News & Features » Cover Story

The Quest for the 100-Pound Catfish

The giant blues deep in the James are becoming famous among fishermen. But the triumph of the catfish has altered the river ecology forever.



The water is 56 degrees — almost tropical for January, because of the water discharge from the nearby power plant. But the air is frigid enough for Ostrander, founder of the James River Fishing School, to turn on "South Carolina," the smaller of his two propane heaters. The other one is called "Florida."

He casts six lines, each with a shad fillet the size of his palm threaded on a round hook. "The big guys want to eat a good fresh meal," Ostrander says.

He's right. In the dark water a primal mind awakes, enticed by a ribbon of blood and oil.

The line quivers. Zzzzzzz, purrs the clicker as the line reels out. Let it go a bit, Ostrander advises, to set the hook. Then "you're gonna sweep it on back."

The fish fights hard. It valiantly pulls away from the boat, then abruptly changes course and heads underneath the hull. But the line is too short; the fish nears the surface, an indistinct silver submersible fiercely determined not to go into the cruel dryness above. Ostrander deftly nets it and thud, it hits the deck.

The catfish, croaking its unhappiness, weighs 34 pounds and measures longer than a yardstick — 3 feet, 3 inches from snout to tail.

It's big. But it's not The Big One.

Ostrander's personal record is 54 pounds. The boat record is 65. The river record is 83.5, and the state record is 92 pounds, 4 ounces.

Somewhere in the James lurks a catfish that eclipses all these feeble figures.

No one has seen it, but fishermen like Ostrander are convinced it exists. And they're bent on finding it.

They prowl the James on biting January days, in the cold water that's best for catching big 'uns. "You strictly gotta be a die-hard fisherman" to go out then, says fishing guide Chris Eberwien.

On summer nights they stand like herons at Ancarrow's Landing on the south side of the James, near the city's wastewater treatment plant. They stay out on the river from 7 at night till 7 in the morning, fumbling with bloody bait, hoping to prevail against the invisible giants below.

All this for a quarry too hideous to stick on a plaque and hang in the den and too toxic to eat.

They're hunting something bigger than life.

They're hunting the 100-pound catfish.

hy catfish?" says avid cat-catcher Petey Bourne. He answers himself: "They're just big."

Yup. Like Mount Everest, they're big, and they're there.

Unlike Mount Everest, catfish ain't pretty. "Spectacularly ugly" might be a better term. Blue catfish have blue-gray backs, scaleless and slimy, that shade to whitish bellies. The big ones' pectoral fins are thick as thumbs and conceal blunt spines.

Framed by fleshy whiskers, their toothless mouths gape as wide as their body. A band of serrated, toothlike ridges on the jawbone, used to keep prey from escaping, leaves catfishermen with hatch-marked scrapes on their hands.

The fish are sometimes covered with lesions and occasionally sport weirdly forked whiskers (what the scientists call a bifurcated barbel).

Rarely, they have three eyes.

Eberwien swears to it. "I've caught three of them," he says.

The first was seven years ago in the James, at the October East Coast Catfish Championship. His catch weighed 33.5 pounds and had a third eye about two inches in front of the gill plate. The eye worked; Eberwien watched it follow his moving hand. In 2002, Eberwien says, "I'm almost certain I caught the same fish again." This time it weighed 51 pounds.

Then four months ago, he was fishing with his son Dustin and hooked a 43-pounder. A third eye stared from the top of its head.


Flopping on deck, blue cats appear defenseless with their pathetically gaping mouths and unwieldy bodies. They lack all the lovely, muscular sleekness of marlin or tuna. But in the water, a big cat puts up a great fight.

Bourne, an auto mechanic, grew up in Hanover County fishing for small cats and brim with his father and grandfather. In his 20s and early 30s he took to bass fishing. Then a friend took him catfishing.

"The first fish I pulled in was 32 pounds, and it just pulled so strong," Bourne reminisces with relish. And then he realized something: "I can't get this kind of fun unless I go deep-sea fishing."

That day, Bourne and the cat both were hooked. He's now the weighmaster for the 55-member Virginia Catfish Association — the man who officially weighs fish brought in during tournaments. This job has only sharpened his desire to catch a record-breaker himself.

"There's two 80-pound fish that I have seen," Bourne says. "It just makes me hungry for it."

Bourne goes out on the James with his wife most every chance he gets. "If I don't catch a fish there's nothing lost," he says. "But if I do catch a fish, my friends start talking."

Bourne is a believer. "I do believe there are 100-pound fish in there," he says. And he wants it.

The reason is simple, he says: "To be the first person in the state to do it. Honestly. It's the prestige of it. Everybody wants to be the top person."

So whenever Bourne lands a big one, he makes sure, he says, to put it back gently. "'Cause I want to catch him again when he gets bigger."

Most people think of catfish as submarine trash collectors, Hoovering up any decaying carcasses they find on the bottom. This is only partially true.

