No one can deny that the James River may be the best place on earth to catch a 50 + pound catfish. Every year, numerous anglers venture here to cast enormous hooks baited with hand size pieces of gizzard shad, hoping for a "take down" from a James River giant (a "take down" occurs when a behemoth catfish picks up your bait with such force that the tip of the rod is often plunged underwater). Using heavy rods, reels, and line are a must, as these big catfish will use all of their strength and weight as they thrash along the bottom in the swift current. There are plenty of big catfish in the James, and numerous 30-50 lb fish are caught all the time. While rarer, several truly giant fish (80 - 110 lb) are landed every year.
The Chesapeake Bay was in big trouble in the 1970s. Oyster fisheries had collapsed, striped bass populations were on the brink of collapse, and American shad populations were at a fraction of historic levels. Agricultural runoff and shoreline development had transformed the clear waters of the Bay into a murky mess, and Virginia’s rivers began to resemble the muddy rivers of the midwest.
It's not unusual to "double down" with two fifty plus pound catfish on the James River. Photo credit Matt Tate.
Noticing these similarities, fisheries managers transplanted blue catfish from the Mississippi Basin. It took a few years for populations to grow, but blue catfish are now incredibly successful in the Chesapeake Bay. They thrive in its muddy waters, where they use their four pairs of whiskers, or barbels, to locate food on the bottom.
Blue catfish are now incredibly abundant and widespread, and are found in every major tributary of the Bay. Fisheries biologists with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries routinely sample catfish in the Bay using electrofishing. They've seen capture rates as high as 6,000 fish per hour. In their native range, blue catfish capture rates rarely exceed 600 fish per hour using the same electrofishing gear. While there are many variables to consider when comparing relative capture rates, it appears that the density of catfish in our rivers may greatly exceed densities in the native range of this species.
This has caused some concern with fisheries biologists, who are afraid they may be preying upon important native species including American shad, river herring, American eel, and blue crab. We are currently hoping to answer these questions through our extensive diet research.
The attention blue catfish have recieved as an invasive has been the center of much controversy, as the James River supports an outstanding trophy fishery, which, in turn, provides revenue for tackle shops and fishing guides.
Regardless of how you feel about blue catfish, they are here to stay. They are so abundant and widespread that eradication will never be an option. Fisheries managers have already attempted eradication of much a less abundant species in a far smaller river system, and been unable to have any impact on the population (flathead catfish in the Satilla River, GA).
I'm sure you've heard the saying, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade", and I feel that this is the best approach with blue catfish. They are big and fun to catch, so why not fish for them? They have excellent quality flesh, so why not eat them? Commercial landings are increasing every year, and new fish processing facilities are now in the area.
If the trophy catfish guys are against commercial harvest they need to realize a few things. The reason the James River has an incredible trophy fishery is because the species is relatively new to the system. When a species is first introduced, the population often explodes, and the first few generations have incredible growth. This is because there is no competition. They are the first to show up, so to speak, so food is an unlimited resource. Once the population fills the system (or as ecologists say, once a species reaches carrying capacity) there is more competition as resources become limited. Growth slows and production of trophy-sized fish slows down. This is what fisheries managers call density dependent growth, which has already been well-documented in blue catfish. This is already occuring in the James, and growth of blue catfish had decreased considerably by 2011. One way to combat this phenomenon is through the removal smaller fish from the system, which decreases competiton. When done right, commercial fishing is actually GOOD for the trophy fishery. At this point Virginia only allows harvest of 1 fish over 32" per day, which should help protect larger fish.
It is sort of a catch 22. Once we promote commercial fisheries, we will need to sustain the fishery by protecting the resource in some way. Only time will tell what fisheries managers will do from here. For now, blue catfish are plentiful, tasty, and fun to catch.