Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Welcome to the Thunderdome

Welcome to the Thunderdome

            With my kayak on the operating table at Appomattox River Company in Farmville, receiving her necessary repairs for my expedition to Texas, I was left without a rig to continue chasing my Smallmouth Bass citation.  This has been the first time in nearly four years since I've been without a way to get on the water; needless to say it’s been a rather off putting period of time. With really no other option, I decided to kick it old school and fish in the style that truly got me started in “real deal” big game angling. That style would be wade fishing, more specifically, wade fishing for the big beautiful beast of the boulders, the Flathead Catfish. Now, any angler who is from here or currently resides here knows full well of the capabilities this city has for such an activity. Richmond is one of the few cities in the entire country where fishing of this style and caliber are present within view of high rise office buildings and high populated areas, an “urban oasis” in every form.

(photo: Brian Vincent)

            With the weekend fast approaching,  my buddy Adam and I quickly devised a plan that would get us out on the water bright and early Saturday morning to chase these beasts, and with any luck one of us would have a few picture worthy fish. As we set the plan into motion I decided to give my longtime friend Jack a call, he had been wanting to chase some flatties so this was an ample opportunity to put him on some fish.

            We all met at sunrise to catch bait, Adam and I both running on very little sleep and Jack joining us fresh off of the night shift with the road paving crews of I-288. Though we were reasonably sluggish, we gathered bait pretty quickly and hit the James. We felt good about the day ahead of us. The water was unseasonably cool for July compared to its normal bathwater temperature and the sky was ominously gray with clouds, potentially yielding rain, ideal conditions to keep foot traffic down. Perfect conditions for stalking a giant.

(photo: Adam Chavez)

I led us to the first spot of the day, nicknamed “The Thunderdome” it is a very high pressured area, although, if targeted at the correct time it could yield some very large flatties. It wasn’t long before we got into our first fish of the day. Jack nailed a nice cookie cutter flatty at about 36 inches, a nice way to break the ice for both the trip, and his long flatheadless streak since moving to the mountains and back to RVA.

It wasn’t long after the first fish when he stuck the second.

            However, this fish wasn’t playing any games. It muscled down to the bottom of the whole, ripping drag off of the Abu 7000, using its powerful tail to try and avoid capture. After a few moments of back talk from the beast it was all over, Jack was awarded his second flathead since returning to Richmond, and the first citation of his life. The big girl went a long 40 inches and a chunky 26 pounds, which is a pretty impressive feat to get a citation weight in the middle of July, flathead just aren’t as heavy this time of year.

            The rest of the day turned out to be more of the same, Jack landed another good fish, Adam broke off two heavy fish that took him into the rocks, and I managed one tiny flatty…. Although, I wasn’t too disappointed in my catch. I was more happy for Jack and relatively pleased at my ability to guide someone to fish, adding a little promise to the potential future of me becoming a licensed guide, but that’s neither here nor there.

            Sunday we had planned to duplicate the trip from the day before. We felt that we left some meat on the bone when it came to a few holes so we decided to hit them again and see which individuals we left behind. I got up a little later than originally intended and was slightly alarmed to find that I had no missed calls or texts. Come to find out my partners in crime did the same thing I did…. Except they extended their slumber a few hours longer. Normally I’d be a little upset that I had to go at it alone, but I looked at this as a chance to redeem myself for the previous day.

            I hit the water under the same conditions as the day before, dreary and cool, horrible weather if you’re a hipster dude trying to “explore” or a tan chick trying to catch melanoma….. perfect weather for a bearded fish reaper with an eye for the big girls, flathead that is.

            I targeted the all the spots in reverse, saving the Thunderdome for last. I started off with a decent fish at about 35 inches. She put up a good fight and even ripped a little drag, a good feeling after a few weeks without some serious pullage.

I arrived at the Thunderdome unsure of what to expect. We had pulled a few fish out already and I was uncertain whether or not they’d be spooked from the previous day. That question got answered for me about 30 second after my bait hit the water. Instant gratification came by way of brown beast. It didn’t let up for another 30 minutes, my bait would hit the water and wouldn’t be down there long enough to get its bearings before it was engulfed!

