Carolina's Moving-Water Catfish
October 04, 2010
While most big catfish in South Carolina come out of lakes, there's some fine overlooked fishing in rivers, too. Don't miss out!
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Mention catfish, and for most anglers, one of two or three images comes to mind. Those who are traditionalists or of a nostalgic bent likely think of lazy summer days spent sitting on the shoreline of a pond or lake, or perhaps in a johnboat, waiting for a bobber to bounce. Others will have thoughts of drift-fishing in big lakes, or maybe anchoring over a spot where electronics show big cats are present. Almost no one will conjure up images of wading for catfish or floating down a stream casting to likely locations. If they think of moving water at all, it will likely be in the context of boyhood days spent on the bank of a slow-moving, muddy river.
Yet an experience a few years back reminded me of something that I should have readily recalled from the joyous days of boyhood, when I did plenty of fishing for cats in the current. I was turkey hunting at Roblyn's Neck Trophy Club, which sits on the banks of the Great Pee Dee River. During lunch, one of the guides casually mentioned catfishing and how he had taken a youngster to his hotspot a few weeks back and watched him land a number of whiskered giants that weighed about as much as the boy.
Intrigued, I questioned him further. He said, "I can guarantee you we can catch one weighing more than 25 pounds." Since it was hot as the hinges of Hades (even though it was April), and given the fact that the turkeys seemed to have a chronic case of lockjaw, I readily took him up on his guarantee. "Give me about 30 minutes," he said. "Have your camera ready, and I'll be back with the bait."
It turned out the bait was offal from a local fish market, and when he came back to camp with a huge garbage can holding it, someone got a whiff then said, "You could follow him by the smell or the cloud of flies after the truck."
We took the odiferous mess to a place where he regularly fished for (and fed) catfish. "Just ease down the bank," he said, "and watch what happens when I dump most of this into the water."
Sure enough, no sooner did the fish heads, bones and entrails hit the water than there was discernible movement, soon to be replaced by boiling water as what probably was three score catfish shouldered up to the malodorous buffet line. At this point, I was handed a rod, baited with a big chunk of fish. "Just flip it into the middle of 'em," I was instructed, "and leave the bale open. When one takes the bait, let him run out to the middle of the river before you set the hook." I followed these simple instructions -- not once but a half dozen times -- with the result being six catfish ranging from a couple of pounds to the 25-plus mark I had been promised.
Mind you, this was an unusual situation, but it also afforded a pointed reminder of the kind of action you can find in South Carolina streams. It also set me to thinking about an approach to catching catfish that I enjoyed a lot as a youngster, one that involved a mixture of drifting along in a johnboat, occasionally stopping to wade in shoals or other likely spots. This took place in streams that were smaller, shallower, and much faster moving than the Pee Dee, but the real point is that in many parts of the Palmetto State there are opportunities to catch catfish (especially channel cats) in the current. Let's look at the subject in more detail, starting with some effective techniques and gear and then turning to some specific destinations.
One of the great things about catfishing is that you don't necessarily have to invest in high-dollar rods and reels or own a tackle box filled with a vast array of $4 plugs. In fact, the finest setup I have ever seen when it came to catching a mess of channel cats was equipment that was simple in the extreme -- a sturdy cane pole of about 15 feet in length. It was equipped with 30-pound-test monofilament attached to the tip and then tied farther back on the pole as a "just in case" should the angler tangle with a whopper that broke the end of the flexible cane. It was highly effective and his only cost was the minimal sum spent for hooks, line and sinkers.
Generally speaking though, you want a spincasting outfit featuring a rod with some backbone and a good, functional reel. Don't worry overly much about delicacy, although there's a lot to be said for the sporting aspects of using light or medium-light tackle. This is especially true when it comes to fishing smaller streams where a 2- to 3-pound channel cat is a good fish. Catfish are the back alley brawlers of the piscatorial world, and they show little if any tendencies to be "line-shy." In fact, they are often found in waters where there is limited visibility, and this includes small, relatively fast-moving streams.
Beyond a rod-and-reel outfit that suits your taste, all that is really required are some hooks, sinkers, bait and a cooler or stringer to hold your catch. Never mind the fact that catfish seem willing to eat most anything; they make delicious table fare.
When it comes to bait, there are lots of options. They range from commercially available "stink" baits to liver, chicken entrails, shrimp, cut bait, live minnows, night crawlers and homemade concoctions featuring things like anise oil. You can catch channel cats on artificial lures, but in my experience and that of others, doing so greatly reduces your likelihood of a bulging stringer or a steady diet of tight lines and fine times.
WALKING, WADING, AND FLOATING
Some of the finest action on catfish, and especially channel cats, can be found in areas that aren't really conducive to fishing from a boat. Channel cats love shoals, particularly during the heart of the summer, and you can forget holding a canoe or johnboat in place in shoals. Moreover, you can find plenty of catfish in smaller creeks that aren't big enough for any kind of watercraft except a canoe, if even that.
The answer is a simple straightforward one: wade-fish (although you can also walk the banks and sometimes find places where it is possible to make a cast). It's comfortable when it is hot, you can approach likely spots much more quietly than in a boat, and getting into place for just the right cast is a cinch. There is one caveat to keep in mind -- I don't recommend this in the part of the state below what is generally called the "fall line." You won't encounter cottonmouths above the fall line, but they are commonplace in Lowcountry waters and can pose a hazard for wading anglers.
