North Carolina's Big Lakes & Big Catfish
October 04, 2010
With abundant forage and room to roam, catfish thrive in North Carolina reservoirs. Don't overlook these impounded waters when you look for catfish.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jeff Samsel
A tangle of timber stretches into a deep hole - a hole dug by a river making a hard bend. In the deepest part of the hole, oodles of channel catfish hold tight to every branch and break in the bottom contour. Amid the thickest tangles, a big flathead lies motionless. Blue cats, meanwhile, swim circles in the hole, with some suspended several feet off the bottom.
The spot fits the mold of a prototypical catfishing hole perfectly, except for a single factor. The river's "banks" are covered by more than 20 feet of water, water that stays backed up behind a hydroelectric dam several miles downstream. From above the surface, this spot just looks like the middle of the lake, with no particular appeal. However, any serious catfisherman who glances at the structure showing up on his depthfinder will recognize the potential of this place.
North Carolina's coastal rivers, especially the Cape Fear, are known throughout the nation for their fabulous catfish offerings. Coastal rivers aren't the only places in the state to catch cats, however. In fact, several North Carolina reservoirs in all parts of the state offer outstanding catfishing prospects, some of which tend to get overlooked by most anglers. Let's take a closer look.
LAKE CHATUGE Most folks think of trout, smallmouths and walleyes when they think about fishing in the mountains. That's true of mountain folks, too. Creel surveys indicate that less than 2 percent of all targeted fishing effort on Lake Chatuge over the past five years has been for catfish.
The lack of catfishing pressure is not due to a lack of catfish however, and anglers in the western part of the state who enjoy catching cats and don't get out on Chatuge are missing out on a very good bet. Gill-net surveys conducted by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), which shares fisheries management duties for Lake Chatuge with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), show an abundance of channel catfish in the 1- to 5-pound range in all parts of the lake.
"We have collected channels weighing up to 20 pounds in our nets," said Reggie Weaver, a regional fisheries biologist for the WRD. Weaver noted that except for the bullhead species, the WRD has not collected any catfish other than channels from Lake Chatuge.
Lake Chatuge impounds 7,050 acres along the Hiwassee River, straddling the Georgia/North Carolina border. More so than most far-western lakes, Chatuge offers a decent blend of deep- and shallow-water habitat. The upper Hiwassee River portion, especially, offers fairly extensive flats that front its channel.
Weaver noted that through spring, when cats run up the rivers and creeks and when rains bring muddier waters up the lake, that he would expect that portion of the lake to be the most productive. Beyond that, though, the fish could be in any part of Lake Chatuge, he said, noting that biologists have collected plenty of catfish in the lake's clear lower end, down to about 40 feet deep.
Small channel catfish and bullheads eat a huge variety of things, both alive and dead, and anything with a good meaty smell is apt to work. Crawfish, chicken livers, commercial catfish baits and hot dogs are all apt to work. Bigger channels eat more fish, however, and even small catfish won't snub fresh-cut fish, making shad or herring the bait of choice if anglers are able to attain them.
A good summer strategy is to anchor over a point, ideally at night, and fan-cast a handful of lines to a variety of depths. If the cats are nearby, one or more rod tips should be dancing within the hour. If the fish don't bite, anglers are wise to move to a different type of spot, whether it's a flat up the river, the edge of a channel or a point that is notably steeper or less steep.
Through the upper half of the lake, where shallow water is more common, anglers also can drift, dragging cut bait across the bottom and covering a big range of depths. Elongated sinkers, including special "walking" sinkers make it much easier to drift without snagging. To further reduce the number of snags, fishermen can add a float between the weight and the hook.
A reciprocal licensing agreement between Georgia and North Carolina allows anglers fishing from boats to fish anywhere in Lake Chatuge provided they possess a valid license from either state.
LAKE NORMAN Big catfish have an unusual history on Lake Norman, which is North Carolina's largest impoundment. Two non-native catfish species, flatheads and blues, dominate the catfishing headlines, and no one really knows what caused this great big-cat fishery to develop.
