South Carolina's Christmas Catfish

There's a new catfish hotspot that may soon rival the world-famous Santee Cooper lakes. Here's how an expert guide brings in the trophy cats from Lake Wateree. (December 2007)

Guide Rodger Taylor with a hefty -- but not unusual -- blue catfish taken from Lake Wateree.
Photo by Terry Madewell.

Cold weather catfishing has become popular and very productive, especially for blue catfish. For many years, catfish anglers have worked the Santee Cooper lakes of Marion and Moultrie during the winter to make outstanding catfish catches. Most years, by Christmas time, the catfish action is very good and getting better as the water temperature continues to drop.

Make no mistake, the Christmas catfishing is still good at these two lakes. But there's another wintertime catfish opportunity that's now producing big catches of huge blue catfish. It's Lake Wateree and the secret of the sensational catfishing on this lake is out.

Specifically, the lake is becoming known for the trophy sizes of the blue catfish it is producing. According to professional guide Rodger Taylor, owner of Catfish ON! Guide Service (www.catfishon.com, 803/328-9587), winter is the best time to pursue and catch these huge fish.

"During the winter, the blue catfish, more so than other catfish species, tend to migrate upriver," Taylor said. "When they do, they concentrate in big numbers in the upper end of Lake Wateree. What this does is put a lot of big catfish in a fairly confined area. The key is to figure out how, when and where to fish for these huge catfish. When you do, the odds of hooking into a 20- to 40-pound blue catfish are pretty good."

Taylor noted that the top end weight of these big blue beasts is still going up at Lake Wateree. Before 2007, his personal best was 58 pounds on Lake Wateree. He caught one weighing in at 60 pounds this past season, his largest so far. However, he knows of other catfish even larger that have been caught.

"I think these fish are just now really taking off in Lake Wateree," he said. "I know I'm seeing more and more blue catfish of all sizes every year. But in the past few years, a lot of really big catfish have been caught. When fishing for trophy catfish there's never any guarantee of success. But the odds of my clients hooking up with catfish 25 pounds and larger during the winter is pretty good.

"I believe the top end weight of these fish will rival lakes Marion and Moultrie," Taylor said. "Those lakes are a premier catfish fishery, but so is this one."

This claim is supported by Robert Stroud, a fisheries biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). Stroud works out of the Region II office, which oversees Lake Wateree along with many other lakes.

"We have not done a creel survey including blue catfish on Lake Wateree in the past few years," Stroud said. "However, past creel data, which ended in 2003, showed a striking increase in the blue catfish population for the three years of that study. Also, we are doing a Shad Population Dynamics study on Lake Wateree right now. Shad are a primary diet of the blue catfish and the shad base at Lake Wateree is very strong."

However the blues got there, they found a very friendly habitat for big catfish.

"We don't know how the blue catfish got into Lake Wateree," Stoud said. "We did not stock them. But they are there and doing extremely well. I can't say that Lake Wateree will surpass the Santee Cooper lakes on top end weight of blue catfish. But I do believe it may eventually rival those lakes. The blue catfish is certainly doing well in this lake."

Whether blue catfish were supposed to be in Lake Wateree or not, they are there. Rodger Taylor has fished Lake Wateree for the big blues for several years and has learned how to hook these fish regularly.

"This lake is an ideal setting for blue catfish," Taylor begins. "Of course, Lake Wateree and the Wateree River empty into Lake Marion, where blue catfish have grown to outlandish sizes for years. There's a great forage base of shad in this lake and the blue catfish are growing to huge sizes very fast.

Right now in December, and into January and continuing through March will be the peak time to catch the super-sized blue catfish at Lake Wateree. Taylor and I fished the upper end of the lake, his favored area for cold weather, and caught three big blues while fishing only a few hours one cold morning. The three fish weighed 25, 35 and 45 pounds.

That's a great day of wintertime catfishing anywhere on planet Earth.

"During December and January, a typical day will be one to three big fish bites," Taylor said. "But I'm talking fish that may be in the 25- to 30-pound-plus category. Sometimes we'll hook fish a lot larger. Later on, as the spring progresses, the big fish bite will continue and the odds of hooking into several big fish each day is outstanding.

"Plus, there are usually plenty of 5-to 15-pound fish hooked that keep my clients from getting bored," Taylor added with a big grin.