In slightly larger streams, and there are dozens of these across the state, you can make your way downstream by canoe and stop as appropriate to work promising waters by wading. Handling a canoe in Class I and II rapids doesn't take a great deal of skill, but it is a good idea to get some still-water experience
before "stepping up" to noticeable currents. It's also a good idea, particularly if you plan to be doing some casting from the canoe, to use one with a keel. It's little short of amazing how much added stability you get from a 1- or 2-inch keel.
One other point connected with canoes is worth making: Any stream large enough to be navigable by a canoe is public water. All you need is an access point, and we'll touch on that in a bit more detail shortly. When fishing from the bank, on the other hand, you need to be sure you are not trespassing on private property.
That brings us to the vital issue of where you might want to fish for moving-water catfish. A good starting point is the critical matter of access. Although it is a bit out of date, when it comes to waters big enough for a canoe, there is nothing to match a book written with paddlers, not anglers, in mind. This is Gene Able and Jack Horan's Paddling South Carolina: A Guide to Palmetto State River Trails. The portion of the work that will be most useful is Part II, which is divided into three sections (covering Lowcountry, Piedmont and Mountain Streams). There is a map of each stream, and detailed information in access and take-out points is provided.
Just remember, if you haven't done a lot of river trips, that you will take longer to cover a given distance than you think. Throw in the distinct possibility of wanting to spend a lot of time wading in a productive spot, some likelihood of barriers in smaller streams that will require some portaging, and other possible problems, and you will want to allow plenty of time. Otherwise, you might find yourself involved in what the wife of a friend likes to refer to as "the idiot round-up." That was a float trip taken by her husband and a buddy that found them still on the water as midnight approached, without a flashlight, and still a mile from their intended take-out spot.
A good rule of thumb is to allow at least an hour a mile, and if that sounds like a mighty slow pace, just remember that you want to spend most of your time fishing, not paddling.
Most of the rivers in the Lowcountry contain catfish. Some of them, such as the Great Pee Dee and the Edisto, have plenty of cats. But because of their depth, murky or black waters (and most of all, snakes), they don't lend themselves to wade-fishing. The Piedmont or Midlands, on the other hand, is a distinctly different story.
Here all of the major rivers, Saluda, Tyger, Enoree, Congaree, Catawba, Wateree and Broad, are well worth consideration. So are untold numbers of creeks. For example, a number of years back I decided to give a small creek in Chester County (Rocky Creek) that ran through a hunt club of which I was a member a try. In many places it was little more than ankle deep, but there were plenty of pools with depths up to 4 feet or so. That consideration, along with plenty of rocks for cover (as opposed to bottoms of pure sand or mud), and the fact that I had seen fish was incentive enough for me.
I initially used small beetlespins and caught a satisfying mixture of bream, crappie and small bass. But I suspected there were catfish present and spent a half hour or so corralling a dozen grasshoppers. The result was quite pleasing: Almost every deep pool produced a catfish, with the only real problem being that bream sometimes beat them to the bait.
There are literally scores of creeks like this: not big enough to float but easily waded with the occasional detour to land as you ease around a deep hole. Most are on private property, but unlike the situation with hunting, often a polite request will get you permission to fish. Or if you belong to a hunting club with a creek running through the property, give it a try.
Primarily though, you want to focus on streams where you can combine floating and wading. Let's look at three such destinations in a bit more detail, starting with my "home water," the Catawba River.
The section of the Catawba downstream of Wylie Dam, while located quite close to the city of Rock Hill, flows through surprisingly remote and pristine countryside for mile after mile. It doesn't see a lot of fishermen, other than those sitting on the bank, and most anglers who do float it focus on bass. Yet it has a first-rate population of channel catfish, with shoals, undercut banks and the backside of islands being particularly attractive spots.
Unfortunately, the Catawba flows too fast for ideal fishing (and wading is dangerous) when the gates are open at the dam upstream. When they are closed though, the story is a different one. You can wade in many places, after pulling your canoe onto rocks or the shore. The biggest problem you are likely to face is one of access, but there are bridges a short way below the dam, far downstream close to the Bowater Plant, and public landings at the Rock Hill Sewage Treatment Plant (where there's also a walking trail) and at Landsford Canal State Park.
At the other end of York County, forming the border with Cherokee County, is another major river with many free-flowing miles. This is the appropriately named Broad River. Shallow for the most part in summer, there are many places, despite the river's size, where you can wade from one bank to the other; it is an attractive, remote stream.
If you use fresh bait, such as minnows, the Broad has another attractive aspect. One cast might bring a catfish, the next a smallmouth bass. The latter is not widespread in South Carolina, and there's little question this is the best bronzeback stream in the state.
Switching from big rivers to tighter, and for many, more comfortable environs, give Turkey Creek or its major feeder, Stevens Creek, a try. They form the boundary between McCormick and Edgefield counties, and, since much of their flow is through the Sumter National Forest, they are ideal when it comes to a small-stream experience. Careful study of state roads, or the above-mentioned Paddling South Carolina, will reveal several suitable sections. Also, if you want an extended experience, keep in mind the possibility of an overnight camping trip.
One thing is certain, when the heat of summer rolls around and catfishing comes to mind, do yourself a favor and try the moving-water aspect of dealing with Mr. Whiskers. You will likely find it a pleasant, rewarding experience.
(Editor's note: Jim Casada has written or edited more than 40 books on hunting and fishing. For details on the books, visit his Web site at