How, When, and Where to Fish for Trophy Catfish

When the tip of the third rod on my left jiggles once in its holder, I lunge for it like Homer Simpson grabbing for a free beer. Chris Harris lays a cautioning hand on my arm. "Not yet."

I drop back into the chair on Harris' 22-foot Cape Craft, which is anchored in 44 feet of water over a secondary channel point in the tidal James River south of Richmond, Virginia. Then the rod bobbles again, a solid thump this time. "Wait," Harris says, his breath pluming in the 30-degree winter air. "Let him take it all the way down." Which the fish does a moment later. The rod tip bends until it's almost in the water and starts throbbing with life. I grab the big stick, now so heavy that I can barely get it out of the holder, and the fish starts taking line like a farm tractor pulling kite string.

Fifty yards later, when he finally takes a breather, I start trying to crank him in. But I discover I'm going to need more than my arms for this fight. Jamming the rod butt into my belly just below the belt hurts, but it's the only way to put my back into the fish. The cat makes slow, heavy runs to one side, then the other, feeling out his opponent. He's more annoyed than alarmed, as if he hasn't even tapped into his true power yet. "Just stay connected," Harris tells me. "Don't try to horse him. He'll come." At last the fish does start to come up. But then he spots the boat and does not like what he sees. Annoyance turns to fury. He makes a frantic run, surging, taking line for the first time in minutes. When he finally comes to the surface, there's an explosion, and cold water stings my face. This is not a moderate fish. This is a fanatic, one who'd strap blocks of C-4 to his flanks, ram the boat, and blow us all up rather than be taken alive. Harris grabs the 80-pound mono leader and deftly boats him in a long-handled net wide enough to scoop up a Yugo. Thumping the deck and croaking what he'd do to me if he could get his breath up here, the big blue looks less like a fish than some ugly, ill-tempered mammal with his legs cut off, tiny eyes set wide on his head. Harris uses pliers to free the Daichi 7/0 circle hook from the corner of his mouth and hoists him up on a hand scale. "Thirty-five," he says. "Good first fish. Kinda makes knocking your brains out for a 2-pound bass seem silly, doesn't it?"

Hard to argue with that. And this is not just a "good first fish." It's the biggest cat I've ever hooked. This thing would swallow the world-record largemouth for lunch.

The fish's stomach is distended and rock hard. Harris explains that many anglers assume they've caught a fish that just ate, but it's really just the air bladder, which expands when a fish comes up from the depths. "If you let him go like that, he'll die. We gotta burp him."

Fine. Whatever turns you on. You want to throw this puppy up on your shoulder, pat his back, and coo sweet nothings to him, knock yourself out. Only it turns out it's not that kind of burping. Harris produces a 3-foot length of PVC pipe, inserts it into the fish's mouth, and presses it gently until we hear a deep sigh, then another, and finally a soft belch. The fish's stomach softens and shrinks to normal size. "Good to go, " says Harris. I hold the fish over the side in the current until he revives, wriggles free, and bolts back into the tidal depths of the James River. Then I fumble through my layers to find the already purple spot on my abdomen where I anchored the rod.

Giant Misconceptions
Just then, a guy who evidently knows Harris comes by in a slick new catfish boat, cuts the motor, and asks how we're doing. Harris is cordial but evasive about our success so far and his plans for the day. The guy takes the hint, wishes us luck, and splits. "You see what he was doing while we were talking?" Harris asks. "He was hitting the waypoint marker on his GPS." He smiles ruefully.

Harris has been fishing a 60-mile stretch of the tidal James since 1988, sometimes 150 days a year. That kind of experience doesn't digitize. It's intuition, a sixth sense about what the fish are doing and where they want to be on any given tide and weather. Harris carries his inventory of 600 or so spots between his ears. He knows them by the subtle ripples and current breaks that a small hump 50 feet down produces on the surface, by the feel of the wind on his cheek, by the swirl of eddies and how the gulls wheel over certain patches of water.

I found Harris last winter when I began a quest to catch a 50-pound catfish (brought on by a severe bout of sunlight deprivation), something I'd never come close to doing. My search led me to call DNR guys and fish biologists in about six states. Each, to my utter surprise, told me how lucky I was to have called him and not some other, wannabe catfish state. Come to Kansas, I was told, where the world-record flathead, 123 pounds, was caught in the Elk City Reservoir back in '98. Come to Texas, where the all-tackle-record 121-pound 8-ounce blue that popped out of Lake Texoma in January is now drawing crowds at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. Come to Arkansas, where the Mississippi yielded the previous blue cat record, 116 pounds. Come fish Santee-Cooper in South Carolina, where a 109-pound blue was caught back in '91.

