These three happy clients show the possibilities of James River tidal catfishing.
Tips for Finding and Catching Tidal Water Blues
by Ron Presley
Know when to fish the tides and put more cats in the boat.
Tidal water offers certain challenges to trophy catfish anglers. The tides make a difference, especially for the bigger catfish. The James River in Virginia is a case in point. Captain “Big John” Garland describes the cold weather blues as big, fat, and lazy. Offering the right baits at the right time is essential to having a good day.
“Big John” is a well-known and successful guide (Screaming Reel Charters) on the James. He is known for the large number of citation catfish (30 pounds or 38 inches) he finds for his clients. He has spent many years developing his catfishing skills, 11 of those years as a fishing guide. He willingly shares his tips and techniques with others, including his knowledge of fishing tidal waters.
In this video, Capt. John demonstrates how he throws his cast net to catch fresh bait.
“We are looking at a six-hour tide,” explains Garland. “The tide consists of six hours incoming and six hours outgoing. The last two hours of an outgoing tide and the first two hours on an incoming tide can be deadly on big catfish. The fish feed during these periods because they don’t have to exert a lot of energy to find their next meal. They just sit there and let the tidal currents bring the food to them.”
He defines the biggest challenge of fishing tidal waters as developing a pattern based on what the tide is doing at any particular time of the year and what the fish are doing.
“Tides affect the fish in various ways,” explained Garland. “Mostly, the tides provide the current to bring the bait to the fish. The catfish take every advantage of this opportunity around bridges, rock piles, ledges, and underwater humps. You will naturally develop more confidence in where to fish as you spent time on the water.”
Garland normally fishes with a Carolina rig. He prefers 8/0 to 10/0 circle hooks on his rigs. He uses 80-pound fluorocarbon or mono with a sinker slide and a bead to protect his knots. On his sinker slide he adds 8 to 16 ounce no roll sinkers depending on the depth and current of the river.
Fresh bait is a top priority for Garland. He prefers shad that he catches by gillnet or castnet on the day he is fishing. That way it is “nice and fresh and bloody!” If that proves unsuccessful, he uses jigs to catch brim or white perch as an alternative cut bait.
“One of my keys to success in the winter months is locating bait,” continued Garland. “Catfish love to have their meals nearby for easy access. They don’t like burning up energy in search of food.”
“When it comes to catching gizzard shad, I prefer the gillnet,” continued Garland. “I use this net in the pits and flats. Look for the shad flipping on the surface or pay attention to your depth finder when locating your bait. Some fishermen prefer a sinking gillnet which is fine but my choice is a gillnet with floats because the floats will bounce when the fish are caught in my net.”
“Those bouncing floats are a beautiful sight to see in the morning or evening,” added Garland. “You start the trip knowing that you will have fresh bait. Check your rules and regulations in your area for gillnet use before you purchase one.”
“The same tactics apply all year long,” stated Garland. “However, in the colder months like February I will downsize my bait. The fish seem to prefer the smaller baits. Also, during the winter months I fish the flats more because they warm up quickly and the bait will be there. If the bait is there, the cats will also show up.”
Tidal water fishing has its challenges along with promising rewards. Gauging the best tides to fish and where to be on the river all come with experience. Garland, for example, loves to fish the mouths of creeks on a moving tide. These areas can produce hot action when the bait is there because the cats realize that the current will bring the bait in and out giving them an opportunity to feed.
“Patience is a big part of my February strategy,” advised Garland. “I tell my clients to be patient and sit as long as necessary to give the fish time to eat. Big fish don’t get to trophy size by making mistakes. I tell my customers that trophy catfishing is similar to deer hunting. Hunters have to wait on the buck and anglers have to wait on the fish of their dreams to take the offering. Patience is need to allow the fish time to adjust to the dropping of the anchor and casting multiple rods into the water.”
“I have been catfishing for 30 years,” concluded Garland. “I have enjoyed my journey in this business. Remember safety first always, dress for the weather, and maintain your vessel properly. Finally, enjoy your time on the water with a friend and feed the cats. I look forward to seeing you on the water.”