Catch Carolina's Backwater Catfish Now

The Palmetto State's backwater catfish rivers offer both size and numbers of fish for the catfish angler. Here's how to get to and fish some of these great hotspots. (August 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Since colonial days, fishermen have noted and taken advantage of the abundance of catfish in the main arteries of South Carolina's river systems. As time progressed, the face of catfishing changed, but the rivers remained home to an abundance of river cats.

The first few decades of the 1900s brought about substantial changes to many of South Carolina's river systems. Reservoirs turned long sections of river channels into lake bottoms and Palmetto cats now had a choice of river and reservoir habitats.

During the early 1940s, South Carolina's famous Santee Cooper reservoirs were constructed. Lakes Marion and Moultrie first gained fame as the incidental homes to the landlocked striped bass. A new catfish came to the Santee Cooper system in 1964 and 1965 when striped bass fry from the nearby Moncks Corner hatchery were exchanged for 825 blue catfish with the state of Arkansas. In addition to the state's generous population of channel catfish, Santee Cooper soon became the adopted home of the Arkansas blue. Moreover, Santee Cooper's open waterway system of rivers and canals permitted the blue to spread beyond the boundaries of the two lakes into several South Carolina river systems.

Along the same time the blue catfish was being introduced to the state, the third member of South Carolina's "Big 3" catfish species -- the flathead -- was making its way into the state from the north. Flathead catfish were introduced into Clarks Hill reservoir in the early 1960s. At about the same time, flatheads were stocked in the Pee Dee drainages by the state of North Carolina and began migrating downstream into South Carolina. Once established, the flathead gained some notoriety in South Carolina because of unauthorized "bucket stockings," presumably by anglers, into the Edisto River system. With its preference for deep, dark holes and live meals, the flathead soon became well established, at the expense of the Edisto's redbreast population.

Continuing through the present day, the Santee Cooper system has continued its fishing prosperity due in large part to its catfish fishery. Anglers travel from all over the country to fish for monster blues, abundant channels and solitary flatheads. When most anglers in the Palmetto State think of catfish waters, the Santee Cooper system is quick to come to mind.

Of lesser fame but equal caliber catfish angling are the backwater and deep-pool areas of many South Carolina rivers throughout the state. In places like the Saluda and Broad rivers north of Columbia, the Congaree and Wateree through the Midlands, and the Edisto near Orangeburg, catfish abound in both size and numbers.

SALUDA RIVER

Downstream from Lake Greenwood, the Saluda becomes riverine for approximately 17 miles before impounding again at Lake Murray. This section is accessed by public ramps located at the headwaters of Lake Murray as well as a public ramp located at Higgins Bridge off Highway 121 west of Silverstreet.

Chris Gaddy is a State Farm agent who grew up and still lives in Chester, South Carolina. Gaddy spent much of his youth fishing with his father, splitting his fishing time between the Saluda and Congaree rivers. While most anglers pursued striped bass in these rivers, Gaddy soon realized that blue and channel cats were usually eager to bite, while the stripers could often be finicky. Much of the tackle and gear and even baits would serve for either species, however.

"The way you set up for striped bass works equally well for cats," Gaddy said.

The Saluda is heavily influenced by water released from the Buzzards' Roost power plant at Lake Greenwood. Moving water means feeding time for catfish on the stretch of the Saluda between lakes Greenwood and Murray.

"If they're moving water, I like to slowly motor upriver toward Greenwood looking for deep holes and especially new snags that have washed in or trees that have eroded into the river from the bank. Once we find a spot, we'll put an anchor out (from) the bow of the boat and throw Carolina-rigged baits downstream into the hole. The current makes it hard to fish more than two or three rods and ideally you want to put out cut bait on the bottom, just upstream of the hole," Gaddy explained.

Gaddy uses medium-heavy baitcast gear to place chunks of cut gizzard shad above the catfish lair. The current washes the scent back into the snag and eventually, the cats will move out to investigate. Fighting a hefty catfish against the current requires stout tackle and heavy line in the 20- to 30-pound-test range.