Blue cats are opportunistic predators, which means they'll devour anything they find: whole freshwater mussels, blue crabs, songbirds, chicken bones. "They can ingest anything that is a third of their size or smaller," Virginia Commonwealth University professor Greg Garman says.

For the first eight years of their life, baby blues mostly suck muck and scavenge until they grow to be about 5 pounds. "It's just this kind of slow growth, flat growth," fisheries biologist Bob Greenlee says, "until they just get big enough to figure out how to stuff those gizzard shad in their throats."

Catfish are efficient eating machines. They hang motionless where bait fish are abundant, waiting for a juicy fish to swim in range before they strike. They devour white perch, herring and all kinds of shad. And like sumo wrestlers on all-sushi diets, they determinedly pack on the weight.

To discover how fast they grow, the game department conducts a curious sort of research. Staff go out in specially equipped boats that discharge a low-frequency electric pulse into the river. The pulse stuns all the catfish in the vicinity (only the catfish are sensitive to electric impulses), which then float to the top of the water.

Staff then speed around in little boats, trying to scoop up as many white bellies as they can before the cats wake up. Waving nets and wheeling the boats in furious circles, they act like cowboys in a river rodeo.

"Yo yo yo yo yo," shouts fisheries biologist Eric Brittle in a recent flathead-catching session. "Behind the boat! Scott, behind the boat!" Boisterous laughter erupts when two men go for the same big cat and miss.

After a few minutes, the fish right themselves and flutter back underwater. The unlucky ones circle in big tanks on the boats. Researchers will kill them and remove their ear bones, called otoliths, which have growth rings like trees. It's the only way to determine their age.

From samples like these, the game department has found that by age 10, the average weight of a James blue cat is 20 pounds. By age 11, they average 30 pounds. By age 15, they hit 50 to 60 pounds.

Fishermen first began catching 50-pounders in the James in 1996. The game department issued more than 100 citations for cats of that size in 2003 and again in 2004. A citation is a recognition of trophy-sized fish, issued by the game department. Any blue cat weighing 20 pounds or more used to qualify for a citation; at the beginning of 2005, the game department raised the bar to 30 pounds.

In 2004, Greenlee says, the first reports of 80-pounders came in.

Some fish grow much faster than others. The 92-pound state-record fish, caught in Buggs Island Lake near South Boston, was only 11 years old.

Greenlee theorizes that the upper limit for a James blue cat has been rising by 10 pounds every three years. As long as the forage base of gizzard shad holds out, the biggest fish will keep growing bigger — to 90 pounds, 100 pounds or more.

Historical reports from the Mississippi River, the blue cats' native home, say some specimens once reached lengths of 5 to 6 feet and weighed as much as 120 pounds.

The world-record blue cat, caught in Illinois, stands at 124 pounds. The world-record catfish, period, was a 646-pound Mekong giant catfish caught last year in northern Thailand, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

Blue cats likely won't get that big. But "the upper threshold of what these fish can achieve is pretty much undocumented," Greenlee says.

"Within the next year or two, I think somebody's going to get one over a hundred," Eberwien says.

Eberwien caught the record-setting James cat in December 2004 while fishing near Dutch Gap, by Henricus Historical Park. He was as surprised as anyone, he says, to discover that the big blue weighed in at 83.5 pounds, measuring 54.5 inches long.

But soon, he says, cats of that size will become commonplace. In a five-week period last winter, Eberwien caught an 81-pounder, three more weighing more than 70 pounds and 26 in the 60-pound range.

The existence of such monster fish is little known even in the vicinity of the river. Eberwien once pulled out photos of his champion catches at a Dairy Queen a short drive from the James. "Good God, where did you catch that?" people asked him.

Word of the James cats is spreading elsewhere, however. Eberwien, who's been a guide for 10 years, says he's taken out clients from Canada, Maine, Tennessee, Texas and Georgia, among other places. Ostrander has seen them come from Kansas, Colorado and Florida. He's even taken out another professional guide from New York.

"Right now, Virginia is unbelievable," Bourne says. Catfish are growing bigger and bigger not only in the James but also the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi and other rivers, he says. And more and more people are catching them.

It's no wonder. One study has found that blue cats make up perhaps 75 percent of the biomass of all fish in a section of the James near Hopewell. This is great news for fishermen, but a dire omen for the ecology of the river.

"That's not the way natural ecosystems are supposed to work," says Garman, who is director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Environmental Studies. Blue catfish are apex predators, meaning they're at the top of the food chain. Eagles and herons may eat them when they're small, but a large catfish has no natural predators. In any ecosystem, apex predators are supposed to be greatly outnumbered by prey species; think vast herds of antelope and small prides of lions.

"It's a fascinating kind of experiment," Garman says, "where let's take an ecosystem and turn it on its head, as it were, and see what happens."

The blue and flathead catfish, both native to the Mississippi River, were introduced to the James in the mid-1970s. The river was in such poor, polluted condition back then, Greenlee says, that game officials figured they would play Johnny Appleseed and toss in some blues and flatheads. Better cats live in the James than nothing, they thought.

