There’s great fall catfishing scattered across North Carolina. Go fishing now!
By Mike Marsh
Catfish anglers catch their favorite fish in any public fresh water across the Tar Heel State. But the biggest blue, channel and flathead catfish can turn up in the most unexpected places.
After producing three record blue catfish in rapid succession, Lake Gaston became the state’s premiere catfishing destination. On Dec. 20, 2015, Zakk Royce caught a 91-pound blue catfish that broke the state record. Eighteen hours later, on Dec. 21, 2015, he caught a 105-pound blue that broke his own record. On June 11, 2016, Landon Evans caught another blue cat weighing 117.5 pounds, establishing the current record.
Royce guides with Blues Brothers Guide Service. He said other big lakes have great catfishing, but fishing his home waters was essential to success.
“I like drift-fishing and trolling,” Royce said. “Most people think the best time to fish is night. If you want to anchor and fish, that is the case. However, I catch my biggest fish during the day, running Santee drift rigs with 24 inches of 60-pound leader and 7/0 or 8/0 hooks and 30-pound main lines.”
A Santee sinker consists of buckshot tucked inside a parachute cord sheath. It slithers along the bottom without snagging. Royce’s favorite bait is cut gizzard shad and his best speed is one-half mile per hour. However, he has no specific spots for catching catfish.
“It depends on weather,” he said. “The most important thing is staying in the general area where you find baitfish and the baitfish move around with the weather. When the temperature drops to between 68 and 60 degrees, blue catfish go into a feeding frenzy, making it the best time of year to fish. I go to places where I caught them in past years and try to match a pattern, but it is different every year. However, if we get lots of rain, fish move shallower when the water is higher.”
An all-day trip typically results in 10 to 15 blue catfish weighing 10 to 15 pounds. However, in September, some trips yield catches of 50 fish with some specimens topping 40 pounds.
- Also see: Pro Tips for Big Catfish This Fall
“Blues are constantly moving,” he said. “There is no secret spot where you can go to catch them. They will be in open water where it really does not make any sense to you, but they are just following the bait. The bigger they get, the harder they are to find because, to a fish that weighs 50 pounds, everything is bait, including stripers and largemouth bass. I have caught blue catfish with 5-pound catfish sticking out of their mouths.”
Royce trolls six to eight 7 1/2-foot Big Cat Fever rods with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 baitcasting reels He makes his own side planers or “planer boards” and sets the farthest pair 100 feet back and another pair half that distance. He sets the other lines directly from rods placed in rod holders.
“It spreads the baits like an offshore trolling rig,” he said. “Using planer boards lets me cover more water without my lines tangling.”
Sometimes, he uses his GPS to follow a drop-off. It also shows the locations of submerged bridges, roadbeds and other potential snags. While he uses a depthfinder to find baitfish, it will not locate catfish.
“Those big catfish lay on the bottom,” he said. “I have caught them with mud all over their sides and you can’t mark a fish like that with a depthfinder. I have fished the lake from Kerr Dam to Gaston Dam and still learn something new every day.”
Whether another state record is in the lake is conjecture. However, last year, he had a client land a blue catfish weighing 90 pounds and saw a photo of one landed on a jug hook that he estimated to weigh at least 130 pounds.
The Cape Fear River has produced several state record blue and flathead catfish over years past and Riahn Brewington renewed its claim as a monster-fish producer when he landed a blue catfish that weighed 112 pounds on Nov. 23, 2016. He caught it using a live minnow for bait on a rod with 10-pound test line and weighed it on a hand scale, but did not have it officially weighed.
The Cape Fear River’s blue catfish travel around, following baitfish schools. Fall anglers use frozen, cut shad they have saved from the spring shad runs and cut live eels into 6-inch lengths for bait as well.
While blue cats favor cut baits, flathead catfish like live baits. I once traveled a section of the river during an NCWRC electroshock survey and noticed what anglers have said for years. Flathead catfish are loners, while blue catfish are gregarious. Very few channel catfish and bullhead catfish remain in the river.
Blue catfish popped up anywhere. However, flathead catfish surfaced near logjams. The river is channelized, so the water is deep everywhere. When a flathead is momentarily stunned by electricity, it is common for another one to surface with it. They are probably a male and a female living in the same structure.
Their solitary nature shows that flathead anglers will have their best luck catching flatheads by anchoring near a logjam and casting a live sunfish on a bottom rig just above it. Heavy rods and reels are necessary to haul flatheads from the heavy cover.
Some of the best catfish anglers hedge their bets, using both cut and live baits on multiple rods. The standard practice is anchoring the boat at dusk, just above a curve of a bend where the water is deepest. Then, the anglers alternate baits, using cut shad, cut eel, and live panfish and setting them different distances from the boat.
Capt. Bruce Trujillo of Tight Loop Charters at Wrightsville Beach has a cabin near Waynesville. I went to the mountains with him to catch trout, but was surprised at the channel catfish he caught from the Pigeon River.
All we had for bait was a container of night crawlers and we ran out of them. Then we used the pimento cheese sandwiches we made for lunch.
Fishing with ultralight spinning rigs, we cast for catfish that topped 10 pounds with dough balls made by compressing the sandwich bread with pimento cheese inside around small trout hooks.
