The big fish came on a rainy, windy, snowy day this April on the Potomac River just upstream of iconic Fletcher’s Boathouse in Washington, D.C. And this fat cat didn’t get away from professional photographer and angler Jay Fleming of Annapolis, Maryland.
Fleming estimates that the blue catfish weighed just over 70 pounds (more on that shortly), a nice catch, especially from a 15-foot Ocean kayak, a sit-on-top model.
First we set the scene. The Potomac was mostly empty April 9, which is unusual for a Saturday morning in spring, but not when you consider the weather.
“The weather was real weird,” Fleming recalls. “It was really up and down that day. The sun came out, and it was probably in the 50s. And then a cold front came through. It got really chilly, and it started raining and then snowing. Typical Maryland spring weather.”
Fleming was using spinning tackle, a stiff 7-foot St. Croix Tidemaster rod, a Shimano Stradic 3000 reel with 40-pound braid and a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, “not that it matters for catfish,” he notes.
He didn’t want to go with anything lighter. “When you’re in a kayak, you just want to be able to put all the pressure you can on the fish,” he says.
Fleming was fishing deep with cut gizzard shad for bait and 1½ ounces of weight.
“It was a really deep hole, like 70 feet of water,” Fleming says. “It’s amazing how deep that river is.”
Fleming had already caught two blue catfish in the 10-pound range when the big boy grabbed his bait. “I just let him eat for like five seconds and then set the hook,” he says.
Big blue cats fight well, and this one was no exception.
“The fight is definitely exceptional,” says Fleming, who is 28. “I’d say they fight harder than a rockfish [striper]. I definitely knew it was big, like within two or three minutes of the fight. The big ones definitely run a little bit.” And Fleming’s fish also did a few death rolls, sliming the line pretty good in the process.
The angler let the catfish drag him downstream to help wear it out. “That fish fought me for probably 25 minutes before I was able to tire it out,” Fleming says. “Eventually the fish just gave up. It came to the surface and gave up. I have a little lip gaff, and I just gaffed it in the lip.”
And then? “I tried to bring it into the boat at first, but it was just too big,” he recalls. “It was kind of sketchy in a kayak, having the risk of flipping, so I just gradually worked my way to shore.”
The 72-pound weight is an estimate, but Fleming has handled a lot of scales and tails photographing commercial fishermen, and he has benchmarks.
“We weighed it on a 50-pound scale and it just bottomed it out, like instantly,” he says. “It’s just an estimate. I didn’t get a good solid weight on it, but I would guess it was 72 pounds. And that might be a conservative estimate, too.”
On the very next drop in the same hole, Fleming caught a cat that weighed 42 pounds, and so he had that fish for comparison purposes, too.
If there is a twist to this story, it’s that Fleming is not a catfish angler. He was targeting them in part for sport, in part to cull them from the river.
“They’re an invasive species,” says Fleming, noting that blue catfish were introduced as a sport fish in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay in the 1970s.
“They really are a good sport fish, but the problem is they’re eating a lot of native fish,” says Fleming, who gave his big fish to a guy along the shore who intended to eat it. “This is a perfect example of why they’re a problem. I opened [my fish’s] stomach, and it was full of shad and white perch.”
Fleming says Maryland recognized them as a problem a few years ago and really pushed the commercial industry to catch them.
“I think it’s a good fish, but it’s in the wrong place,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with the fish. You can’t be mad at a fish for being there. It’s our fault for putting them there.”