- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

Local anglers who prefer to drop their lines into tidal rivers usually choose the largemouth bass as their favorite target. This is particularly true of the upper tidal portions of the Potomac River - a stretch of bass-rich water that begins in downtown and continues south to Maryland’s western Charles County. But there’s a new kid in town, and it’s beginning to steal some of the limelight that has been shining on the bass.

The blue catfish (ictalurus furcatus) is not native to the Potomac, but like a couple dozen other species that were purposely or illegally introduced (the dreaded Northern snakehead comes to mind), blue “cats” have found a niche in the river and now are hooked by sport anglers as far up as Fletcher’s Cove above Chain Bridge and as far downstream as the Route 301 Harry Nice Bridge in Charles County.

The blue catfish is a large fork-tailed catfish species native to the Mississippi River drainage; its color is a silvery, pale blue - some call it slate blue - but the belly can be milk-white. Oh, and one other thing is true: Even when you hook just a 25-pounder, it will do its best to see if it can pop a few muscles in your arms. Few others are as strong as a blue cat.

Scuttlebutt has it that the Potomac is well on its way to surpass the best blue catfish waters on the East Coast, the tidal James River below Richmond, where daily catches of 30-, 40- and 50-pounders aren’t a surprise these days.

According to John Odenkirk, a top fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), the state record for blue catfish was a specimen that came from the James and weighed more than 95 pounds. That huge catfish still could be swimming about because it was released after it was landed and documented. Such fish that begin to come near the 100-pound mark are the exception, but hundreds of James River blue cats in the 30- to 50-pound class are hooked every year.

What has Odenkirk and other fishery scientists a bit alarmed is that the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg downstream to Leedstown and beyond used to be counted as premier blue catfish water, but something happened there that sharply reduced the trophy blue cat population.

“The number of blue catfish citations issued each year for the Rappahannock River has declined precipitously since 1999,” Odenkirk said.

Since this catfish species grows slowly, I have my own ideas as to why the numbers have fallen in the historic Rappahannock. During the 1990s, these tough, muscular giants would come into the tidal Fredericksburg sector. Shoreline anglers, using slabs of cut fish attached to weighted bottom rigs, caught so many of these cats that one of the employees at Chesley’s Tackle Shop back then told me he had fishermen come into the store to show off their fabulous catfish catches, then unceremoniously discard them in local dumpsters when they could have provided fine dinners for someone.

Could it be that the numbers fell after too many of the blue cats were caught and killed?

In 2006, a Virginia regulation went into effect limiting possession of blue catfish more than 32 inches to one a person every day. The fishery managers know the restriction will allow more fish to be recycled, allowing more to achieve even larger sizes and perhaps to be hooked again. However, in Virginia’s tidal rivers, there is no limit on the taking of blue catfish smaller than 32 inches.

Odenkirk said blue catfish were first introduced in the tidal James and Rappahannock rivers in the early 1970s.

“In 1985, a number of blue catfish were released in the Mattaponi River, and fish from this river eventually populated the Pamunkey River,” he said. “Blue catfish have also colonized the Piankatank River and the tidal Potomac River system and now occur in all of Virginia’s major tidal tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.”

What recreational anglers don’t realize is that some of the smaller catfish they catch might be blue catfish. Less than 2 percent of the large population of this species measure 32 inches or more. It makes sense. Blue catfish begin to reproduce actively at 17 inches.

Bob Greenlee, district fisheries biologist with the VDGIF, said blue catfish in the James River weigh only five pounds on average by age 8. By age 10 they can weigh 10 pounds but rapidly increase to 20 pounds by age 12 and 30 pounds at age 13. Typically, a 50-pounder is 13 years old, maybe a little older.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com

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