING! This article may trigger certain anglers who despise catfish, especially blue cats and flatheads. Yes, they are non-native, considered invasive in some quarters, species in Maryland and Virginia but they are also incredibly popular with a significant number of anglers. They’re in the tidal waters all around the Chesapeake. Let’s look at how to catch them and touch on the issue related to their possible impacts.


Catfish are ubiquitous in the American scene, from Mississippi River system throughout the Southeast and now, stretching into the mid-Atlantic. From Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn-like characters with cane poles and straw hats to the iconic catfish houses where diners could come and feast on specials featuring three good eating-sized catfish (often raised on catfish farms) replete with hush puppies and other sides, the whiskerfish has storied status. Adaptable, wide-ranging, and anything but fussy when it comes to taking a bait, anglers young and old can have a blast catching catfish.


man and girl with stringer of catfish
Kids and adults alike can enjoy catching small good-eating sized catfish
First, Here’s the Rub

Virginia, with its network of tidal rivers feeding toward the Chesapeake Bay, offers some of the best catfish fishing in the country. Blue catfish, introduced from the Mississippi River system decades ago, are abundant in multiple rivers and lakes and grow to gargantuan sizes. Flatheads are increasingly common in rivers such as the James, especially above the fall line, the point where the tidal waters end.


northern snakehead

The fish are now entrenched in the Potomac River system, too, something causing official consternation among Maryland Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists. You might say the state has declared war on blue catfish and is working to encourage anglers to catch, kill and keep as many as they can. The state even requested a federal fisheries disaster declaration, claiming the blue catfish and another non-native, the invasive northern snakehead, were causing severe economic and ecological damage. The concerns relate in large measure to impacts on Chesapeake Bay species such as menhaden, an oily forage fish, and the iconic blue crab, a staple throughout the Bay area with inherent association to the region.   


Virginia has promoted blue catfish for commercial use for many years, with several houses dedicated to their cleaning and processing. Maryland’s Department of Agriculture is now increasing its efforts to market wild-caught blue catfish to chefs, consumers, restaurants and supermarkets.


The perspective, however, might be a little different in Virginia. Margaret Whitmore, tidal rivers fisheries biologist  for the Department of Wildlife Resources, says blue catfish are the second most popular species for recreational anglers in the commonwealth. All tidal waters boast a strong recreational catfish fishery, even though overall abundance peaked more than a decade ago with trophy sized blue catfish declining since the early 2000s.


The end of the last century saw routine competition between the James and Rappahannock Rivers, with each producing a new state record blue catfish every month or so. Eventually, Whitmore explains, increased competition for food made it harder for blue catfish to reach those exceptional trophy sizes.


Still, plenty of big fish remain, and new emphasis on recreational and commercial anglers removing small and medium blue cats, which account for some 95 percent of their population, is reducing competition and giving more blue catfish the chance to reach larger sizes. And the reduction also helps trim depredation on native fish, sportfish, and commercially important species, Whitmore says.

Let’s Go Fishing!

Here is a lengthy look at fishing for catfish, big and small – but mostly big – from the Potomac River, owned by Maryland, down to the historic James River in Virginia. Three top catfish angling pros tell us how to catch catfish in Maryland and Virginia.


Man with big catfish
Scott Mackenthun with nice Potomac River catfish
Potomac River Cats  

The Potomac River was almost slick-calm in late May as we ventured out of Aquia Creek into the main stem of the mighty waterway. Sometimes, the Potomac gets downright sporty, between the wind and the current and the sheer expanse of water. The robust, modified V hull of Capt. Anthony Cubbage’s Excel Bay Pro 230 aluminum bay boat is designed for myriad conditions.

Cubbage launched Atomic Fishing Charters four years ago, just as the COVID pandemic was raging. His guiding business began strictly as volunteer work, taking other veterans on free fishing trips through a nonprofit charity.  This encouraged him to set up a guide service. Setting up a business during the peak of a pandemic  might seem like an awful time to begin but the outdoors is one place that was seeing a surge in activities.


