As a guide on Virginia’s James River, Capt. Mike Ostrander has seen his share of big blue catfish. Although he hasn’t broken the 70-pound mark yet, it’s only a matter of time. Twenties are as common as 2-pound bass in a farm pond, and 30- and 40-pounders don’t raise the interest of local catfish fanatics. The James is an undeniable fish factory that churns out an incredible number of giant catfish. Day and night, winter, summer, spring and fall, the river produces more 40-pound-or-better cats than any other body of water.
Ostrander’s best day produced 19 cats that weighed more than 20 pounds, including a 60 and a couple over 40, and a typical day will produce a half-dozen blues with at least one topping 30 pounds. The river is so good, just about anyone with a boat and a little determination can score, as well. You just have to know where to look and what to use.
“I look for cover either on a ledge or in a deeper hole,” explains Ostrander. “Log jams, old sunken barges, dock pilings, anything that gives them a place to hide and ambush bait is likely to hold fish. If I can find cover on the edge of a sharp drop, that’s even better. The fish have the freedom to move up and down and it allows me to cover more depth ranges.”
There is no “best” depth, and Ostrander will drop a baited hook into as little as 2 feet of water and as much as 70. This time of year, he focuses on depths that range between 25 and 35 feet, but he adds that big blues will move shallower during warmer trends and deeper during a cold snap. Ideally, he likes to anchor his boat on the edge of a sharp drop. Not only do catfish like ledges, the incline allows Ostrander to cover different depths with the six rods he typically uses at a time.
He varies his bait selection and says that the biggest blues don’t always favor a gigantic hunk of bait. He’s caught rod-bending cats on small chunks of cut shad and pan-sized fish on big pieces. Ostrander typically baits his 8/0 circle hooks with different sizes and varieties in order to figure out what the fish want on that day.
“It seems like it’s different every day. Sometimes they want a gizzard shad head. Some days they prefer the mid-section. Other days, they seem to favor smaller chunks and the next day they like a real big bait or a whole shad or a chunk of eel. I try everything until the fish tell me what they want,” he explains. “I can’t stress enough, however, that it needs to be fresh. Frozen bait just doesn’t work very well.
What you use is perhaps less important than when and where you use it. All fish that live in tidal waters tend to feed during certain stages of the tides. Catfish are no different. Ostrander plans his trips around the tide tables, targeting the prime flows.
“I really like the last couple of hours of each tidal stage. The current isn’t pulling as hard, so I can keep my baits in position better and the catfish seem to come out and roam a little more,” he says. “I have the least success on a full high tide or a dead low tide that isn’t moving.”
He anchors within casting distance of a likely spot and stays there until he’s either caught a few fish or caught nothing. That can be as little as 20 minutes or as long as an hour, even more. How long he stays depends as much on his confidence in a spot as anything. With so many fish in the river, though, Ostrander admits his confidence is pretty high everywhere he drops a bait.
Contact Mike Ostrander at 804-938-2350 or www.discoverthejames.com.