Visions of IGFA records danced in my head, but a feeling that these guys were telling less than the whole story prompted me to seek independent advice. I finally found it in Denny Halgren, who has been guiding for flatheads for the past 10 years on the Rock River in Illinois and who edits the online magazine Pro Cats (www.procats.com). "You want 50 pounds? Listen, I hate to bust your bubble, but to catch a fish that size anywhere is going to take more than skill. You also need some luck. You're pretty much talking a blue or a flathead. Channel cats almost never get that big. And those record fish those guys were telling you about? Those are like winning the lottery, a one-in-a-million deal." Halgren himself generally catches a decent number of fish over 50 pounds a year but was honest enough to say that he probably wasn't the best bet for banging a big one on an average day.

Then, one by one, he demolished the claims of the DNR guys. "Texoma has a great population of big fish but nobody who knows how to catch them consistently. They tend to drift and pray, and a guy who lucks into a big one decides to market himself as a big-fish specialist, strings folks along for a season or two, and then goes out of business. Santee-Cooper? They've raped that place. Commercial fishing is taking a toll, and the guides down there don't take a stand against it. And there's no catch-and-release ethic at all. The catfish guys are mostly the same guys who were guiding stripers 20 years ago, when the same thing happened. The Tennessee River around Wheeler Dam is a great piece of water. But, again, they don't target big fish, they just go fishing. There are 50-pounders and up, but nobody who catches them consistently."

What would he do to scratch the itch for a big cat? "You want a boy name of Chris Harris who fishes blues on the James River in the tidal part south of Richmond. He's figured out how to target big fish pretty consistently. And the James has the things that catfish like: good habitat, for-age, depth, and current. My biggest fish are probably bigger than his. But he's catching fish in the 40s and 50s--and sometimes bigger--more consistently than anybody I know of. And I know just about all of 'em."

Sell the Bass Boat
I called Harris, who told me that the state had stocked blue cats in the James about 30 years ago and the fish were just now reaching trophy size. "I caught a 71 last April," he said. "And I've broken off fish I'm pretty sure were bigger than that." He said that anybody who could guarantee a 50 was lying, but that he generally caught fish in the 30s and 40s on almost every trip, that 50s were not uncommon, and that it's just a matter of time before someone catches an 80 or a 90.

Blue cats are taking off in the lower James. And there's a strong catch-and-release ethic. There are guys selling their bass boats for more seaworthy catfish craft. Harris numbers some of Richmond's lawyers and investment bankers among his clientele. He won't let a client kill any fish over 10 pounds. "I had one guy try to tell me I hadn't explained that to him well enough. He was holding a 47-pound fish that he wanted to kill to show his buddies. And I told him, 'Look, you don't have to pay me for the trip if you don't want to, but you're not gonna kill that fish.'" (Harris, 34, wrestled in college and still carries himself like a guy who hasn't forgotten the moves. And if you tried to kill a trophy cat on his boat, he'd probably be happy to show you some.)

Figuring to set up a trip next spring or summer, I asked about dates. "Fishing's pretty hot right now," he said. "How's next Tuesday?" Now, I asked, in the dead of winter? "Catch my biggest fish from November to April, " Harris told me. He said a big cat requires feeding year-round, and that winter tends to concentrate both the blues' favorite food, gizzard shad, and the big fish themselves.

Our trip starts auspiciously on a cold morning a week later, when I walk down the boat ramp, slip on some ice, and land on my ass. Fortunately, I'm wearing about half of the Cabela's winter catalog, so the hard part isn't the fall but finding a way to get back up.

The first order of business on any trip, Harris tells me as he cranks the Yamaha 150, is fresh bait. We do a 20-minute frostbite run down-stream to a feeder creek where gizzard shad can be reliably netted. Entering, he throttles back and slowly patrols the water looking for shad on his fishfinder. Meanwhile, he gives me the short course on blues. Up until a fish hits 20 pounds or so, it's basically a scavenger. It roams freely and will hit the chicken livers, bloodworms, and stinkbaits of the average angler. Above that size, a marvelous transformation takes place. Continued growth requires larger and more frequent meals, so the scavenger turns predator. Its favorite mouthful becomes the gizzard shad, a sizable (11- to 13-inch) baitfish abundant in the James year-round. A big cat is also cannibalistic; a 35-pounder will make a snack of a 20-pounder. And it starts hanging out in deep structure near the food-providing current: dropoffs, wrecks, submerged trees, deep holes, humps, stolen ballot boxes, armored cars, piles of human bones, whatever breaks the current.

"It took me about five years to learn how to throw this thing," Harris says, standing on the bow with his weighted cast net. "The trick is not to force it." He effortlessly gets it out into 20 feet of water on top of a ball of shad he has found on his Lowrance x85. The net magically blossoms to full size as it hits the water, and when it emerges there are three big shad quivering in it. Soon we have a dozen and are headed farther downriver to fish.