The upper third of the lake seems to be the prime area for the blues during the December to March period. According to Taylor, the blues like to move upstream in their pre-spawn migration and begin to stack up in the upper end of the lake. The upper portion of Lake Wateree gets back into a riverine environment, where a series of deep holes, scored out in the old Catawba River channel, are the places to begin the search.

"The deep holes are the focal points, but that is not exactly where I usually fish," Taylor said. "I don't catch a lot of the big catfish right in the middle of the deep holes. But the close proximity to deep water is a key to success. I like to fish along the edges of these holes where the old Catawba River channel winds through the upper end of the lake.

"I look for the edgelines where the river drops quickly into deep holes," he said. "Find such a drop with the combination of shad or forage along the area and you might really be in business. It's even better if I see some huge fish marked on the graph, but that's not a requirement. If you have the deep-water access and plenty of forage, the big blues are likely to be in the area. If they are not there when you set up, odds are good they'll be there soon."

His standard tactic is to anchor just above the spot he wants to fish. Usually, the best fishing is where there is some current, when water is being released upstream from Great Falls Dam. The current does seem to put the blues in a better feeding mode. It's not essential, but Ta

ylor likes current when hunting big blues.

Taylor said it's important to take time to set up the boat properly for this type of fishing. He added that he'll spent 30 minutes to an hour at each setup -- that's how important it is to get the right setup.

He said to drop a front anchor down and make sure it's holding good. If the back of the boat is swinging around a bit, he'll also drop a rear anchor. He uses a flat 25-pound barbell weight for his back anchor, which works really well.

"Once I'm set with the anchors, I put out several rods," he said. "If I have a couple people fishing, I may put out six or eight rods. But it also depends on how fast the fish are biting. Later on in the spring, the action can get fast and furious and it's hard to keep up with too many rods. But during December and January, I like to get several big-fish rods set out." Taylor said.

Taylor has a specific type rod-and-reel combo that seems to work best for these big blues in Lake Wateree. He uses a 7-foot, Ugly Stick Tiger Rod.

"I want my catfish rod to have a medium-light action," he said. "I think the light tip is very important for catfish. But I need the rod to have a heavy butt section for power."

Taylor also uses a 6500C3 Ambassador reel with 20-pound-test line. He will use a No. 3 barrel swivel and a 6/0 to 8/0 circle hook attached to 50-pound-test leader. He uses a 3-ounce, flat, no-roll type sinker.

"The bait is also critical to success," Taylor said. "Big blues eat a lot of different things, but there are some things they seem to prefer. The best all-around, consistently producing wintertime bait I've found is cut bait, specifically white perch. However, cut bream and other fish work well, too. Both threadfin or gizzard shad also work really well."

Taylor will usually scrape the scales off the white perch and bream and cut them into really big chunks. He said this gives off more scent, always an important ingredient to catfish success he said.

"In fact, a lot of the largest fish my clients have caught were taken on the head portion of a big white perch," Taylor said. "Even if it's fairly large perch or gizzard shad, the whole head is great bait for a big blue. The cut bait section I'll cut from the body is often two or three fingers wide. This is a case where the saying 'a big bait equals big fish' is really true. Blue catfish are eating machines and they'll readily bite these really big baits. Plus that cuts down on annoying bites from small fish."

Once baited up, Taylor will cast the rigs out around the boat in a fanlike manner downcurrent from the boat. He said he likes to cover the slope into the deep water, the edgeline and the shallower water on top of the ledge.

"Usually, the fish orient along the drop, but at times, they'll actually be a bit deeper down the slop or back up on the top," he said. "It's best to cover all possibilities."

Once Taylor is rigged out, he'll give the area at least 30 minutes to produce.

"You need to have some patience, but not too much," Taylor said. "If I'm not getting any fish activity, not even catching smaller fish or not getting small fish tugs on the big-fish rigs, then I'll seldom give a spot much more than 30 minutes. I may not move far, but I'll move locations. Sometimes, if things just don't look right, I'll make a big move and go up or down the lake a good bit. The key is to remember you're actually fishing for big game and it's important to give the fish time to bite."

Taylor said that patience is also important when you get a bite. When using a circle hook, he said it's imperative that the fisherman gives the fish time to set the hook before the rod is picked up.

