Stop singing the blues, catch them!

An invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, blue catfish are go to biters for Jeff Little. Photo Jeff Little

An invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, blue catfish are go to biters for Jeff Little. Photo Jeff Little

By Jeff Little

Singing the blues? Everyone has days on the water when they struggle. The fish aren’t where you would expect them to be. When you finally do get a hit, you swing on it half a second too late, missing your first bite in hours. You might hook a respectable fish, but lose it on a momentary interruption in line tension because of some freak incident that almost never happens, like the line catching the star drag. Maybe you even get skunked. Whatever frustration you experience seems to build with each fishless moment.

Everyone needs to have a plan for rebounding from such a day. We all need a fishery that works regardless of season, weather or any other factor. I employed my recoup day today, blue catfish. It’s the same one I take my kids to several times a year, because when we go there, it’s catching, not fishing.

The rigging and technique is simple. A 3 ounce bank sinker, a 100 lb test brass swivel, 18 inches of the same 80 lb braid that is my main line and an 8/0 black nickle circle hook. Dress that hook with whatever animal parts you have handy. Blue catfish aren’t picky. I use the cheapest chicken breast I can find. A fellow angler watched me reel in three fish inside of five minutes without rebaiting and asked what I was using. I held up the package and he said in disbelief, "Are those chicken breasts? That’s some fancy bait!"

A simple circle hook and sinker rig on 80-pound braid is all you need for blue cats. Just add meat! Photo Jeff Little

A simple circle hook and sinker rig on 80-pound braid is all you need for blue cats. Just add meat! Photo Jeff Little

I grew up fishing the banks of the upper Potomac for channel cats. Nothing aggravated me more than lobbing my bait and weight into the darkness only to hear two distant but separate "kerplunk" noises – one from the weight and one from the chicken liver that flung off the hook because it was too soft. I would be sure to feel the tubs of chicken liver at the grocery store to see if they had been frozen. That tends to break down the structure of the organ, leading to more cast offs. I tried the nylon stocking trick to keep it on the hook, but that’s complicated. I like simple. Chicken breasts cut into strips is simple, and they end up costing less than the copious amount of liver I end up buying to deal with cast offs.

A few decades ago, the Potomac didn’t have blue cats. They were introduced by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries in the James River and migrated up into many other tidal rivers that flow into Chesapeake Bay. As such, they are an invasive species, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources asks anglers to keep all they can. The blues have an impact on the populations of blue crabs and compete with other species such as striped bass for important forage species such as herring and shad.

Keying in on the shad is an excellent way to find blue catfish. Move around until you find schools of baitfish on the depth finder. Drop your bait and weight through the school to the bottom. On many such schools, I’ve run double digit streaks of fish on consecutive casts. The take often comes as soon as you feel the weight thud on the bottom.

Using circle hooks is as simple as it gets, but most anglers complicate it too much. Set the hook as you normally would with a standard jig, and you’ll pull the hook cleanly out of the fish’s mouth without hooking it. The proper hook set with a circle hook is no set at all. Simply reel the fish in with no snap upward of the rod tip, and the curved point of the hook buries into the corner of the fish’s jaw.

This fail proof method is great for kids, but you will want to make sure that the drag is set properly. Eating all those shad means that the animal on the other end of the line may actually weigh more than the kid trying to reel it in. These hard pulling fish have been a good species to teach my sons how to pull, bow, reel and repeat.

On the tidal rivers, these fish gather in the most upstream areas tides will reach in the spring. These areas are unique for several reasons, but the one that matters most to the whiskered hordes is the presence of shad. Shad spawn in these tidal areas and catfish and stripers alike follow them to gorge. Shad will also suspend in front of dams, providing another spot for blues to congregate and feed.

So when you just need a day of catching instead of fishing, consider blue catfish. They pull hard, gather in large numbers and predictably follow their food. For many parts of the country the species represents the best chance of a kayak angler catching the largest of any species. Find a pod of them, and you won’t be singing the blues very long.