After running out of bait I decided to give it a rest. I took an hour long nap on one of the smooth river rocks to end the day, soaking up all the good fishing from the hours prior. It’s not too often that we come upon these days; cool weather, amazing water, low foot traffic, great fishing, and good friends, especially in mid-July on the weekend… that’s almost unheard of! It’s always great to have company, but I will forever cherish the solo days on the James where there are no people to be found. Just myself, the ancient rock of times long gone, the ever flowing water… here before us, here after us, nature thriving in perfect harmony, as peaceful as you could ever imagine….. until you set the hook.

Fish Hard or Stay Home,

Josh Dolin

Monday, July 14, 2014

Targeting Summer Redfish in Virginia's Estuaries

Targeting Summer Redfish in Virginias Estuaries

            Redfish, Puppy Drum, Spot Tails, Pups or Reds. Whatever you call them one thing remains the same, everyone loves to catch them!  Once Mid April arrives the thought on many of Virginias inshore anglers minds is catching these hard fighting fish.  Redfish arrive in the Chesapeake in the Spring each year and head south out of the Bay in late Fall to early Winter, with a few fish hanging around in the marshes and inlets all year long. My favorite way to target these fish is on a fly rod but I will cover that in another post. For now, I will be touching on some of my most effective ways to target redfish on spinning and casting gear.

            First of all, you need to know where to start looking.  Redfish prefer to cruise the shallow flats and marshes in search of crabs, shrimp, finger mullet, bunker, mud minnows and whatever else they can get there mouth on. Most of the first few miles of Virginias tidal rivers (where they meet the bay) will hold Reds, but it’s not rare for Reds to be caught well up river.  Bass fishermen often catch a few each year in the Chickahominy River off of the James.  I wouldn’t recommend going looking for them this far inland though. My favorite places to fish for them is in the salt marshes around Mobjack Bay.  Mobjack is known for having a massive population of Redfish throughout the season and it would be pretty hard to pound the grass lines in any random area  and not catch at least one. Mobjack is a large area no doubt, but it can be easy to rule out areas to look for these fish.  Yes, drum love grass flats, and Mobjack is full of them…(miles and miles of them).  I prefer to look for the flats that are close to a channel edge.  I have found over the years that I seem to catch more and larger Reds around a flat with quick access to deeper water, especially on a falling tide.  As the tide drops they can forage for food easily on the flat and if they get scared or the water drops too low they can retreat to the channel and wait out the low.  Although it is not rare to see reds practically belly crawling through inches of water munching on crabs. Sometimes you are in a location that has nothing but 3-5 foot deep grass flats. No problem, there are Redfish there too.  The easiest way to locate them in these areas is to look for the sand pockets in the grass.  The pockets in the grass allow the drum to sit and wait for bait to swim over the grass and be exposed, the drum use these grass pockets as ambush points. In a location like this you basically have to hop from one pocket to the next, it can be frustrating but very rewarding as well.  In all of these situations I prefer a falling tide, but fish can be caught on an incoming tide as well.

            Now that you know where to look, you probably want to know what to throw. The good news is Reds aren’t too picky.  They will take a variety of baits from soft plastics of many styles and colors to modified saltwater spinnerbaits and buzzbaits to hardbaits such as MirroLures and Bomber’s Badonkadonk. Redfish aren’t shy about topwater either, even though it can be hilarious watching them head butt a bait 3 or 4 times before giving up due to their mouth being downward (they do get hooked pretty often too).  I will talk about each bait in the way that I find it most appropriately used.