Cubbage, age 39, enlisted in the Air Force at age 17 and began work as a nuclear weapons specialist, eventually stationed all over the United States and in Europe. His military profession was the inspiration for his charter business name. Raised in southern Missouri’s Tri Lakes region - Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shoals – he spent his boyhood fishing for trout with his grandfather and uncle. He first started targeting catfish in 2012 while on active duty with the Air Force, stationed at Whiteman AFB in Missouri. He began with channel cats but decided the bigger one didn’t eat well, so he began seeking blue cats and flatheads, fish he deemed better on the plate. Cubbage’s biggest blue catfish weighed nearly 70 pounds and was caught in springtime on the Potomac River. His biggest cat ever was a flathead that was 70 pounds even, caught on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.


Our Potomac River mission was to get my friend and fellow writer Minnesotan Scott Mackenthun on a big Potomac River catfish. We began downriver, just as the water was getting brackish. Shad, usually gizzard or threadfin, are Cubbage’s favored catfish bait but a moratorium on river herring and shad along the Potomac has him adjusting, instead fishing with pieces of fresh eel. The bait, Cubbage notes, delivers good scent in the water and it stays on the hook through multiple fish. 


man holding catfish
Mackenthun with eating-sized fish

Our first couple of anchored setups yielded blue cats that might be termed “good eating size,” fish around five pounds. Cubbage reversed course and headed upriver, to a favored deep hole near Marine Corps Base Quantico. It was there, although we didn’t hook into any personal best fish, we safely declared, “Mission accomplished.”

In short order, I landed a hefty catfish and moments later Mackenthun grabbed a rod bending deep in the rod holder. After a couple of minutes, Cubbage netted a fish somewhere in the 20-pound-plus range.


Cubbage’s Tools and Techniques     

Cubbage says he doesn’t care if he fishes fresh or brackish water, noting, “All folks need to be aware of is when the water warms up, salinity goes up and can push the cats further upstream to escape the higher levels of salt.”


Cubbage uses Meat Hunter Big Game and Big Game 2.0 rods. He likes Penn Fierce spinning reels, preferring the 6000 Live Liner. “Now, most of your big cat guys are going to scoff at me because we use spinning instead of conventional reels but the reasoning behind that is simple,” he explains. “If a customer wants to cast, I don't have to spend precious fishing time picking out backlashes. Most people are comfortable with spinning reels. The live liner option works like a conventional where I can set the drag super low so when the blue cats pick up the bait they don't get much resistance.”


lures and tackle display

The fishing line is 65-pound Power Pro V2 Super Slick braid, something he says he likes because, “It’s thin, strong, doesn't fray from normal wear, and the most abrasion resistant when fishing hard structure.” He adds 18-24 inches of 65-pound Berkley ProSpec Chrome monofilament line as a leader. A 10-ounce cushion slide weight with a glass bead goes above a SPRO Heavy Swivel, which sports a 240-pound break strength. The terminal setup gets interesting. Preferred hooks are Gamakatsu octopus offset point circle hooks in 8/0 up 12/0. Above the hook, Cubbage adds a five-inch spook style topwater hard bait with no hooks, a lure he began creating last year. This provides some rattle and flotation of the bait, keeping it just off the bottom of the river. He says the color doesn’t matter, especially when fishing deep. “The float spreads that scent cone further and the rattling attracts fish upstream or outside the scent cone,” he says.


man holding fishing lure
Anthony Cubbage

Books have been written about how to fish tidal rivers. All rivers empty somewhere but the ebb and flow of tidal rivers requires anglers to make important decisions. Cubbage believes tidal rivers can be more challenging, with the fish regularly changing position depending on the conditions and current. He prefers fishing an outgoing tide, explaining more water moves out then comes back in during an incoming tide. “This pushes more baitfish and feed downriver than an incoming tide brings up,” Cubbage says. “We catch the most monster cats during the last hour before slack tide. The current slows down and the bigger fish seem to move more exploring to find the new food sources that have been pushed down river during the tide.”