After the 35-pounder and the visit from the friendly guy with the sneaky fingers, we pull the anchor and drift just a hundred yards down to another channel point. Harris looks at his Lowrance and shows me four arcs that he says are fish that will run in the 40-pound range. "Gotta get right on top of the structure when it's cold like this. If you're not getting hung up regularly, you're not fishing right."

At 1:15, I hook up with a 34-pounder. Fifteen minutes later, a 26-pounder. This river--broad, deep, and nearly devoid of boat traffic at this time of year except for the occasional big tug--is a health club for girthy cats. I start exploring my abdomen for new places to anchor the rod. At 2:15, I hook into something big that doesn't act like the other fish. After an initial run, instead of coming up he gets a second wind and heads back for the bottom. He stops me. I can't gain line no matter how hard I pull. "That is what we in the trade call a big fish," Harris says casually. "See if you can bring him up before he wraps you." I do, applying more pressure, but now he's winning, taking line and heading down. This is a water buffalo, the local enforcer, the kind of fish I had been dreaming about during the winter solstice. Suddenly the line breaks and everything goes slack. I reel in and feel where it is abraded.

"That one might have gone 60, maybe better," Harris says. He sees the look on my face and smiles. "Kinda cool, huh?" Yes indeedy.

These Aren't Kitty Cats
Just as big catfish are different, Harris explains as he's cutting up shad and I'm reeling in the other lines to move to a new spot, so is the way you fish for them. He does not bury the hook inside the bait or put little bells on the ends of his rods. Nor does he set the drag light. He locks his reels down to stop the fish from running. A full third of a shad goes on each rig, and the big red Daichi circle hook is completely exposed. "A big blue is the top predator in this river. It's not going to toy with a bait; it crushes it and basically hooks itself. The exposed hook gives you a better set. And by locking the reel down, you keep a lot of fish from running you into structure and breaking off."

He throws that bait out on 40-pound-test mono or 100-pound-test superbraid line with a 1- to 2-foot, 60-pound mono leader and a 6- to 10-ounce sinker, and then sticks the rod in a holder. His preference is for a 7-foot flexible rod like a Berkley Big Cat with a sensitive tip and a lot of backbone, and Penn 310 and Shimano Tidewater reels with a 4.3:1 gear ratio. He'll fish up to 10 rods at a time in a fan pattern off the back of the boat. Today we're fishing eight.

We move on to one last deep hole, which Harris has dubbed Close Call after the time that one of the big tugs that ply the James nearly ran him down here in thick fog. It's only 35 feet deep, with lots of arcs on the fishfinder. At 4:40, I get a 40-pounder. Just before five o'clock I catch a 44, a fish as long as my thigh and bigger around. It fights the way the first one did, only on a larger scale: powerfully but patiently until it sees the boat, at which point it goes ape. My arms are giving out. I can barely lift the thing for a quick snapshot. My abdomen hurts everywhere. I've now caught five fish weighing 179 pounds. There are shad guts and catfish slime all over my clothes. I am having the time of my life.

"I want to try one more spot, just to show you don't have to be in deep water to catch big fish," Harris says. We reel in, fire up, and head to a nearby feeder creek where he's caught some of his biggest blues. The sun is almost gone. We cast out and wait as the darkness rises up. Finally we get a hit. It's a little one. Harris doesn't even want to weigh it; he's embarrassed. But I insist. It tips the scale at 10 pounds. By any other catfishing I've done, this would be a banner fish. Out here it looks like bait.

CHRIS HARRIS' 5 TIPS FOR BIG WINTER BLUES

1) USE INDIGENOUS BAITFISH. When blues get large, they turn predacious and need bigger, more frequent meals. Harris uses gizzard shad, cut or whole, which grow to 13 inches.

2) FISH TIGHT TO THE STRUCTURE. You have to put your bait right on the current break. It doesn't matter if the structure is deep or shallow, as long as it provides shelter and access to bait.

3) USE MULTIPLE RODS. Obviously this increases your chances, and using different sizes and presentations will let you see what the fish prefer that day. (Check your local regulations to see how many lines you're allowed.)

4) USE HEAVY TACKLE. These are big, powerful fish that can wrap your line around an obstruction and break off quickly unless you move them off the bottom. Harris uses 40-pound-test mono and 60-pound leaders.

5) DON'T HESITATE TO MOVE. Fish tend to stay in one place during the winter, so if you have no action after half an hour, try another spot.

For details on fishing the James River with Chris Harris, call him at 804-314-9629; www.gottheblues.net. --B.H.