            When you arrive in a new location, you should first be thinking about covering some water, a good bait to do this with would be a swimbait like a Salt Water Assassin 4” paddle tail or a Gulp Alive 4” Pogy.  I prefer to put the SWA on a 3/0, 1/8oz. keel weighted swimbait hook if there is a lot of grass for a more weedless presentation.  I put the Pogy on a Jig head when I am fishing grass lines and channel edges.  Both of these baits I do a combination of a swim and hop retrieve.  I like to swim the bait 3-5 feet or so and them allow it to hop on the bottom for about the same distance, and then repeat.  This is a medium speed retrieve and Reds love it!  Another good bait for searching for Reds is the very popular Redfish Magic Spinnerbaits.  I cast these long distances and cover area on the flats, either slow roll them or speed it up, but I have found that a steady retrieve with only a very few pops thrown in tends to work wonders.  For these baits I prefer to use a 6’6” or 7’0” medium action rod with a fast tip, and a 2500 size reel spooled with 10-15lb. braid and a 10-15 pound fluorocarbon leader. The fast tip allows for a more sensitive feel because a lot of the strikes are not bone crushingly hard.  Some strikes can be a simply sip and just feel like weight on the end of the line.

Fishing Feeder Creeks:

            A lot of the bays and rivers Reds tend to inhabit have many feeder creeks coming into them, many of them wide enough to paddle into and fish both sides comfortably.  These creeks are always best on high tide due to how shallow they tend to be.  In these areas I really enjoy fishing a popping cork. A popping cork is a cupped cork that slides up and down a wire.  I buy the Billy Bay Clacking Popping Corks, they have two brass beads that produce a little louder sound.  The cork is tied to the main line and a leader is tied below about 16-24” in length depending on the depth of the water (you don’t want your bait to be on the bottom).  Tie a light jig head to the leader and slide on your favorite soft plastic.  I like to use a Gulp 3” Swimming Mullet or Shrimp.  If the water holds a lot of Croakers, Bluefish, or other bait stealers I like to use the Zmann Shrimpz with Pro-Cure scent.  The Pro-Cure is just as strong of a scent but the Zmann baits have elaztec plastic so they can handle the abuse.  Once your cork is rigged, I prefer to cast it tight against the grass and let it sit for a few seconds, then pop the cork 2 or 3 times then let it sit for a few seconds again.  However you like to retrieve the cork I STRONGLY recommend you keep a rhythm with it.  Fish can hone in on a sound a lot better when it is repetitive.  Only after you have a small strike do you stop the cadence and add just a slight pop. This can trigger the fish to engulf the bait.  I like to use a 7’0” Med Heavy Spinning Rod with a very fast action and a 2500 size reel spooled with 20lb. Braid.  I opt for the Med Heavy because of the extra backbone needed to set a popping cork.  Since the cork is cupped and under the water when you set the hook, that produces a lot of drag and thus requires a little bit more backbone. This bait basically has to be thrown on a spinning rod because of how it flies through the air, it topples end over end and pulls line unevenly, basically making it impossible for you throw it on a bait caster without backlashing. Another very successful bait for these creeks is a Gulp Shrimp on a jig head dragged on the bottom.  In the very small creeks sometimes a cork can be too much commotion and a softer slower retrieve can be better, basically fish the shrimp as if you were fishing a shakey head for Bass.  Slow drag with a hop here and there. 

Grass Flats:

            Since there is so much floating and loose grass in these areas, I tend to throw a weedless Swimbait or Jerkshad.  I like a 7’0” medium spinning rod with a fast action and a 2500 size reel with 15lb. braid.  I use a 10-14 pound fluorocarbon leader.  I tend to swim lures more across grass just to keep it above the grass and just barely clipping the tops.  This allows the bait to barely move some grass around and catch the attention of any fish nearby.  Be prepared, the hits when on grass flats can be vicious!  This is because there are so many places for the bait to hide, they don’t want it to get away.  They will often practically rip the rod out of your hand.

Oyster Bars and Rip Rap Rocks:

            Reds tend to congregate around Oyster Bars and Rocks throughout the tides due to the amount of food. Not just oysters and crabs, these locations offer protection for many species of baitfish and the Reds like to patrol them.  This is where I pull out the larger baits.  These locations tend to hold mullet and Bunker.  Due to these being two of the largest baits the Reds eat in the bay, I like to throw larger hardbaits like Mirrorlures or Paul Browns.  I throw them on a 7’0 Medium casting rod with a moderate action with 20lb braid and a long 12lb. fluorocarbon leader.  The moderate action of the rod allows me not to over-work the bait, and with the treble hooks it helps not to tear them out of the fishes mouth as they headshake.  I like to slow retrieve them after letting them sink with a heartbeat thumping retrieve.  Most of the hits will be brutal and will be on the fall in between pops.

