By Jeff Samsel
“It’s more work than most anglers really want to do,” said Capt. Darrell Smith, talking about fishing for giant catfish in the rivers that feed the Santee-Cooper lakes. “River fish pull twice as hard as lake fish, and you can’t give them anything.”
Smith, who guides on the Santee-Cooper lakes and on rivers throughout the Piedmont, often has had anglers aboard his boat who had caught 30- to 40-pound catfish from lakes in the past.
“They hook a 20-pounder in the river, and they swear it’s the biggest cat they have ever caught. Then when they see that it’s a 20-pounder, they usually say they don’t want anything to do with one that weighs 50 pounds or more,” he said.
When Smith fishes rivers with big cats in mind, he locks down the drags on his reels, coaches clients to set the hook like they are trying to yank the fish over the boat, to begin cranking hard immediately and to never let up. Tangles of timber litter the sides and bottoms of the big holes that Smith concentrates on, and if the fish get in the trees, they are gone.
Smith, who lives in Rock Hill, knows about catching cats. He has boated a 100.5-pound blue, which qualified for line-class world record, and has brought countless 30-pound-plus cats into his boat. Smith has been fishing South Carolina rivers all his life, and while he fishes all types of water and for several kinds of fish, he holds a special fondness for wrestling catfish out of rivers.
Smith’s favorite catfishing rivers are the Congaree and the Wateree, which eventually join forces to form the Santee, and the Santee itself from the confluence of the other two rivers to Lake Marion. Together, the three rivers offer well over 60 miles of prime catfishing waters. Accessible in only a handful of places, these rivers contain long sections that get very light pressure from serious catfishermen.
All three rivers produce massive catfish and offer very legitimate state- or even world-record catfish potential. Summer typically produces big numbers, more so than big fish, Smith said. However, any cat that yanks down a rod in these waters could turn out to be a giant.
Throughout the summer, all three rivers are loaded with catfish. Smith believes the fish move up from the Santee-Cooper lakes because of the slightly cooler water temperatures in the rivers. Blues and channels are the most abundant cats throughout all three rivers, but flatheads are available for anglers who want to target them.
One of the best things about summer is that river levels tend to be stable, which Smith considers critical to success. The Wateree and Congaree both drain large watersheds, and both are heavily influenced by dam discharges. Therefore, their levels can fluctuate quite a bit at times. When the water is rising, Smith will go somewhere else, having found that the fish will pretty much shut down. Quickly falling water isn’t quite as bad, but the fish tend to scatter, making them more difficult to locate and catch.
Summer often brings stable conditions, and with stability comes outstanding fishing. Smith will fish by day or by night, but he tends to favor the after-hours approach on the rivers during August. He concentrates on the same types of holes by day or by night and uses the same basic techniques.
Whether he is fishing the Congaree, the Wateree or the Santee, Smith looks for the deepest water he can find, which is usually along the outside edge of a hard bend in the river. Making such spots even better, the same currents that scour out deep holes along outside bends tend to erode the banks, dropping trees into the river.
Because the rivers are always changing, Smith spends a lot of time just looking at holes with his graph whenever he is on the river. One season’s best hole commonly won’t be deep enough to hold a lot of big fish the following year (or the following month!), but other holes will have been scoured deeper or garnished with more cover at the same time.
Smith never drops his anchor directly in a hole, having found that the biggest cats can become very spooky. If possible, he ties his boat off on a snag. Lacking any snags in good positions to tie his boat to, he will drop anchor well upstream of the hole, and let out a lot of rope until the boat is positioned over the hole. Good positioning in the current takes a lot of practice, and sometimes it requires a couple of tries to get it right. However, the time and effort expended are small compared to the benefit of being in the best position.
When a hole’s configuration and currents allow doing so, Smith likes to position the boat directly over the spot he wants to fish and puts his baits straight down. However, at times, he has to lob baits downstream or toward the bank to get them right where he wants them. Either way, he locks the reels in gear and puts the rods securely in rod holders. Smith’s favorite waters are close to the bank along the outside bend, tight to the densest treetops and deepest water he can find.
Smith does all his river catfishing with Shakespeare Ugly Stik Catfish Rods, which he matches with Tidewater reels spooled with 60-pound-test line. He uses oversized Carolina rigs, often pegged with several ounces of weight, to fish big pieces of cut bait right on the bottom.
Smith believes in laying out a buffet and letting the catfish decide what they want for dinner. His favorite big-cat bait, overall, is cut gizzard shad. However, he also will use strips of threadfin shad, herring, bluegill, crappie and assorted other kinds of fish.
Smith fishes from a huge johnboat that is set up specifically for running and fishing rivers. Because of both his rig and his vast experience running the Congaree, Wateree and Santee rivers, he can cover a lot of water in a day. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Smith to spend time in all three rivers in a day, especially if he finds conditions that he does not like in one of the rivers.
The three rivers are quite similar in character overall. From a catfishing standpoint, the biggest difference in general is that the Congaree and Santee wind through long, sweeping bends, while the lower Wateree twists back and forth endlessly in very tight turns, creating a lot of short but very sharp turns. All three rivers are also relatively short because they officially form where other streams join forces.
The Congaree River forms in Columbia at the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers. It’s a good-sized river from its beginnings, but its far upper end is shoal st
udded and water levels vary quite a bit based on water released through Saluda Dam, which forms Lake Murray. The river soon levels out, however, and begins to look more like catfish waters as it begins winding through Coastal Plain habitat.
The Congaree, which often runs a bit clearer and cooler than the Wateree because of the Saluda’s influence, offers good fishing prospects from just south of Columbia all the way to the river’s end. Both because of access and because of where the river twists through the hardest bends, most catfishing pressure is confined to waters downstream of Big Beaver Creek.
