The Catfish Angler
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Chris Spends 150 Days a Year Targeting Blue Catfish Which Are Large Enough to Eat That Record Bass in Your Wall for Lunch. in Cat fishing, as in Life, Size Matters when the point of the 3rd pole on my left jiggles once in its holder, I lunge for it like Homer Simpson catching for a free beer. Chris Harris puts a warning hand on my arm. “Not yet.”
I drop back in the seat 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. Subsequently the pole bobbles again, a strong thump this time. “Wait,” Harris says, his breath pluming in the 30-degree winter atmosphere. “Let him take it all the way down.” Which the fish does a second after. The pole tip bends until it is practically in the water and begins throbbing with life. I catch the big stick, now so heavy that I can just get it out of the holder, as well as the fish begins taking line like a farm tractor pulling kite cord.
Fifty yards after, when he eventually takes a breather, I begin attempting to crank him in. However , I find Iwill want more than my arms for this particular fight. Jamming the pole end into my abdomen just below the belt harm, but it is the lone way to set my back into the fish. The cat makes slow, heavy runs to a side, then the other, feeling out his competition. He is more agitated than dismay, like he hasn’t even tapped into his true power yet. “Only remain connected,” Harris tells me. “Do not attempt to horse him. He will come.” At last the fish does begin to come up.
But then he spots the boat and doesn’t enjoy what he sees. Pain turns to fury. He makes a crazy run, surging, taking line for the very first time in minutes.
When he eventually comes to the surface, there is an explosion, and chilly water burns my face. This really isn’t a reasonable fish. It is a fanatic, one who had strap blocks of C4 to his flanks, ram the boat, and blow us all up rather than be taken alive. Harris catches the 80-pound mono leader and deftly boats him in a long handled net broad enough to scoop up a Yugo.
Thumping the deck and croaking what he had do to me if he could get his breath up here, the large blue seems less like a fish than some hideous, ill tempered mammal with his legs cut off, miniature 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. “Great first fish. Rather makes knocking your brains out for a 2 pound bass look ridiculous, does not it?”
Tough to argue with that. And this isn’t simply a “great first fish.” It is the largest cat I Have ever hooked. This thing would consume the world record largemouth for lunch.
The fish’s belly is distended and rock hard. Harris describes that lots of anglers suppose they have got a fish that just ate, but it is really simply the air bladder, which grows when a fish comes up from the depths. “Should you let him go like that, he will perish. We gotta burp him.”
Good. Whatever turns you on. You need to throw this pup up on your own shoulder, pat his back, and coo sweet nothings to him, knock yourself out. Just it turns out it is really not that sort of burping. Harris creates a 3-foot length of PVC conduit, adds it in the fish’s mouth, and presses it lightly until we hear a heavy sigh, then another, and ultimately a light belch. The fish’s belly softens and shrinks to normal size. “Good to go, ” says Harris. I hold the fish over the side in the current until he restores, wriggles free, and bolts back into the tidal depths of the James River. Afterwards I fumble through my layers to discover the already purple spot on my abdomen where I anchored the pole.
Just then, a man who obviously understands Harris comes by in a sleek new catfish boat, cuts the motor, and inquires how we are doing. Harris is cordial but evasive about our success so far and his strategies for the day. The man takes the hint, wishes us luck, and schisms. “You see what he was doing while we were speaking?” Harris inquires. “He was reaching the way-point mark on his GPS.” He grins ruefully.
Harris has been fishing a 60 mile expanse of the tidal James since 1988, occasionally 150 days annually. That form of experience does not digitise. It is instinct, a sixth sense about just what the fish are doing and where they would like to be on any certain tide and weather. Harris carries his stock of 600 or so places between his ears. He understands them by the subtle ripples and current breaks a little hump 50 feet down creates on the surface, by the feel of the wind on his cheek, by the swirl of eddies and the way the gulls wheel over specific spots of water.
I located Harris last winter once I started a search to get a 50-pound catfish (brought on by a serious spell of sun deprivation), something I Had never come close to doing. My investigation led me to call DNR men and fish biologists in about six states. Each, to my complete surprise, told me how fortunate I was to have called him and not some other, wannabe catfish state. Kansas, I was told, where the world record flathead, 123 pounds, was captured in the Elk City Reservoir back in ’98. where the all-fishing gear-record 121-pound 8-oz azure that popped out of Lake Texoma in January is currently attracting crowds at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. Arkansas, where the Mississippi given the preceding blue cat record, 116 pounds.Fish Santee Cooper in South Carolina, where a 109 pound Blue Catfish was captured back in ’91.