            Redfish love structure for everything from protection to an ambush point and docks offer them just that.  I usually only use two baits when fishing docks, the popping cork around the edges to try and pull fish out, and a Gulp Swimming Mullet on a jig head pitched under the dock and slowly pulled out to imitate an escaping baitfish.  Be sure to bump up a rod size to be able to pull these fish out of the structure because they will try their hardest to turn tail and get into the dock, as soon as your braid rubs the barnacles you will be broken off.


            Occasionally I am lucky enough to stumble upon a school of Reds chasing bait, in this case I am going to take advantage and catch them on the most fun way possible, TOPWATER!  I like to throw either a Mirromullet or a Zara Spook Junior.  These are both walking baits which tends to be a retrieve that Red’s just can’t resist. I like to throw these on the same set-up as my MirroLures, a moderate action casting rod to allow me not to over work the bait.  Also that moderate action allows you not to rip the hooks out of their mouth in the hookset.  Cast the bait about 5-10 feet in front of the fish as they swim along and work it across the school, you will get blown up on, wait until you feel weight then set.  Whatever you do, DO NOT set the hook before you feel the weight of the fish because chances are the fish doesn’t have it completely in its mouth. 

            So as you can see, these fish can be in a bunch of different places, they have a very diverse diet and they can be spread out.  This doesn’t mean they are hard to catch. It just might take some time to get your bearings and figure these fish out.  I hope I have been able to give you a good foundation to start your search. In my opinion of all of the summer species that flood the bay, the Redfish are by far the most rewarding.  The effort you put in will directly affect the output.  These fish are eager to please, and I can assure you as soon as you get one on your line, you will catch the Redfish Fever like many Virginia anglers do!

Tight Lines,
Grant Alvis

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Flatheads and Fireworks- Fourth of July Fun

"Nothing says American Freedom like big fish, a pretty girl, and high explosives"

With both of us working full time, my girlfriend Harley and I haven’t gotten to spend as much time together on the water this year as we have in years past. That being said, we took full advantage of us both being off the evening of July 4th. I quickly concocted a plan that would allow us to be able to fish and get to see one of the free fireworks shows this great city has to offer, literally the most Freedom infused American thing you can do. With her looking forward to seeing the explosives and I looking forward to bagging my first flatty of the year, we hit the water.

            We fished one of the more popular flatheading areas on the James. I don’t normally like to fish these higher pressured waters due to the fact that they produce smaller fish, but it provided the best view of the fireworks and more the ample chance to score a flatty.

            After soaking our lines for a while I was awarded my first Flathead of the year, a small 10 pounder that inhaled my bluegill. It felt good to finally lay eyes on my favorite fish, even if it was a little guy.

            A short time later as I decided to re-position my bait since it wasn't getting much action at it's current location. I began to reel in my bullhead and it was at this time that I got absolutely hammered by a beast off the bottom. Slamming me somewhere in the middle of the water column, this flathead was mean and green, hitting my bait with a full head of steam. This usually happens when flatties eat bullheads. They tend to be very a territorial species and take any chance they get to t-bone a much smaller cat, thus leads to some ferocious strikes when using bullhead catfish as bait.

            After almost getting the rod ripped from my hands and a minute or two of backtalk from the fish, she decided to join me on the rock for a brief conference.

            I let her go on her merry way, thanking the chubby beast for the few seconds of adrenaline as she graced my presence.  

            The fishing concluded with that flatty and the fireworks commenced with an awesome display of mortar fire. 

(With the fireworks came the super high definition cell phone photos, your welcome.)

            All and all it was a relaxing evening spent enjoying the fireworks, away from the crowds, with my favorite person, in my favorite place, with my favorite passtime. The trip may not have been laced with massive fish, but it sure was memorable and good for the soul. I'm supremely grateful to live in a nation where something as simple as this is possible. You simply cannot ask for more. 

God Bless America.

Fish Hard or Stay Home,
Josh Dolin