A writer, a singer, a rapper, a poet; a dancer, an organist, a comedian.
It’s like one of those pattern questions from the college entrance exam. Up next…a fisherman?
But Captain Mike Ostrander, who joined the 21 Questions series this month, is an artist in his own right. There’s the art of catching fish; the art of teaching; and most importantly, the art of blending oneself to the natural world.
Ostrander, 54, is a James River Fishing Guide known for his exploratory program, Discover the James. And— as he might say of a bald eagle or a flathead catfish— he’s part of the ecosystem. One time, I saw him on a misty morning at Dutch Gap, when he wasn’t even working. He paddled by, pointed me in the direction of the best blue cat hole, handed me a few slabs of shad, and disappeared before I could say hello.
He also once took a ten-day canoe float from the headwaters of the James River. At that rate, he may surpass the Goatman of Williams Island as the greatest James River legend.
DHR: How long have you been doing Discover the James?
MO: Discover the James started in 2001 as the James River Fishing School. I started out doing guided fishing trips and fishing instruction for parents and their kids. By 2004, I was doing full-time fishing.
Since then, I’ve been doing blue and flathead catfish trips. In 2009, I added some history and wildlife tours, and changed the name to Discover the James. And that’s exactly what it is: people enjoying and sharing the incredible beauty and history of the James River.
DHR: How did you wind up as a fishing guide in the first place?
MO: I’ve got a passion for fishing. Basically, I’m just a fisherman with an art degree.
You’ve got to be creative and work hard to survive on the river, which is where I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be.
DHR: Did you start out doing volunteer work?
MO: Yeah, I started out as a volunteer fishing instructor for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in the 1990s. After a while, I moved into a position where I was teaching other people how to teach other people.
One day, a buddy of mine asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I said, “Well, I’d really like to be a professional fishing guide.” And my buddy said, “Well, why can’t you?”
It was a few days later that “James River Fishing School” popped into my head. I remember it like it was yesterday. That was when it took off.
DHR: What is a normal day like at Discover the James?
MO: It depends. Sometimes I’m on the water at 4 am catching shad for a catfish trip. Catfish trips start at 7 am. We’ll fish and discover the river until 3 pm, oftentimes a little longer. Then it’s back to the Richmond Yacht Basin, where I dock the boat, thank everyone, get a few laughs in, and see everyone off.
Then I work on the boat, usually for about 45 minutes or so. I get the fishing gear in top shape, change leaders, sharpen hooks. There’s a lot that happens in the morning, too– making sure everything is in top shape for the day.
DHR: What’s your favorite trip to take with Discover the James? Bald eagle observation, catfish, Civil War?
MO: Honestly, man, I love them all.
DHR: What’s your favorite part of the job?
MO: Being on the boat, working with people— and of course, watching the sunrise.
DHR: Did studying art help you appreciate the natural beauty of the James River?
MO: I studied art because I couldn’t pass biology. [Laughs].
I went to school to be a marine biologist, but I didn’t enjoy the workload needed to succeed in a field like marine bio. I always loved art, and I got a B in it my first semester, so I went that direction.
DHR: Was there a particular field of art you were drawn to while you were studying?
MO: I was mostly studying photography. I was good with shape, framing, color. But now, I’m starting to get really into pastels. I’ve got a few pastel pieces on the Discover the James website. I’ve always loved doing it, and now I feel like I’m at the point where I’d like to try selling them.
Entrance to Jefferson’s Reach, pastel
DHR: Alright, so, even though you’re a literal river guide, I feel like your strongest street cred— river cred— might come from the James River float I read about on the website. Ten days, is that right? Could you tell me a little about that?
MO: Yeah, so, I canoed down the James for ten days, with a great friend of mine, Warren Foster. Warren was undoubtedly the best person I could have ever traveled with for those ten days.
We lived off the fish we caught, and breakfast bars, coffee, and water. And, of course, if we could find someplace we could stash our canoe, we walked to any place that carried bread, lunch meat, and beer.
DHR: Did you boil water?
MO: Yeah, we boiled water and smoked fish every night but the first. We used to sit by the fire and eat smallmouth bass and catfish and redeyes, and we’d look at each other and think we were living like kings. It was awesome. So many memorable events.
We started at the headwaters, where the Cowpasture and Jackson meet, and we made it to Bremo Bluff. Somewhere around 200 miles.
DHR: Did you have to portage your canoe?
MO: Only once I can think of—we met someone before the Seven Dams in Lynchburg, who brought us from one end to the other.
DHR: What was the strangest thing that happened to you along the way?
MO: One day, these juvenile otters came up to us, and all three popped up and down next to the canoe as we floated. We didn’t paddle— we just watched as they individually, and sometimes simultaneously, would pop their heads up out of the river. They would look right at us. As one would go down, another would pop up. It was incredibly coordinated. Three minutes or so they did this, and eventually they got bored and left. I see them swimming away right now like it was last weekend.
DHR: What was the hardest part of the trip?
MO: Leaving Bremo Bluff. We were planning to make it to Richmond, but I threw out my back, and Warren convinced me that we needed to get off the water. I’ll tell you, as hard as those last seven miles were to paddle, it was nowhere near as hard as it was to leave.
DHR: Were there any moments that were particularly transcendent?
Early morning, late evenings…. The sounds of screech owls sounding like people in the woods, laughing.
When we put in, we were about a mile downriver from the point where the two rivers come together to create the James. We paddled upriver as far as we could, put the canoe on shore, and walked the rest of the way, so we could really start at the headwaters.
I was casting a senko worm all the way across the river, hitting little eddies in grass beds on the other shore, and literally catching smallmouth on every cast. We got to the headwater, waded back to the canoe, got in, and started to paddle. I remember that moment, and thinking, “Wow, I’m heading back to Richmond.”
DHR: Was that always a plan of yours, or sort of a trip that came together?
MO: It started between me and Warren over a game of horseshoes. We talked about it for about four years. After a while it was like, “Man, we could actually do this.” I’d say almost all of the preparation for that trip came over the horseshoe pit.
DHR: What are your favorite kinds of fish to catch?
MO: Live ones. [Laughs].
It changes all the time. Right now, I’m just dying to catch a trout, so tomorrow, that’s what I’ll be looking for. Next weekend, when the weather is perfect for smallmouth, I’ll be hoping for a smallmouth.
I will say that I like to fish in moving water. One day, I wrote down my ten favorite places to fish, and I think nine of them were rivers or streams. There’s just something about being able to get in, get your feet wet, turn over the pebbles under your feet. It’s just awesome, man.
DHR: Alright, last question. Do you know anything about the Goatman, who supposedly lives on Williams Island?
MO: I think I’ve seen him twice. Once in the shape of a white-tailed deer and once in the shape of an otter.
Come on one of the tours, and maybe I’ll tell you more about him.