Visions of IGFA records danced in my head, however a feeling that these men were telling less in relation to the entire story prompted me to seek independent advice. I eventually located it in Denny Halgren, who has been directing for Flatheads for the previous a decade on the Rock River in Illinois and who edits the online magazine Pro Cats . “You need 50 pounds? Listen, I hate to bust your bubble, but to get a fish that size everywhere is going to require more than ability. In addition, you need some chance.
You are pretty much talking a blue or a flathead. Channel cats practically never get that large. And those record fish those men were telling you around? Those are like winning the lottery, a one-in-a million price.” Halgren himself usually gets an adequate variety of fish more than 50 pounds a year but was frank enough to say that he likely was not the best bet for slamming a huge one on an average day.
Subsequently, one by one, he demolished the claims of the DNR men. “Texoma has a great people of big fish but nobody who understands the way to get them consistently. They often wander and pray, and a man who lucks into a large one determines to promote himself as a big fish specialist, strings people along for a season or two, and then goes out of business. Santee Cooper?
They have raped that area. Commercial fishing is taking a toll, as well as the guides down there do not take a stand against it. And there is no catch and release ethic in the slightest. The catfish men are largely the same men who were leading stripers 20 years past, when the same thing occurred. The Tennessee River around Wheeler Dam is a great bit of plain water. But again, they do not target big fish, they only go fishing. There are 50 ponder and upwards, but nobody who gets them consistently.”
What would he do to scratch the itch for a big cat? “You desire a lad name of Chris Harris who fishes blues on the James River in the tidal component south of Richmond. He is figured out the way to target big fish fairly consistently. And the James has the matters that catfish enjoy: great habitat, forage, depth, and current. My largest fish are likely larger than his. However he is getting fish in the 40’s and 50’s and occasionally larger more consistently than anybody I know of. And I understand just about all of ’em.”
I called Harris, who told me that the state had carried blue cats in the James about 30 years past along with the fish were just now reaching decoration size. “I got a 71 last April,” he said. “And I Have broken off fish I am fairly confident were larger than that.” He said that anybody who could ensure a 50 was lying, but that he usually got fish in the 30’s and 40’s on nearly every trip, that 50’s weren’t unusual, and that it is simply an issue of time before someone gets an 80 or a 90.
Blue cats are taking off in the lower James. And there is a powerful catch and release ethic. There are men selling their bass boats for more seaworthy catfish craft. Harris amounts some of Richmond’s attorneys and investment bankers among his clientele. He will not let a customer kill any fish over 10 pounds.
“I had one man make an effort to tell me I hadn’t clarified that to him well enough. He was holding a 47-pound fish he needed to kill to reveal his pals. And I told him, ‘Look, you do not have to pay me for the excursion if you do not need to, but you are not gonna kill that fish.'” (Harris, 34, wrestled in school and still carries himself like a man who has not forgotten the moves. And when you attempted to kill a prize cat on his boat, he’d most likely be pleased to reveal you some.)
Figuring to set up a trip next spring or summer, I asked about dates. “Fishing’s quite popular right now,” he said. “How’s next Tuesday?” Now, I inquired, in the dead of winter? “Get my largest fish from November to April, ” Harris told me. He said a big cat needs feeding year round, and that winter will focus both the doldrums’ favourite food, gizzard shad, as well as the big fish themselves.
Our excursion begins auspiciously on a chilly morning a week after, when I walk down the boat ramp, slip on some ice, and land on my butt. Luckily, I am wearing about half of the Cabela’s winter catalogue, so the tough part is not the autumn but finding a means to get back up.
The very first order of business on any excursion, Harris tells me as he cranks the Yamaha 150, is fresh lure. We do a 20-minute frostbite run downstream to a feeder creek where gizzard shad may be faithfully netted. Entering, he restrains back and slowly patrols the water trying to find shad on his fishfinder. Meanwhile, he gives me the brief lessons on doldrums. Up until a fish reaches 20 pounds or so, it is essentially a scavenger.