The catfish bit well where we were fishing from the bank at a spot where a highway right-of- way touched the river. Once, as I was making a dough ball, a catfish bit my hook and Trujillo ran into the water to save my rod. As night fell, two other anglers walked down the bank with a Coleman lantern. We watched them catch a few catfish before walking over to join them. They said they had caught more than 330 catfish from that one spot over several months throughout the summer and into fall.
Maynard Edwards operates Yadkin Lakes Guide Service and Extreme Fishing Concepts. He said September is the top month for blue and channel catfish at High Rock Lake.
“Badin gets the glory, but I catch just as many catfish at High Rock,” he said. “In September I catch blue and channel cats by trolling. If you want to catch flatheads, all you have to do is anchor in the same places and fish with live white perch.”
For trolling, Edwards employs 3/0 to 6/0 circle hooks, reserving smaller sizes for channel cats. He uses gizzard shad for bait after catching them with a cast net.
He makes his bottom rig with a “walking” sinker, which is a 3-ounce torpedo lead with a stiff 8-inch wire through its center. The wire tickles the bottom so the lead “walks” over rocks, whereas a simple torpedo sinker would snag. He uses an orange-and-white Styrofoam float on a 24-inch 30-pound monofilament leader to attract attention and keep the hook off the bottom.
He makes, uses, and sells side planers. Like Royce, he calls them “planer boards.” Coming up with a unique design, he makes them from soft, expanded foam glued to aluminum plate. Their line harnesses are reversible, so he can troll them from either side. The foam prevents them from dinging the boat or a banging an angler’s knee when he swings a catfish over the side.
“The planer boards spread the lines out to the sides,” he said. “I usually set one pair on each side. I use medium action Shakespeare Ugly Stik rods with Ambassadeur 6500 reels. I also make and sell rod holders that can be positioned anywhere. They help me troll no matter the wind velocity and direction without the lines getting tangled.”
A typical fishing trip results in 20 to 40 blue and channel catfish, with several blue catfish weighing 20 to 30 pounds. Flatheads will strike often enough to keep the fishing extremely interesting.
Jerry Neely operates Jerry’s Fishing Guide Service and is a top catfish guide on the lower Catawba River lakes. While he catches plenty of blue and channel catfish at Lake Norman all summer, he prefers Lake Wylie during the fall.
“Lake Norman is clearer in the fall, which makes the fish finicky,” he said. “Wylie is older and has lots of creeks that provide it with a good nutrient supply, making the water darker. More nutrients also create more and larger forage fish — shad, white perch and other small fish, which in turn makes the catfish bigger.”
Neeley trolls six 7-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik rods with Abu Garcia 6000 and 6500 reels spooled with 20-pound test monofilament line. His bottom rigs have Santee sinkers with 36 inches of 40-pound monofilament leader and L42 Eagle Claw 6/0 wide bend hooks. He threads a foam float onto the leader to keep the bait above the bottom. His favorite baits are cut white perch and panfish. While he usually catches bait ahead of a trip, he keeps it no more than two days because catfish prefer fresh bait. If he needs fresh bait during a trip, he trolls a rod with a Sabiki rig from the stern to catch white perch.
“I catch very few flatheads, but lots of blue catfish,” he said. “I catch them on the flats in the South Fork River from Mill Creek to Beaver Dam Creek. The other creeks — Catawba, Paw, Steele and Boyds — also have catfish. However, if you fish on the South Carolina side, you must have a South Carolina fishing license.”
Neeley begins trolling at the backs of the creeks in 8 to 10 feet of water, makes his way to the creek mouths then trolls all around the flats. Outside the creeks when he hits the flats, his depthfinder reads 25 to 40 feet of water. He programs productive trolling runs in a Minn Kota i-Pilot programmable trolling motor, which keeps him from snagging the same stumps and rocks. His favorite trolling speed is 1/2 mile per hour.
“They are always on the flats before you hit the big drop-offs,” he said. “A good flat might be five football fields in area, so it has a lot of territory. In the morning, I catch fish at 12 to 16 feet, but may get a monster weighing 50 to 60 pounds if I am fishing very early in shallow water. Last year, we caught one the first week in October in only 6 feet of water. We thought we had a whale on the line. He weighed 57 pounds and it took both the angler and me to wrestle it into the boat.”
A more typical day produces 12 to 15 catfish weighing up to 20 pounds. Neeley can spot the fish with his depthfinder.
“If I can see fish hugging the bottom, 80 percent of the time they are catfish,” he said. “I also catch them on clam beds. You can tell you are on a clam bed by the way the rod tip bounces as the sinker drags across. Nearly all of the clam beds are on the South Carolina side. If you catch a catfish and put it in the live well and it regurgitates clams, you have found the right place.”
●Zakk Royce, Blues Brothers Guide Service, Lake Gaston, (919) 724-2474.
●Jerry Neeley, Jerry’s Fishing Guide Service, Lakes Norman and Wylie, (704) 678-1043.
●Bruce Trujillo Tight Loop Charters, Fly Fishing and Light Tackle, Wilmington, (910) 675-0252.
●Maynard Edwards, Yadkin Lakes Guide Service, High Rock, Badin and Tillery
●Also Extreme Fishing Concepts fishing supplies, (336) 249-6782.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: To contact author Mike Marsh or to order any of his books (“Fishing North Carolina,” autographed, inscribed, $26.60 ppd; “Inshore Angler-Carolina’s Small Boat Fishing Guide,” $26.20; “Offshore Angler-Coastal Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide,” $22.20 and “Carolina Hunting Adventures-Quest for the Limit,” $15) visit www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.