"It was to create recreational fisheries," Garman says, "so that people would have a motivation to go out and buy fishing licenses." At the time, such tinkering was accepted, seen by some as simply filling a vacant ecological niche.

Today, introducing alien species to a river ecosystem is anathema. "The introduction of the blue catfish and the flathead in the James and the York and the Potomac rivers would be kind of like if we introduced tigers and grizzly bears into the Virginia woods," says Garman, who's studied catfish for 15 years. Native species are much smaller and include no similarly voracious predator.

The full impact of the cats' presence is yet unknown. Thus far, Garman says, researchers have found that the cats' competition with native species has altered the fish community of the James and other Virginia rivers.

For instance, the largest catfish native to Virginia is the white catfish, which grows to a maximum of 5 or 6 pounds. In the '50s and '60s, Garman says, they were "pretty darn abundant." There now remain only a few locations in Virginia where you can consistently catch white catfish, he says — such as the Piankatank and Dragon Run rivers in Middlesex County — and there, blue cats are not common.

The reign of the big cats may affect other ecosystems, too. Because blues eat so much and live so long (the oldest specimen Garman has come across was 29), chemicals such as the carcinogenic insecticide Kepone, PCBs and breakdown products of DDT become concentrated in their tissues over time.

"The blue cat is essentially a pathway for some of these chemical contaminants," he says. That's why people are warned against eating James cats, especially the big ones.

A recent study by Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary, found that catfish make up about half the diet of bald eagles living near the James. There's no evidence that eagles are being affected by chemicals in the fish, Garman says, but "folks are kind of keeping a close eye on it."

There's no going back to the days when the James was populated entirely by native species. Even smallmouth bass are aliens, introduced to the river in the late 1800s.

"There is nothing that we can do at this point, except certainly put our guard up, and let's not deliberately introduce any more non-native species," Garman says. And even if there existed some way to remove all the cats from the James, he says, it's unlikely that would come to pass. "There's a very vocal group of folks out there that think these catfish are absolutely terrific and they're fun to catch."

It's true. There's just something about those big cats.

Ostrander recalls a recent client who hired him for an all-afternoon and -evening trip. The guy happily trolled for cats until 3 a.m. with his girlfriend and friends. The guide found out later that his client had been released from jail in Northern Virginia that very day.

Ralph White, manager of the James River Park System, went catfishing with Ostrander last year while he was suspended from his duties for two weeks, a controversial punishment for letting birdwatchers and other park patrons into the park before and after official hours.

White has long been a proponent of starting an urban fishery program that uses neither hook or line, instead giving people the opportunity to touch and see the cats and other fish in their natural habitat. But that day, he wanted to catch a big cat. And he did. White, 62, hooked a 60-pounder, a "hard-fighting fish," and he refused any help. "He was like Old Man of the Sea with that fish, 'cause his reel broke," Ostrander says.

White persevered, busted knuckles and all. "It took me over an hour to land it," White says. "Because I wanted to really win." He threw the fish back afterward.

One would think that fishing guides, sick of the smell of shad, would stay away from the water on their days off. Maybe go golfing or watch some TV. But no, they like to go catfishing. "Me and my son, we go all the time," Eberwien says.

On June 6, Eberwien became a grandfather. The baby boy, Daimen, will be reeling in his first catfish soon, he hopes. "I can't wait to get him out there," he says.

For six months, Richmond native Russ Wallaesa lived in Equatorial Guinea on a tropical island of steam and snakes, overseeing the laying of pipelines for natural gas.

In early April, a 30-hour journey brought him home, where Wallaesa sought a cure for the long separation from his 18-year-old son, Pete. He found it in the green depths of the James, in a hard tug on a nylon line.

"Pete, c'mon," urges guide Ostrander.

"C'mon Pete!" Wallaesa says.

Intent on his catch, Pete steadily reels in the line, dipping his rod to give it some slack. A stubborn mass, big and pale, rises unwillingly and Ostrander snares it with a large net.

A fat blue catfish lies at Pete's feet, thumping the floor of the boat with its tail.

It's not the mythical 100-pounder. But that doesn't matter.

"That's the biggest fish you ever caught!" exclaims Russ Wallaesa, who has brought in a 12-pound striper almost simultaneously. Pete regards his cat with pride and hoists it up with some effort. "He's croaking," he says.

At 39 inches and 33 pounds, the fish is worthy of a citation issued by the game department. "That's a beautiful catfish," Ostrander says.

"Beautiful," is, of course, a term used generously. The fish is actually slimy, small-eyed and bewhiskered. After a few photos, Pete heaves it back into the water.

"That was cool," he says.

"That was cool," says his father.

The waters around Equatorial Guinea are a sport fisherman's dream, teeming with marlins and sailfish and other ferocious fighters. But Wallaesa only wanted to be here on the cool green James, fishing for blue cats with his son. S

  • Click here for more Cover Stories