Fighting the James River Blues

MOST BULGING BELLIES are anything but pretty, except in the world of blue catfish, where obesity is beautiful. I know first-hand from a recent day on Virginia's James River, which may be the hottest river in the country for trophy blue cats. Non-native blues have been in this big tidal flow since 1971, but they didn't start drawing attention until the mid 90s, when bigger fish started showing up on anglers' hooks. Full-time Guide Chris Eberwien began fishing the river in the early 90s, just ahead of the popularity surge. "When you'd catch a 35-pounder at that time, it was a really big deal," Eberwien said. For comparison, our five biggest fish during my recent trip to the river totaled 244 pounds. Eberwien seemed pleased, but even that catch wasn't anything special, though our biggest cat weighed 61 pounds. "I can't seem to break the 83-pound mark," Eberwien lamented. He's had four that heavy in his boat during his career. Seems like it's only a matter of time, though, before he bests his own mark, maybe with a new state record, or even a century-mark fish. Eberwien didn't make bold promises when he asked the size of my biggest cat --about 40 pounds--but I'm confident he knew that I'd catch one bigger. It didn't take long; I broke my personal best about 10:30 that morning, when I caught a 44-pounder. And that was before we found the big ones.Jeff Samsel
First stop of the day was up a creek where the gizzard shad had been piling into a deep hole. Don't waste your time with stink bait or chicken livers if you have heavyweight blues in mind. It's like offering a banana to a linebacker for dinner. A big chunk of fresh fish is the only way to go, and it's hard to beat shad in the James. The bait was right where Eberwien expected to find it, and three tosses of the castnet produced plenty gizzards for the day.Jeff Samsel
This outfit look a little heavy for freshwater? Not around here. You'd better bring the big guns if you're targeting blues in the James River. Everything about Eberwien's boat says "big cats." He fishes from a 25-foot Carolina skiff. It's filthy, front to back. However, simple, functional and heavy-duty gear is well maintained and in its place, with nothing unnecessary in the boat to get in the way when two goliaths take off like Indy cars in opposite directions.Jeff Samsel
Eberwien cuts big shad into chunks and tosses out the tails. He doesn't like shad tails as hook baits, which "spin like helicopters," twisting lines. They also don't seem to attract many bites. He's found the middle sections are best overall, but the biggest fish like the head. "Bite-size" gizzards get used whole, except Eberwien still snips off the tail before baiting his hook.Jeff Samsel
Chris Jenkins and I just hung back and watched an artist at work as Eberwien put set the spread. His casts are surprisingly feathered given the size of the reel, the 12-ounce weights, and the large chunks of meat on the end of each line. Somehow he manages to run them all off the back without crossing any lines. No matter which way the tide is flowing, Eberwien anchors upcurrent of where he wants to place baits.Jeff Samsel
The show gets even better when a cat strikes. Eberwien doesn't scramble to bring in all the lines. He just watches the way the cat is going and moves the other rods over or under the one with the fish on it, adding a bit of coaching as to which side to try to work the cat for netting. "Try" is the key word. Jumbo blues are brutally strong, and at times about all a fellow can do is hang on and laugh at his own futility.Jeff Samsel
One look at a monster blue's trap makes it pretty clear why you want to serve up serious groceries if you expect any cooperation. Eberwien has a cool system with a big net that has a long, detachable handle. The long handle works to get the scoop around the fish, but it's a whole lot easier to hoist a catch aboard by the scoop itself once the handle is out of the way. He also has his scale calibrated to weigh fish in the net, so he doesn't have to hook them under the gills or poke any needless holes in the fish.Jeff Samsel
I really thought it was a running joke between Eberwien and some catfishing buddies when his cell rang, getting word that our dogs were ready. I looked upstream to see that there really was a little grill perched on the front deck of another crew's johnboat. True to James River form, they hooked up while we were getting our dogs. The cat was a "little one," though - maybe 10 pounds.Jeff Samsel
It's not uncommon for mammoth cats to show battle scars from 20-plus year in the river, but this fat cat's markings seemed pretty distinctive. As soon as Eberwien saw the fish, he said that he'd caught one that looked just like it only a week or so earlier a few hundred yards up the river. That one had weighed 53 ½ pounds.Jeff Samsel
We would all call out a weight guess before putting a cat to the scales. I was quickest to take advantage of insights from the tale of familiarity and to guess 53 ½ pounds. It looked about right, best I could tell, and how many fish could carry those marks? All Eberwien do could was grin and turn the scale my way once he got the reading. 53 ½ pounds, right on the money.Jeff Samsel
The James River's tidal catfishery extends more than 60 miles from the fall line in Richmond to Jamestown, where it becomes too salty for the cats. Often several hundred yards across, the James offers an enormous amount of habitat for big blues, and it's fertile waters are packed with food, including various resident baitfish species, plus a host of seasonal species, which run up from the saltwater once a year. With room to roam and plenty of vittles, the cats keep getting bigger and bigger.Jeff Samsel
Circle hooks and stout rods are critical when a major objective is to put every big cat back in the river in good condition.Jeff Samsel
The fun of wrestling heavy cats from their lairs outweighs the bite of a cold, gray, late February day. Eberwien and Jenkins lift a 46 1/2-pounder that bit somewhere between the morning drizzle and the afternoon ice spits with gusty winds.Jeff Samsel
Contrary to a popular school of thought among big-cat men, Eberwien doesn't worry about changing baits frequently. In fact, he says that if anything the fish favor baits that have been on the hook for a while. When he switches spots, the same baits go down again.Jeff Samsel
Jenkins will be the first to tell you that he's a trophy bass fisherman at heart. His passion, without question, is trying to land the biggest largemouth out there. That said, every trip to the James with Eberwien draws Jenkins back for another. Of course, of the half dozen times they've shared time on the boat, only once have they failed to land at least one 50-pound cat. And even that day was a good one, with plenty of 30- and 40-pound fish.Jeff Samsel
There's no graceful way to release a 50-pound blue, unless you're a lot stronger than me. Despite gentle attempts, they all act like they're entering belly flop competitions (which, of course, they have the right equipment for).Jeff Samsel
"Catfishin' for big blues is my passion," Eberwien says, and a day in the boat with him leaves no question about that. But what keeps him in business, and what keeps these fish so massive, is the widespread catch-and-release ethic among the anglers that target big blues on the James River. This is why this tidewater flow only continues to improve from a trophy cast standpoint. My trip with Eberwien was proof that beasts below the murky surface will be there to test anglers for many years to come.Jeff Samsel

If you can handle the winter weather and want to test your might against a blue catfish of epic proportions on Viriginia's James River, visit guide Chris Eberwien's website, or call (804) 449-6134.

And to get another take on this fishery, check out Bill Heavey's story, "Catfish Central."