It roams freely and will reach the chicken livers, Bloodworms, and Stinkbaits of the typical angler. Above that size, a wonderful transformation occurs. Sustained increase demands bigger and much more regular meals, or so the scavenger turns predator. Its favourite mouthful becomes the gizzard shad, a substantial (11- to 13-inch) Baitfish plentiful in the James year round. A big cat is, in addition, cannibalistic; a 35-pounder will make a bite of a 20-pounder. And it begins hanging out in deep construction close to the food-supplying present: dropoffs, crashes, submerged trees, deep holes, humps, stolen ballot boxes, armoured cars, heaps of human bones, whatever breaks the current.
“It took me about five years to find out the best way to throw this thing,” Harris says, standing on the bow with his weighted cast net. “The trick isn’t to push it.” He effortlessly gets it out into 20 feet of water in addition to a ball of shad he’s discovered on his Lowrance x85. The net magically blossoms to full size as it hits the water, and when it appears there are three large shad quivering in it. Shortly we’ve got a dozen and are headed further downriver to fish.
Following the 35-pounder as well as the visit from the friendly man together with the sneaky fingers, we pull the anchor and float only a hundred yards down to another station point. Harris looks at his Lowrance and reveals me four arcs he says are fish that can run in the 40-pound range. “Gotta get right in addition to the construction when it is cold like this. In the event that you are not getting hung up consistently, you are not fishing right.”
At 1:15, I hook up with a 34-pounder. Fifteen minutes after, a 26-pounder. This river–wide, deep, and almost devoid of boat traffic at this time of year but for the occasional large tugboat–is a health club for girthy cats. I begin researching my abdomen for new spots to anchor the pole. At 2:15, I hook into something huge that does not behave like the other fish. After an initial run, instead of coming up he gets a second wind and heads back for the underside.
He stops me. I can not attain line no matter how hard I pull. “That’s what we in the trade call a big fish,” Harris says casually. “See in the event you can bring him up before he wraps you.” I do, using more pressure, but now he is winning, choosing line and heading down. This is really a water buffalo, the neighbourhood enforcer, the form of fish I was dreaming around during the winter solstice. Abruptly the line breaks and everything goes slack. I reel in and feel where it’s abraded.
“That one might have gone 60, perhaps better,” Harris says. He sees the look on my face and grins. “Kinda cool, huh?” Yes indeed.
Just as large catfish are distinct, Harris describes as he is cutting up shad and I am reeling in the other lines to go to a brand new place, so is how you fish for them. He will not bury the hook in the lure or place small bells on the ends of his sticks. Nor does he place the drag light. He locks his reels down to stop the fish from running. A complete third of a shad goes on each rig, as well as the big red Daichi circle hook is totally exposed. “A large blue is the top predator in this river. It is not going to toy with a lure; it smash it and essentially hooks itself. The open hook provides you with a better set. And by locking the reel down, you keep lots of fish from running you into construction and breaking off.”
He throws that lure out on 40-pound-test mono or 100-pound-test Superbraid line with a 1- to 2-foot, 60-pound mono leader plus a 6- to 10-oz sinker, and then puts the pole in a holder. His taste is for a 7-foot flexible pole like a Berkley Big Cat with a sensitive point along with lots of anchor, and Penn 310 and Shimano Tidewater reels with a 4.3:1 gear ratio. He will fish up to 10 sticks at a time in a fan design off the rear of the boat. Now we are fishing eight.
We move on to one last deep hole, which Harris has dubbed Close Call after the time that one of the large tugboats that ply the James almost ran him down here in heavy fog. It is just 35 feet deep, with a great deal of arcs on the fishfinder. At 4:40, I get a 40-pounder. Just before five o’clock I get a 44, a fish provided that my thigh and larger around. It struggles the way the first one did, just on a bigger scale: potently but patiently until it sees the boat, at which point it goes ape. My arms are giving out. I can just lift the thing for a fast photo. My abdomen hurts everywhere. I have now got five fish weighing 179 pounds. There are shad guts and catfish slime all over my clothing. I’m having the time of my entire life.
“I desire to attempt an additional spot, only to demonstrate you do not have to be in deep water to get big fish,” Harris says. We reel in, fire up, and head to a close by feeder creek where he is got some of his largest doldrums. The sun is virtually gone. We cast out as well as wait as the darkness rises up. Eventually we get a hit. It is just a little one. Harris does not even need to weigh it; he is embarrassed. However , I insist. It tips the scale at 10 pounds. By any other Cat fishing I Have done, this will be a banner fish. Outside here it resembles lure.
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