BROAD RIVER

The Broad River also has its origins in western North Carolina and flows some 110 miles before merging with the Saluda near downtown Columbia to form the Congaree. Boat access to the Broad is difficult, but that actually adds to its desirability as a catfish destination.

While the Broad stretches from downtown Columbia into North Carolina, the stretch between the Saluda River in Columbia and the Highway 34 bridge at Blair is generally best. This stretch also encompasses Parr Pond west of Pomaria, which is a channel catfish magnet in itself. Many anglers access the Broad from a number of primitive dirt accesses located near public road rights of way. One of these is located at the Highway 34 crossing and another is located below Parr Pond at Highway 213.

The Broad River, particularly the stretch below Jenkinsville, is rocky in nature, so care should be taken when navigating this river, especially during periods of low water. Several local anglers have discovered that small aluminum boats powered by jet-drive outboards grant access to the majority of the river. While rocks are a problem, they also provide some of the best structure on the Broad. Look for scour holes created by swirling currents. Placing live or cut baits in the eddies downstream of the rocks can produce some hefty blue and channel catfish.

CONGAREE RIVER

Perhaps more widely known as a striped bass river, particularly during the spring, the 50-mile-long Congaree River provides a large number of catfish locations. Following its transition from shoal-studded fall line topography to a mainstream drainage of the Congaree Swamp, the Congaree merges with the Wateree River to form the Santee River. At its head, the Saluda and the Broad collide with a discernable split in water qualities. The cold, clear water of the Saluda is a more favorable habitat for channel cats, while blue cats prefer the more turbid, often muddy water coming from the Broad.

After emerging from the Congaree Swamp, the Congaree

River definitely takes on what would be considered a "catfishy" look, with plenty of deep-water holes and undercut banks.

Currents and water flows have a tendency to change the bottom structure of any river, but the rate of change on the Congaree can have an especially pronounced effect on the production of new holes. For this reason, frequent catters on the Congaree make a habit of watching their graph for holes that have recently been formed by tree debris washing into the river or scour holes created by shifting currents.

Often the best catfish holes on the Congaree will be in the lower reaches below the swamp and right along tree-lined banks. Fishing bank holes presents a bit of a challenge when compared with deep areas near the center of the river channel. Efficiently anchoring a boat to fish bank holes is more difficult because top currents will try to force the boat into the bank, while bottom currents draw baits to the side. Time spent ensuring a good anchor position often pays off in whiskered fish.

The best access point for fishing the lower Congaree River is the Bates Bridge ramp, located at the end of County Road 2300 under the Highway 601 bridge. Boaters can find good fishing in either direction from this ramp, which also provides access to the Wateree River a short distance downstream.

Bank-anglers have good access to the Congaree in several areas along its banks, but easily the best access is near the headwaters at the Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park located within walking distance of downtown Columbia.

WATEREE RIVER

Capt. Bill Plumley of Greer, South Carolina, is a full-time catfish guide on Lake Hartwell but confesses to an obsession for catching big cats from the state's rivers. One of Bill's favorite rivers is the Wateree.

Along its 75-mile course between the Lake Wateree dam and its confluence with the Congaree River, the Wateree River is home to some tremendous channel, blue and flathead catfishing. The Wateree is more of a big-water river like the Congaree and as such can accommodate 20-foot-plus boats. Capt. Bill utilizes a nighttime strategy to escape the summer heat and cash in on Wateree's big cat bonanza.

Plumley starts out a couple of hours before dark and puts in at the W.T. "Billy" Tolar landing located between Columbia and Sumter on U.S. Highway 76/378 between the bridges. His preference is to target the waters downstream of this ramp, heading toward the Congaree.

"Two hours before dark, I'm scouting," Plumley explained. "I'll motor several miles down the river, locating areas I plan to fish that night."

When he locates a promising area (usually a downed tree or wooden snag in the bend of the river), Plumley marks the spot on his GPS and continues scouting until he has five or six spots picked out.