During peak tidal movements, the fish can get lazier, holding near structure that churns the water, kicking up food. Or the big cats may be just off the channel and out of the peak flow, only moving to nab a bite as it flows by.


While Cubbage likes fishing deep holes in the river where the water is cool, he finds targeting structure in and around those holes the most effective. How you fish them depends on several factors, including the current, the bottom composition (rock, rip rap, sand, mud, etc.) and the type of structure, such as remnants of old wooden boats or wharves, grassy areas, or something like rip rap where channel markers are constructed. Finding a hole near shallow structure is a good bet and Cubbage advises making a few passes to determine which side fish may be stacked on, adding the cats are rarely dead center.

woman with catfish
Anthony Cubbage photo

“They will more than likely be stacked on the up-current side of these holes waiting for baitfish to get pushed over the edge,” Cubbage says, “and if you can drop that bait where the scent cone will flow into them even better. This works almost year-round. Then again, we’ve caught 40-pound-plus blues in the dead of summer in areas only 6-7 foot deep.” You can anchor and cast into the area holding fish or use active sonar systems like those made by Garmin to try and put your bait in cat’s face.


Cubbage says catfish aggressiveness varies by season. Spring and fall see the most aggressive bite on the tidal rivers. Shifting food sources, baitfish hatches and the coming and going of blue crabs in the tidal rivers are the main reasons, he believes. Winter fish are a bit more sluggish – they are, after all, cold-blooded.  “We catch many of what I call ‘sleepers’ in the winter,” Cubbage says. “The sleeper is a cat that has taken the bait enough to get hooked but doesn't really run at all. Many ‘eaters,’ fish 5-15 pounds, are caught this way.” 

Like many fish species, blues hang out in water where food is nearby. Many fish are found in just three feet of water in summertime bays and creeks along the rivers. Larger cats roam anywhere between 6-25 feet then, depending on the depth the forage fish are traversing. In winter, bigger catfish often stack on underwater hillsides or cliffs in 30-60 feet of water.  


fishing boat at sunset
James River Sunset - courtesy Reel Country Guide Service

Cubbage fishes both the Potomac and its tributaries and its neighbor to the south, Virginia’s Rappahannock River. He says eating-sized fish – those 15 pounds and under – are fairly easy to catch year-round if you match their feeding patterns.


Many summer catfish tournaments a couple decades ago were staged in the evening. For one, it’s a lot cooler at night and, secondly, many believed that nighttime was the right time to hook into behemoth cats. Cubbage gets it. He likes daytime fishing in winter, mainly because the sun helps keep you warm. He likes night fishing in summer because it’s more comfortable and you never know what might bite. “We may be targeting cats, but we’ve had striped bass hit, stingrays, largemouth bass, all kinds of crazy things,” he says. He uses the  live liner option on his reels at night. These emit an audible clicking sound as the fish starts running with the bait.


Cubbage loves the unpredictability of catfishing, never knowing just  how big a fish might be until it nears the surface. “Sometimes a 10-pound fish can feel like a 50 if he’s fighting you and using current. But I’ve had 50-pound fish swim right on up while reeling them in. He also considers catfish a “gateway species,” noting, “Most clients go catfishing as either an introduction to fishing or they want to put on a fish fry.” If the aim is big fish, that’s what they focus on. If the goal is to fill the ice chest with eaters, that’s great, too.


James River Tips and Tactics

Two proficient tacticians share their secrets for fishing the James River and related creeks.


man with flathead catfish
Billy Nicar with James River flathead caught while wade fishing

Billy Nicar, 43, guided part-time for flatheads for 12 years, augmenting his archery technician and fishing department associate work at Green Top Sporting Goods in Ashland, Virginia. The Henrico County native mainly targets flatheads in the James River.“They tend to be more readily accessible, Nicar says. “They are abundant throughout the river section flowing through the city of Richmond. A lot of this water can be accessed by wading, making it easy for those without a boat to go fishing for trophy sized fish. Plus, it can be a very convenient fishery for someone who may only have a few hours to fish or doesn’t want to go through the hassle of launching a boat that day.”


