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Fishing the James River

27th Mar 2020 James Walton

Fishing the James River

When you have a river close by you should spend time with it. It’s a like a good neighbor, one you can confide in.

I remember the first time I realized that I was on a lifetime adventure. Some bodies of water are a lifetime adventures, it will take a lifetime to enjoy them, and that can be said about the James River. We were returning from a long day on the Lower James River which becomes a tidal river below the fall line.

This time, we hit the tidal James for giant blue catfish. Roaring through the water, pushed by our 150 horsepower motor I realized that this river was as long as the state! It spans many different regions and offers opportunities to chase many different species of fish.

At 30 years old, I realized I would have to give the rest of my life to fully appreciate the James River at its full potential. And because of this you must understand I am extremely biased!

River City Fishing

There was a 30 foot channel dredged into the James River downstream from the fall line. 30 feet is a long way down in the murky waters. However, not far upstream you find a growing urban cityscape that allows for plenty of fishing on foot and by kayak.

Popular jaunts like Pony Pasture can put you on the other end of a 10lb flathead catfish. A popular rig for these guys, that get as big as 30lbs, is the use of live bluegill rigged on a sinker and cast below falls.

The hunt for bronze backs in spring and summer, walking dams north of the city, is about as unique a fishing adventure as they come. The flyrod is just as welcomed in these waters as your bait casting reel. The James features massive rocks that provide great cover for smallmouth, gar, catfish and panfish. I have caught some decent largemouth bass in this part of the river, too!

Monolithic Blue Cats with Horsepower

From sandy bottomed creek shoes to the comforts of boat speeding over the water, serious catfishing is quite different than smallmouth fishing in the James.

Using a quality depth finder makes life much easier and you can fly around the river looking for deep cover in the summer or shallow schools of sparse shad in the winter. We like to traverse these tidal waters with a powerful 150 horsepower motor, but switch to a trolling motor once we find our spot. 

There are many boaters on these waters in the summer and you see pontoon boats and bass boats very often. Adding a pontoon trolling motor to the family pontoon boat, or a transom mount trolling motor to an old jon boat are easy ways to get on the water on a budget. 

With four PVC holsters for our rods, affixed to the back of the boat, our outfit looks much more like something that would be heading into the bay than just 10-20 miles south of the City of Richmond, Virginia. 80lb test, 16oz sinkers and buckets of live shad are how you do the deed.

You need some special gear when you are hauling in 50lb blue catfish! The James is hardly topping out at catches in the 50s. There have been catfish caught in the James river over 100lbs!

A diet heavy on gizzard shad allows these fish to get that big. They even visit the brackish water to scoop up foods like blue crab.

Bombing around the tidal James must be done with a sturdy backbone. We have faced days where the water is as still as glass and others where the waves capped like something out in the bay. The biggest cats demand a good boat and an engine that can take you down stream where they are hiding.

Kayaking the Upper James for Incredible Smallmouth

From a tidal monolith that feeds the Chesapeake Bay to a river that can be crossed on foot in the summer, the James River has a range that many fisheries do not.

This is a fly fisherman and a kayak anglers dream! The upper James boasts many smallmouth over 20 inches each year. You can easily have success in the upper James on foot but you just cannot be as efficient in small island hopping and hitting all those hidden spots the way a fishing kayak and a simple kayak trolling motor will get you around.

I have even seen fisherman getting it done with inflatable kayaks!

By the way, if you go far enough north you will be able be able to take advantage of a stocked Musky fishery! At the headwaters of the James, Musky are stocked and can be had in the spring for the best opportunities!

Trolling the Barge Pits for Largemouth Bass

As if that weren’t enough, there is another lunker of an opportunity to consider. Off the main channel of the James you will find several shallow back waters called the barge pits. These are incredible spots to pull up and drop your trolling motor and hunt for big mouths.

These pits are pretty shallow and sometimes require you raise your motor depending on the time of year. However, you can rest assured that you will have some fun. We flip frogs and dingers in the early season for action. Sometimes the old pork jigs can have big success, too. Trolling these barge pits requires a reliable onboard battery and some patience. 

Depending on the size of the boat you are in you might also need to keep an eye on your depth finder, as there are some shallow spots where you can run aground.

Conclusion

Again, I come at this with a deep knowledge of the river and admittedly a serious bias. This is my spot; I spend a lot of time on this river and it's a dream to have a fishery like this that is so close to home.

You can find your own piece of heaven, though. For the boating fisherman, its important to find yourself a river that has serious diversity of species and fishing opportunities. Something that can also be achieved during seasonal fishing in lakes, ponds and reservoirs.

However, if you are on a coast, there is a good chance you have at least one river nearby that can be explored from the coast to the inlands of its home state or states.

It's easy to get tied up in this idea of fishing a bunch of cool spots all around the country. TV hosts have to do that to keep your attention, and the same with magazines and the like. I would like to offer you another thought, what if you could catch world class fish up and down the river that is just down the road or a short drive away?

It might be worth docking in those same waters and using several different boats and tackle to better know one river than to struggle and spend to visit them all. Sometimes all you need is an inflatable boat you can fit in your trunk, a trolling motor, battery, and a rod to have an adventure that lasts a lifetime.