The most practical access point for fishing the lower Congaree River is beneath the U.S. Highway 601 bridge, just north of St. Matthews. The bridge access, which offers plenty of room for parking and has a good boat ramp, also offers decent access for shoreline fishermen. The upper end of the river is accessible just south of Columbia, both in Olympia and across the river in Cayce.
Forming beneath the impounded waters of Lake Wateree, the Wateree River resembles the Congaree in its upper reaches, with fluctuating water levels and a string of rocky shoals at the Fall Line. Downstream of Camden, however, the Wateree, too, becomes a twisting lowland river that winds between swamps and sand bluffs. Huge scour holes along endless outside bends offer outstanding catfish habitat.
Drew Robb, a fisheries technician for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, spends a lot of time fishing for cats on the Wateree (and at times on the Congaree). Robb uses the cover growing along the edge of the river to locate the best catfishing spots. “Just look for the willows,” Robb said. “Where the willows end, the water is getting deeper. That’s the beginning of a hole that’s likely to have catfish in it.”
Robb, who fishes mostly by day, typically will anchor straight out from the point where the shoreline willows strop growing, which will be right at the head of a hole. Laying lines downstream, his baits end up on along the slope into the deepest part of the hole or at the upstream edge of the deep water. The scent of his bait, which is usually cut gizzard shad, will attract fish from throughout the hole.
Fishing mostly in the lower reaches of the Wateree River, Robb catches mostly blue and channel catfish, with blues being the most numerous. Most fish are in the 5- to 20-pound range, but he has seen enough giants come from the Wateree River that he knows the really big cats are there for the taking.
While channels and blues dominate the Wateree’s catfish population, this river also yields some heavyweight flathead catfish. In fact, it produced three consecutive former state-record flathead catfish, two of which were caught by the late Billy Peaks. Peaks’ biggest cat, a 74-pounder that held the top spot in the South Carolina record book for more than a decade, was caught during August.
Flathead fishermen, like the cats they go after, are a different breed. Flatheads are predators, not scavengers, so anglers who specifically want to catch them have to bait up with live fish. Bream are probably the most popular baitfish choice. Other good picks include gizzard shad, carp and bullheads. Flatheads also are even more cover-oriented than their cousins, so anglers need to put their baits almost in the thickest cover they can find.
Again, the best catfishing overall is in the lower half of the river. Most anglers fish downstream of the Interstate 20 bridge. The best access to the lower Wateree is actually from the Congaree, at the U.S. Highway 601 boat ramp. Well upstream, the river also can be accessed beneath U.S. Highway 76/378 bridge.
The Santee River, which forms at the confluence of the Wateree and Congaree rivers, offers no big surprises for anyone who has fished either the Congaree or the Wateree. It looks like a bigger version of its two tributaries. The Santee forms just upstream of the head of Lake Marion, but the main channel remains riverine and winds through swamps for several miles before it begins opening into the body of the lake.
Much of the Santee River no longer exists in its original state. Along with the long section of river that is impounded beneath Lake Marion, waters below the lake are diverted from the old channel through the Diversion Canal and then back to the river through the Rediversion Canal. From St. Stephens to the coast, the Santee is a natural river once again.
Good catfishing exists both above and below the lakes. The upper end of the river, like the Congaree and Wateree rivers, is a serious big-cat destination, with big blues and flatheads in the mix. Channel catfish abound in both sections of the river, especially during the summer.
Among the best spots on the Santee River is right where the river officially forms, according to Robb. The Congaree joins forces with the Wateree in the middle of a hairpin bend, and the combination of the river bend and the two rivers merging their waters scours out a massive hole. When the fish are piled in it and feeding, that hole alone is large enough for an angler to fish all day.
Downstream of the confluence, the Santee River twists through numerous long bends. And while the river section above the lake looks insignificant on a state map, the river actually flows between well-defined banks for more than 10 miles before it really begins opening into the lake. The extreme upper end of Lake Marion consists of flooded swamps, which are largely separated from the main-river channel.
Below Santee Dam, which forms Lake Marion, the Santee River takes on a completely different character. Most of the river’s flow is diverted to Lake Moultrie and the Cooper River system through the Diversion Canal, and the Santee’s big bed generally carries a very low flow for many miles. Because the dam, also known as Wilson Dam, contains no power plant, Santee-Cooper Corporation generally only spills enough water into the old channel to keep the riverbed in tact. It’s not until the Rediversion Canal returns water to the Santee that the river regains its proper flow. Downstream of the canal, the river snakes through swamps like any other coastal river for several miles before eventually turning tidal in character.
Depending on water levels and power-generation schedules in the complex Santee-Cooper system, there can be current in the old river channel or beneath the mouth of the Rediversion Canal, and wherever the most current is flowing generally is where the best fishing is found.
The lower Santee produces less big fish than the upper river, but channel catfish of all sizes and blue cats up to about 20 pounds are quite common. Outside bends also hold big flatheads for anglers who want to rig up with live bait and target these big predators. For anglers who just want fast action, a great strategy is to tie off to a big blowdown along an outside band and fish night crawlers or small pieces of cut shad right on the bottom.
The old bed of the lower Santee is accessible from Wilson’s Landing. The easiest access to the best fishing, more often than not, is at the mouth of the Rediversion Canal or farther downstream at the U.S. Highway 17A bridge
To learn more about catfishing with Capt. Darryl Smith or to book a trip, call (803) 324-7912 or log onto www.captaindarryl.com.
Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which includes extensive catfishing how-to information, plus details on top catfishing waters throughout the South. To order, send a check for $21.95 to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For more information, log onto www.jeffsamsel.com.
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