Nicar typically fishes from an inflatable whitewater raft when guiding for flathead and blue catfish in freshwater above the James’ fall line, using a kayak when fishing for himself. He says bigger boats are needed as you head downstream where the river widens.


Nicar likes light tackle, including fly-fishing gear. He holds four International Game Fish Association records for flatheads, including an amazing 25-pound, 3-ounce fish caught on a 2-pound tippet. He also holds the 4-, 6- and 8-pound tippet records. His biggest cats, a 44-pound flathead and a 73-pound blue, came on conventional gear. The flathead took an artificial lure while the blue gulped in freshly cut shad.


man and girl with catfish
Nicar and daughter kayak fishing

Nicar’s favored flathead baits include live sunfish, catfish, shad, or goldfish, 4-7 inches long. He also uses freshly cut offerings of the same. For big blues, he’ll bait up with large pieces of freshly cut gizzard shad, hickory shad, eel or sunfish, as well as live eels, sunfish, shad, or goldfish, where legal.


If you’re looking for pan-sized cats a few pounds and under, use small pieces of fresh or previously frozen cut bait, the same species used for bigger fish. You can also use nightcrawlers, shrimp, crayfish or clam snouts, Nicar advises.


 Full-time guide (Reel Country Guide Service, 336-988-1394) Christian Moore, 41, hails from Summerfield, North Carolina, but today lives in southeastern Virginia. He was hooked on catching big, powerful blue catfish nearly 20 years ago. Since 2011, his focus is catching trophy-sized fish, and he studies their behavior along with patterns of their prey.


two men in boat with big blue catfish
Christian Moore and client with big blue cat - courtesy photo Reel Country Guide Service

Moore, a regular winner or top-three-finisher on local catfish tournament circuits, says mother nature and time on the water are his biggest teachers. “Most of my trips are on the James River for the simple fact that it seems to draw the most attention from fishing enthusiasts hoping to catch a trophy blue catfish; but I do offer trips on the Rappahannock, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey Rivers. Some folks may be interested in increasing their fishing knowledge on those rivers, sometimes certain rivers are more easily navigable due to wind direction and current direction, or it could be as simple as a shorter drive for my clients.”


Moore also likes Virginia’s Kerr Lake -- for good reason. The All-Tackle IGFA record blue catfish, a 143-pounder, came out of that lake in 2011.


Moore has three main blue catfish tactics: anchoring in areas where fish traverse and feed, drifting, and dragging the bait on the bottom while pulling planer boards.


“Anchor fishing is my bread and butter in moderate current scenarios,” Moore says. He uses 50-pound monofilament Slime Line with 100-pound leader when anchored, a classic doubling up scenario. He prefers mono over braid, liking the forgiving stretch and shock absorbing  capability as big fish hit and run. Sometimes anglers pull back too hard or tighten the drag when a fish is running…the hook can pull, he explains.


fishing rod bending

“Blues are travelers, man,” Moore says. “They can travel 5 to 6 miles in a day, put their nose in a current and make a big move, depending on what they’re feeding on, whether it’s the shad, crappie or herring. I use three different baits, primarily -- gizzard shad, white perch and eel. I’ve never used artificial bait to target trophy fish. Sometimes I fish these baits live or cut them depending on water conditions and time of year, although I usually prefer cut bait.”


He also drifts prime areas or over deep holes, where he’s often looking for pinpoint bait placement, depending on the sonar marks and the time of year. “A lot of people think you have to be bottom fishing to catch catfish,” Moore says. “That’s not true. Sometimes we’ll suspend drift baits when we see fish elevated in the water column.”


Moore’s Go-To Gear

His rod, reel and terminal tackle tools are consistent, with 7-foot, 6-inch, medium-heavy power, light action casting rods from Catch the Fever Outdoors, matched with Penn or Daiwa level-wind reels.