Records show that the NCWRC stocked limited numbers of blue catfish in Norman when it was impounded, but the fish never showed up in angler harvests for many years, according to Scott Van Horne, Piedmont fisheries research coordinator for the NCWRC.
Sometime around the early '80s, anglers started catching occasional blue cats, and then almost all at once, the fishery really began to take off. Today, blues abound in Lake Norman and they are becoming more popular with fishermen all the time. Norman hasn't begun producing the absolute giants that some lakes do, but fish in the 10- to 20-pound range are very common, and blues weighing in the 20s and the 30s show up pretty frequently, Van Horne said.
Flathead catfish have a similar history on Lake Norman. Van Horne believes a few of them were stocked when the blues were, but again they didn't show up in significant numbers for several years. Unlike the blues, the flatheads didn't disappear completely. Occasionally, an angler would report a catch over the years. It wasn't till about the '80s, however, that the flatheads really took off.
"It was about the same time with the flatheads and the blues," Van Horne said, noting that no one really knows what changed in the lake that allowed the populations to take off. "Whatever the reason, the lake has a lot of flatheads and blues in it now, and they are getting more and more popular with the fishermen."
Due to the increasing popularity of blue catfish and their continued expansion into more Piedmont reservoirs, the NCWRC recently conducted a study of blue catfish life history in Lake Norman. The year-long study examined the seasonal movements and feeding habits of the catfish. Biologists used gill nets to obtain, lengths, weights, ages and stomach contents of blue catfish. In addition, external transmitters were affixed to 29 blue catfish in early 2001, and the fish were tracked through April 2002.
Two results from the study of interest from a fisherman's standpoint were that the blues fed mostly on freshwater mussels through the warm months and that the fish made a significant migration up the lake during late spring and stayed in the lake's upper end in high numbers for several months.
"The back end of that lake is always pretty good." Van Horne said, "Blue and flathead catfish are big-river fish, by nature, and that part of the lake fits in better with a riverine description."
Blue cat anglers should look for mussel beds in the upper half of the lake, especially along points that stretch toward the Catawba River. Mussels can be used as bait, but cut fish probably offer the best prospects. Blueback herring, threadfin and gizzard shad and alewives, all of which can be found in Lake Norman, all make good cut bait, and most veteran catfishermen like to have a variety of offerings available.
Anchoring near mussel beds is a popular strategy. Another proven method is to drift, dragging cut bait along the bottom and covering a broad range of depths. Either approach is likely to yield a mix of blues and channels. Norman's channel catfish have not been impacted by the expansion of the bigger cats, as far as biologists have been able to detect, but bullheads and white catfish have been virtually eliminated from the lake.
Flatheads, generally speaking, call for a different approach than other kinds of cats. Most anglers look for fish on their graph along the main-river channel, especially, along channel bends, confluences and over structural features that stretch out to major channels. Flatheads rarely stay far from major channels, and they typically have their heads buried in any cover they are able to find. Many anglers consider live bream the bait of choice.
Eight public access areas, along with a handful of marinas, provide decent access to Lake Norman.
BADIN LAKE The lakes in the Yadkin Chain, beginning with High Rock and running all the way to Blewitt Falls, are easily North Carolina's most acclaimed catfish reservoirs. Tuckertown, a small reservoir high up in the chain, began attracting attention for the huge flatheads it was producing many years ago.
Tuckertown probably has gotten too famous for its own good - especially considering its small size - and local anglers report that few really big flatheads remain in the lake. However, all the Yadkin River lakes remain outstanding catfishing destinations, and fishermen can catch flatheads, channels and blues from these waters.
Van Horn pointed toward Badin Lake as a good pick among the Yadkin lakes, noting that it produces a lot of trophy catfish. Channels, blues and flatheads are all well represented in Badin, and all grow to very large sizes. Fifty-pound-plus blues and flatheads aren't rare, and much bigger fish show up from time to time.
Top-end size potential is probably the biggest difference between Lake Norman and the Yadkin lakes, according to Van Horne. The Yadkin system is more fertile than the Catawba River system. Plus, flathead and blue catfish populations have been established much longer, allowing more fish to have grown larger.