Once darkness settles in, Plumley begins fishing his spots in reverse, following his GPS cookie trail to assist with navigating in the dark. Plumley anchors upstream of his intended spot, using only a bow anchor, and casts baits back into the spot. Because the Wateree's current is sometimes swift, he uses a Carolina-rigged 3- to 5-ounce flat sinker to hold his baits in position. Plumley favors 8-foot Berkley rods outfitted with Abu-Garcia 7000 baitcast reels. His reels are spooled with 50-pound-test Berkley Big Game line. The final piece of his rig is an 8/0 Eagle Claw circle hook.

Plumley's backtracking nighttime game plan is to set up on a spot and give it about an hour, and no more than an hour and a half, to produce bites.

"If I'm getting bites every 20 minutes or so, I'm content to stay there," Plumley said. Otherwise, the veteran catman moves upstream to the next spot on his GPS and restarts the bite clock.

While catfish angling on the Wateree is generally good at any time, a key aspect is water flow.

"If they're running water through the Wateree dam upstream, that running water is like ringing the dinner bell," Plumley stated.

Unlike the common practice for nighttime crappie or striper fishing, Plumley prefers to use as little light as possible when night-fishing for cats. He wires up a single 12-volt light, just enough to see his rods and re-rig or re-bait lines.

EDISTO RIVER

After the confluence of its North and South forks just below Branchville, the Edisto River travels over 60 miles before it comes under coastal influence in the ACE basin. Andy Williams, proprietor of Black River Marine in Orangeburg, indicates the "Big Edisto" is one of his preferred catfish destinations. Williams reminisced about the days of going to the Edisto some years ago with the idea of stocking up on nice eating-sized channel cats.

"It's no problem to put in below Branchville, float down the river a few miles, dropping whole worms or small pieces of cut bait in deep areas along undercut banks or behind snags and come home with a whole mess of 3- to 4-pound channel cats," Williams said. "The channel catfishing is still good on the Edisto, but now the big flatheads have taken over."

Within the last 10 years or so, biologists began receiving reports of 30-pound-plus flatheads being caught in the Edisto's black waters. This invasion has taken quite a toll on the thriving redbreast (also called shellcracker) population. However, the flatheads now provide a trophy "small-water" catfish venue that is welcomed by local catters.

"It's no problem for me to see three or four monster flatheads a week come through my shop during the summer," Williams noted. He said that many of his customers have come to him to outfit them with 14- to 16-foot aluminum johnboats complete with 25- to 40-horsepower outboards to specifically target these fish in the Edisto.

Williams related that these anglers will start on the Edisto just downstream from where the North Fork and South Fork come together and target deep holes in the relatively shallow river.

"We're talking 7- to 10-foot holes in a river that generally may be 3 to 4 feet deep," Williams said.

Tactics are pretty standard: Anglers use a drop rig with a 2- to 3-ounce weight to hold the offering stationary on the upper edge of a deep hole. The bait, preferably a live, hand-sized bream, white perch or gizzard shad, is placed near the target hole from a boat anchored upstream. While daylight and dusk hours work best, the tannic black water of the Edisto provides flathead angling opportunities throughout the day.

William's preferred access points to the river are at Whetstone Crossroads, a semi-private ramp below Branchville and Kill Kare, a county-maintained ramp off County Road 63.

With the hot weather of August in full swing, an adjustment of catfish locations may be just the ticket to escape the summer heat. Fishing the backwater areas offered by many of the state's rivers allows anglers to get away from the crowds on busy lakes and affords the South Carolina catf

ish angler the chance to see some unspoiled beauty. Whether you are a boating catter or prefer to set up camp along the riverbank, head for one of South Carolina's catfish rivers this month and get in on the backwater action.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

For more information on catfishing with Capt. Bill Plumley, contact him at (877) 307-3079 or go online to www.lakehartwellfishing.com.

For more information on cat fishing the Edisto River, contact Andy Williams at Black River Marine located at 362 John C. Calhoun Dr., Orangeburg, or phone (803) 536-2277

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