Moore downsizes to 20-25-pound line, again doubling up on the leader, when using planers, especially on reservoirs when fish are on shallow flats. “The smaller diameter generates less resistance in the water column,” he says.

“All of my blue catfish hooks are 10/0 in size, some with thicker wire than others depending on scenario, such as the thinner wire Mustad Demons when pulling planer boards.” The only time he doesn’t use circle hooks is when he is flathead fishing. Then he’ll use an octopus or J-style hook. “Cut-bait fishing with circle hooks prevents the fish from getting gut hooked as it grabs the bait and swims away. If that line starts to move and the rod starts to bend, let the fish hook itself,” Moore says. “Grabbing the rod only lessens your chances of getting that fish. I can tell based on the rod movement and the takedown how big a fish is. Every time the rod surges down, that’s the fish taking a stroke. You’ll see an abrupt surge when the fish feels the hook set. If I don’t see a surge in the rod, we don’t pick up the rod until we see line coming off the drag on the reel.”


Deep is Relative

Nicar says seasons and water temps dictate where he looks for fish.


“Deep,’ is a relative term,” he observes. “In shallower waters of the upper James River, deep could be six feet, whereas below the fall line, deep could be 60 feet or more. “When I’m targeting flatheads in the spring, summer and early fall, I’m looking for deeper pools of water relative to the surrounding average depth, particularly if there is structure such as large rocks or boulders, ledges, or log jams associated with those pools.”


Nicar’s Preferred Gear

You might expect a major sporting goods store fishing department associate to have specific tastes for each style of fishing and, with Nicar, you’d be right. For fishing live bait for flatheads, he like a 7-7.5-foot conventional medium-heavy or heavy-action rod paired with a medium-sized, something like an Abu Garcia 6500 or similar, with a bait clicker. He spools it with 20-pound monofilament or 50-pound braid, although he prefers mono. He uses 8/0 circle hooks on a “Fish Finder” rig with 1 foot of 30-40-pound fluorocarbon leader and sinkers ranging from 1-3 ounces,  depending on how much is needed to keep the bait stationary.


His spinning setup is similar, except he’ll use a Shimano Baitrunner 6000 or comparable reel. The fly-fishing specialist wields a 9-foot, 10-weight fast-action fly rod with a 10-weight fly reel, loaded with 10-eight tapered, weight-forward, “Bass Bug” floating fly line with a 7.5-foot, 16-pound fluorocarbon tapered leader with 1 foot of 20-pound fluorocarbon tippet. His fly patterns mimic 4-6-inch baitfish.

man with big flathead catfish
Billy Nicar with big flahead

Nicar typically looks for trophy blue catfish in winter, December through March. This is when cooler waters and slowed catfish metabolism tends to make them gravitate to deeper water structure or river channels. Humps, big rocks, sunken trees, log jams, sunken boats, barges or old wharf structures tend to attract big fish that want to hang tight, with the structure acting as a current brake. This lets the fish remain mostly stationary in the current without expending unnecessary energy and burning valuable calories, Nicar explains.


Moore targets similar river features, depending on the season and the species of fish catfish are then foraging. “I rely on traditional 2d sonar and side imaging to mark them,” he says. “Some of my peers have started using livescope, experimenting with the newer technology, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist. You need to learn to read the water to catch your fish.”


Moore stresses he’s not biased against emerging technology, noting side-imaging has helped him locate many trophy blues, especially in open water.


“When I am using a depth-finder to scout out a location to fish, I’m looking for structure on the river bottom and not the actual fish themselves,” Nicar says. “Most of the time the fish will hang so close to the structure that it will blend in and not be detected.”


“I’ll tell you that it’s easier to catch bigger fish in cold water – defined as water temps in the 40s - but it’s not because they go into deeper holes,” Moore declares. “The bite just becomes more predictable. You’ll find fish congregated. When water temps are in the 80s, they can be spread all over the river.”


man nets catfish
Moore nets a big blue - photo by Reel Country Guide Service
The Difference is Day and Night

As noted earlier, popular lore often references fishing for big cats at night, but both anglers prefer day fishing.


