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Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved fishing for catfish. Maybe it's because it was the first type of fish that I caught with my Dad from the pay pond around the corner from my neighborhood. Maybe it's just the simplicity in fishing for them. Put a gob of bait on a hook under a bobber (or with just a weight), cast out, and wait for a bite. Maybe it's the excitement knowing that you may catch a fish weighing a pound. Or 10 pounds. Or maybe even 100 pounds.

In 2009, as I was transitioning from the Navy back into the civilian world, I had one glorious month of leave (vacation) to spend any way that I want. So I caught-up on my sleep. And fishing. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries happened to be hosting a workshop on fishing for flathead catfish, which I gladly signed-up for. For 10 years, they held this workshop, teaching dozens of novice and advanced fisherman how to fish for flathead catfish in the James River. Department employees and local guides served as mentors for these workshops, which provided all of the equipment, bait, and instruction for a nominal fee. After some basic instructions, the classes would wade out to several spots in the river to fish with live bream and goldfish. After catching several catfish during the class and I was "hooked". Imagine standing waist deep in gin clear water, catching the biggest catfish in your life and have it swim circles around you until you grab it by the mouth... it's exciting to say the least.

Fast forward to now. Unfortunately, the VDGIF discontinued their flathead workshops last year, due to the dwindling numbers of catfish being caught by classes each successive year. It saddened me to hear that, as that workshop had helped me to rekindle a love of fishing that had been nearly extinguished by the rigors of college and service in the Navy. However, I kept in touch with one of my instructors, Capt Mike Ostrander, and started going on guided trips with him every other year or so.

This year, I took my neighbor (also named Mike) and his 8-year-old son, Jordan, fishing with me. I don't think that Jordan had ever caught a fish more than a few pounds, so I wanted to give him a chance to “wrassle” with something that would give him a workout. We would not be disappointed.

We started our trip launching from Huguenot Flatwater, to drift down river for a bit to add some frisky baits to our minnow buckets. The river was super clear and we had visibility in certain areas down to 8’, which means that you can watch the baitfish smash your jigs. We caught some bluegill, pumpkinseed, and a few small bass for bait. We also watched eagles, osprey, and herons fly above and gar, carp, and catfish swim below. It’s really an amazing river system with an incredible diversity of species, flowing right through the heart of the city. After floating for an hour or so, we reached the “Z” dam, and carried our bait and dry bag through the portage passage on land while Capt Mike carefully pushed our raft over the small spillway. Now it was time for the main event.

Mike uses a fairly simply set-up for catfish that is very effective. He prefers a sturdy baitcast combo loaded with 30 lb hi-vis monofilament, connected via swivel to 1’ of 50-80 lb monofilament leader, with a snell knot connecting an 8/0 circle hook. Above the swivel is a 2 oz bank sinker on a sinker slider. Simple, but effective.

Our first hole yielded several progressively larger fish, all reeled in by our junior fisherman. First, a rough looking 6 lb blue catfish, followed by a rough looking 10lb blue cat, and then the first biggun’ of the day. Jordan struggled for a good 5 minutes to reel in his whopper, which turned out to be a 26lb flathead catfish. The look of excitement / terror on his face when Capt Mike plopped it onto his lap was priceless.

We hit several more holes and Jordan and his dad began racking up the fish. Meanwhile, I began to worry about the skunk I was starting to smell. In hindsight, I probably would not have missed several catfish had I actually been listening to Mike instruct Jordan on how to use his reel (throw the bait out, reel up the slack, the put it in free spool with the clicker on and just enough drag to hold it in place, but still let a fish run with the bait). Eventually, I realized my error and started catching fish.

We ended the day with 12-14 fish caught between the three of us. We nearly had a triple toward the end of our trip, but unfortunately, the feisty little flathead that I was holding in the water had plans elsewhere and broke free of my grip. Shortly afterwards, I would hook into my big fish.

The big fish of the day nearly wasn’t. When he started taking off with my bait, I reeled down and then reared back to bury the hook. I felt almost instantly that he was snagged on something and thought that would be the end of it. Suddenly, my line slacked off and I thought I had lost it. Whatever the fish had been snagged on gave way and the fish started charging upstream, past our raft, and managed to turn the entire boat nearly 180 degrees. After causing some chaos onboard (we had just caught another catfish in addition to having several baits out), I got my first look at the fish and saw that it was hefty. Unfortunately, I also noticed that my line was pretty chaffed from whatever had snagged me earlier and began silently praying that it held-up long enough to get the fish in the boat.. After 1-2 tense minutes of slowly guiding the beast towards the rear of the boat, Capt Mike jammed a gloved hand into the fish’s mouth. Shortly afterwards, it tipped his certified scale at 34 lbs, a new personal best flathead for me. (Mike has also guided me to a 51 lb personal best blue cat in the James, but that is another story for another time…)

As we were getting read to wrap-up, Jordan lost another catfish, but then almost immediately was handed another rod that had just started to bow. Another boy vs. fish struggle resulted in a marbled 24 lb beauty that was the exclamation point on a great day of fishing.


So, if you’ve managed to read all the way through this novella and would like to catch fish like this, give Captain Mike a call. I have taken friends and family ranging from 8 years old to 80+ years old. All of them have caught fish and enjoyed their trips. Mike is extremely knowledgable about the James River ecosystem and can talk extensively about everything in the water and the sky (he also does guided tours for the local Bald Eagle population… I have watched him throw a fish to one of his eagle friends and watch them circle above it and snatch it out of the water…) Visit DiscovertheJames.com for more information on his various trips. There's also some nice video of our trip available here:

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Photo Jun 15, 9 28 26 AM.jpg
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Photo Jun 15, 12 13 48 PM.jpg
 

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Great story and pictures. Thanks for posting it.
 

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I couldn't agree more about Mike Ostrander. Nice guy and a heck of a guide. But I've pretty much given up on Pony Pasture. Fished it once this season and didn't do anything. I think it's popularity has killed it for now. I've found other places.
 
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