Richmond, Va. (AP) – When the James River gets low this time of
year, big catfish get caught in isolated pools, where waders and
snorkelers like to watch them.
In recent weeks, however, this river version of fish in a barrel
has drawn people who illegally catch them with spear guns, homemade
spears, nets and gear resembling small grappling hooks, witnesses
“I imagine this is how the whalers treated the Galapagos
Islands,” said Ralph White, manager of Richmond’s James River
The big catfish are almost tame, White said. You can walk up to
them, and some will let you touch them briefly.
Chris Hull, a Henrico County engineer, led a Richmond
Times-Dispatch reporter and photographer last month to Catfish
Alley, a roughly 3-foot-deep pool near Shockoe Slip containing
about two dozen catfish the size of fire hydrants.
Hull said he returned to the pool Saturday and could find just
three fish alive. Someone had sliced meat from about 10 and left
their stinking remains beside the water.
“There are an awful lot of catfish in that river, but I still
don’t think this is right,” Hull said. “It’s a unique experience to
swim around with big catfish.”
Greg Velzy, a river aficionado from Chesterfield County, said he
recently saw two men at Catfish Alley casting with gear resembling
fist-sized grappling hooks. Another time he saw men herding the
fish into nets.
Yet another time, he saw several men headed to Catfish Alley
with spears made from sharpened bamboo.
“There are huge carcasses all through the area now,” Velzy
Jarred VandeMark, an account executive with an online
job-posting company, said he was snorkeling near Pony Pasture
Rapids in South Richmond about two weeks ago when he found a metal,
arrowhead-shaped spear-gun tip in the river near a deep hole that
big catfish frequent.
“I could not believe that people were actually using spear guns
to kill these catfish,” VandeMark said. “If this gets out of hand,
it will be a disaster for the catfish population in these
Col. Dabney Watts, law-enforcement chief for the state
Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said spearing catfish,
snagging them with hooks or leaving their carcasses behind are
Punishments can reach as high as six months in jail and a $1,250
fine for the spearing and snagging, Watts said. Netting, depending
on the type of net, also can be illegal.
Illegal fishing appears to be growing across Virginia, but Watts
said he’s not sure why. “Some people doing it may not even be aware
it is illegal until we run across them.”