Badin Lake covers 5,300 acres, impounding the Yadkin River and a couple major creeks. It is located immediately downstream of Tuckertown, near the center of the chain. It's a very old lake, having been built in 1917. It offers a good mix of shallow and deep water.
Throughout summer, a lot of fishermen like the upper end of Badin Lake, which is actually the Tuckertown tailwater, for all species of cats. For blues and big channels, most fishermen use cut shad or other baitfish, putting very large pieces on the hook. They fish behind islands or in cuts in the banks that break the current or set up on points and fan baits around them. Some anglers also drift, bouncing their baits along the bottom.
Flathead fishermen mostly fish with live bream, working along bluff banks and at the ends of points. Because of its age, Badin does not have well-defined channel edges, but any hint of a historic channel edge is apt to hold flatheads, and the flatheads still relate to waters around where the old channel ran. Flathead anglers typically fish at night, when flatheads bite best, going out late in the afternoon to catch a mess of bream and then setting up to fish through the night. They gear up with very heavy tackle.
Three boat ramps provide access to Badin Lake. In addition, the NCWRC maintains three Public Fishing Access areas for shoreline anglers. The Badin Pier area, as the name suggests, includes a T-shaped fishing pier. The Old Whitney area has a fishing platform. The Badin Lake area offers 250 yards of cleared shore. Of particular interest to catfishermen, all three areas get baited with grain from May through September.
FALLS LAKE Falls Lake catfishing just keeps getting better and better, according to Kennon Brown of Hawg Hunter Guide Service. "We have more fish than we ever have and more big fish," Brown said.
Brown has built his reputation as a trophy-largemouth specialist, but he is also a big fan of catfish, especially during the summer. "The water is really warming up by then," he said. "That's when the cats really get active."
Falls Lake supports channels, blues and flatheads, and Brown catches all three species together, using the same tactics. Channel catfish, most of which run in the 2- to 7-pound range, are most prevalent, followed by blues, many of which run between 12 and 25 pounds. Flatheads are the least numerous, but they grow big, Brown said.
Brown does the bulk of his catfishing in the upper half of Falls Lake, where the Neuse River twists and turns. He focuses on deep eddy holes outside of the river current, fishing down deep in the holes by day or on flats that lie next to them by night. Most holes are in the 12- to 20-foot range, he said.
He likes holes that have brush in them, if he can find them, believing the brush not only provides places for cats to hide but that it attracts more minnows, which in turn attract more cats.
At times, Brown will drift, dragging baits over uneven bottoms. Other times, he will lay Carolina rigs up on flats. His favorite technique, though, is to use a three-way rig and keep the weight bumping bottom directly beneath him, with the bait on a dropper line a foot or so up from the weight. When he spots fish on his graph or gets hit, he will throw out a marker buoy, then he will work all through that area, moving the boat with his trolling motor.
Brown typically starts with live bait, which might be bream or threadfin shad. If the fish aren't taking the live offerings well, he will cut the same baits into strips. Either way, he likes a 4/0 or 5/0 wide-gap hook and 1/2 ounce to 1 ounce of weight, depending on the strength of the current. He uses between 12- and 20-pound-test and fishes with 6 1/2- or 7-foot rods. Either spinning or baitcasting reels will work, he said, but he does like a large spool.
"When a big one makes a run, you want to make sure you have plenty of line," he said.
Brown said that catfish are relatively untapped at Falls Lake, but that fishermen are beginning to figure out what great sport fish cats really are. They are hard fighters and fun to catch," he said, "and they are great for trips with kids, when you want fast, dependable action."
A dozen boat ramps provide decent access to all parts of Falls Lake. Anglers who want to fish the lake's upper end must be extremely shallow, traveling slowly and watching electronics to stay in the channel. The upper end of this lake has abundant shoals that can do in a lower unit in a heartbeat.
To talk with Kennon Brown about catfishing on Falls Lake or to book at trip, give him a call at (919) 358-3207 or check out his Web site at www.hawghunt.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which will be released this summer. For more about this book, including release dates and ordering information, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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