"I specifically like the circle hooks because I seem to hook up more often with these hooks than I do with the regular style of hooks," Taylor said. "Keeping my clients from grabbing the rod too quickly is important. When a big blue hits, many times the rod will just bow over and the fish is already loaded on and hooked up almost instantly. However, there are times when the catfish will bump the bait a couple times, and then just pick it up and slowly swim off. Sometimes the really big blues will do this. It's crucial that a person let the fish get totally hooked up before taking the rod out of the holder."

Because the strain on the rod holder can be extreme, Taylor uses the best he can find.

"I like the DriftMaster models," he said. "These rod holders are super strong and dependable. When a 40-, 50- or 60-pound blue catfish bows the rod down and swims off, the rod holder is a real key. If you lay the rod unattended on the gunnel of the boat, odds are great it will be snatched out of the boat and gone before you can react. The big blues often are very aggressive in the biting nature, even in the coldest part of the winter."

Taylor said that he will continue to move around until he finds a hotspot for the day. When he catches a big fish from a specific spot, he'll give that area even more time to produce another fish.

"When I catch one big fish, it's clear the conditions are right for the big blues," he said. "Most of the time, we'll get another big-fish bite or two from a place that produces a big fish. Sometimes, I get a bite very quickly after setting up on a spot, so be ready for a fish to bite at any time. If there's forage and a drop and you catch a big catfish, it's usually just a short while before another fish bites. Sometimes we'll double up, but that usually occurs later on in late winter and early spring when the smaller fish (10 to 20 pounds) begin to move in. However, if I go another 30 to 45 minutes with no action after a big-fish bite, it's time to move again."

If you're not familiar with Lake Wateree, I'd strongly suggest going with Taylor. He enjoys teaching folks how to do what he's doing with these big catfish as well as putting anglers on big fish. You can contact him on his Web site at www.catfishon.com, and the site also has photos of typical wintertime catches.

"Not a lot of fishermen have found out about this fishery yet, but it's a great catfish fishery, close to a lot of people," Taylor said. "And some of the best fishing of the year is when most fishermen aren't thinking about catfish, especially on Lake Wateree."

Of course, the catfishing on lakes Marion and Moultrie is also excellent during the winter. In addition to the potential for big catfish at these lakes on a year-round basis, the potential to catch plenty of 2- to 10-pound fish on a given day is also outstanding.

For these lakes, the wintertime catfish action will often occur around the drops and ledges. However, the fish also orient to the actual forage of the catfish during this time of the year, the threadfin shad. Both lakes Marion and Moultrie have a forage base of threadfin shad. The shad will congregate in large, tight schools during the colder months, especially during December and January. These s

chools of shad (called "pods" by many anglers) will drift with the wind over the lake.

The catfish will at times essentially use these bait pods as structure and follow the bait regardless of the bottom structure beneath them, until the water begins to get too shallow.

In another situation, and the one you can rely on to be the most dependable, anglers locate a bait pod over a drop that also holds catfish. Using a graph, you can mark both the catfish and the baitfish and you often see the catfish off the bottom as they actively feed on the shad. When you find the two (catfish and shad) in combination with a structure that is potentially productive anyway, you're in for some serious catfish catching.

Most Lake Marion catfish experts will use threadfin shad for bait. They'll catch the bait with cast nets early in the morning. A couple of throws will usually net enough bait for a whole day of fishing. Depending on the size of the shad, one, two or even three small shad will be hooked on for bait.

Also, this fishing is usually done vertically. The best technique is to anchor over a pod of shad and drop the bait down to the specific depth the fish are depicted on the graph. Usually, they're close to the bottom, but not always. That's why you need to pay close attention. Keep the bait a foot or two above the level of the catfish for best results.

You can use multiple rods, but sometimes the action gets so fast one rod is all you can handle. Most of the local experts I've fished with prefer the DriftMaster rod holder when fishing for the wintertime blues on lakes Marion and Moultrie.

Just because cold weather has set in and the water temperature is dropping, don't forget about the great Christmas time catfish action available in South Carolina. Lakes Wateree, Marion and Moultrie all produce great wintertime catfishing.

Find more about South Carolina fishing and hunting at:

SCgameandfish.com

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