“Everything is easier and safer under the light of day,” Nicar says. “The only exception to this is when fishing for trophy size blue catfish during the summer. Larger catfish tend to be more active at night during the warm water months.


Moore notes that the same catfish that can travel miles daily, feeding voraciously in warm weather, can be a bit of a homebody during colder periods or on bright sunny days. He usually offers night trips through July and into early August. “Darkness presents a feeding paradise for predators,” he says. “It’s easier for apex predators to hide themselves and ambush. On bright summer days, I’ll target deeper water. That is like a  big cat’s living room, where they go to hang out until darkness approaches. If I find him, I’ll set up a buffet line to try to get him to bite.”


Anglers need to pay attention to salinity in Virginia’s tidal rivers. Moore keeps a salinity meter on his boat. High salt content can slow down the bite. Periods of drought can push saltwater from the Chesapeake Bay further upriver. Brackish water tends to be fine for catfish, but too much saltwater can shut down the aggressive feeding and move the fish upriver as they follow forage.


Finally, the bite can vary substantially on tidal rivers depending on the flow of the water. Some anglers eagerly try to be in their favored hot spots as slack tide ends and the outgoing tide begins. Moore says he finds that bigger fish, 30-pounders or more, tend to feed better in slower currents. “Most fish are feeding fairly heavily when the water approaches peak flow,” he says. “As you approach slack tide, it’s easier for the bigger fish to move and feed. The fish know how the tide behaves, using it to figure out where to stage up and feed. Whether the bite is better on incoming or outgoing is a location thing.”


man and girl with big catfish
Reel Country Guide Service photo
Great Fishing for Novices

Moore says he likes the teamwork that is needed to land a truly large fish. That and the initial take-down of the bait. Nicar likes the relaxed nature of catfishing. “At least until the fight is on,” he adds. “It’s a fishery that enables fishermen to hook, fight, and land some of the largest fish living in the fresh waters of Virginia with relative ease.”


Whitmore echoes the sentiment. “Throw live bait in a tidal river and you'll likely come up with a blue catfish, regardless of your target species,” she says. “That makes them a really great fish for new anglers because they're going to have success and a full cooler of good eating fish to boot.”


Note: Nicar, while currently not guiding says he’s available to consult with anyone looking to catch James River flatheads. Call him at Green Top at 804-550-2188.


Biologists measure catfish
Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources fisheries techs measure a blue catfish - Meghan Marchetti photo


Biologists Studying Catfish Movement & Behavior


Margaret Whitmore, tidal rivers fisheries biologist  for Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources began a catfish movement study in the James River in fall 2021. “We've tagged 80 Blue Catfish with internal, acoustic tags throughout the tidal James and into the Chickahominy. Virginia DWR, in partnership with VCU and the Rice Rivers Center, monitors over 40 acoustic receivers distributed throughout the tidal James and its tributaries.” The receiver logs the date, time, and unique identifier of the fish as it swims by.


“This gives us very simple data- when we look at data from the whole array, it tells us where fish are going and when. But we can use those data to answer much more complex questions,” Whitmore says.

electrofishing from boat for catfish
Electrofishing to assess catfish numbers and sizes - Meghan Marchetti photo

Incorporating environmental data such as temperature, precipitation, tide, salinity, and river discharge, researchers predict where catfish will be under different conditions and how that varies seasonally. “That's valuable information that we can pass on to our anglers,” Whitmore says. “It also tells us when blue catfish might be overlapping with species of concern, like shad and herring, or commercially important species, like blue crab, and helps us understand and better quantify those impacts,” she says.


Early results show the blue catfish are widely distributed in late winter and spring, using habitat from the fall line to the lower river. “This makes sense,” Whitmore notes, “because we usually get more storms in winter and spring, which reduces the salinity downstream, and they're also on the move to spawning areas. In summer, they're more tightly distributed.”

boy with catfish
As we said, a bit of an 'everyman's fish...'


bottom of page