It’s catfish time in South Carolina and the big choice for most anglers is not figuring out where to find a decent place to fish, but rather deciding which good fishery they want to try next. There are many great choices and in this feature we’ll detail a few of the top waters that consistently produce excellent catfish action every year.
Plus the “big three” species of catfish — channel, blue and flathead — will all be covered. The waters we’ll look at are Wateree, Monticello, Clarks Hill lakes and the Santee River. All have great catfishing opportunities, each in their own unique way.
We’ll begin with one of the best lakes for blue catfish and a reliable producer of reasonably sized channel catfish, Lake Wateree.
During the summer, channel catfish can be taken in very good numbers on Wateree, but it’s usually the powerhouse big blue cat fishery that attracts the attention of most anglers. On any given day it’s not surprising to hook 25-pound fish — and fish up to 40 pounds are frequently caught. But as the fish population ages, this lake is now producing some blue catfish much larger than that.
To focus on the blue catfish, especially the big blues, think big in terms of big bait. Many blues are caught on small baits — these fish are opportunists — but for anglers who specifically target big blues, big baits get the easy nod as most reliable.
During colder weather a lot of anglers will anchor-fish for big blues on Lake Wateree, but during the summer, with the metabolism of the fish higher as the water temperature warms, a lot of huge fish are caught by anglers who are drift fishing. The key, according to most experts, is to find a combination of forage fish and catfish in the same vicinity and fish those areas.
During warm weather, many rely on a drift speed of 0.4 to 0.6 miles per hour to put the bait at a good position to attract a big catfish. Once you locate a hotspot, the right thing to do is to re-drift the area until the bite slows. Often during the main part of the day, the fish will be in a general area but not always on a specific structure such as a hump or ledge.
They are perfectly willing orient to flats as long as forage is available. Often the productive stretch for drift fishing will only be a few hundred yards long — the one section where, from the catfish’s point of view, depth and bait conditions are right. But occasionally you’ll find conditions where you catch fish over a much larger area.
But when the flats don’t produce, the catfish may be concentrated. Sometimes a single point or hump will be where the bulk of the catfish are located. When you drift over such a place and have multiple fish on simultaneously, you’ll figure that out. It probably goes without saying, but if you find a spot like that, fish it repeatedly until the action slows. Then go find another similar place with similar water depth.
Most anglers will go with gizzard shad or the ever-abundant white perch, cut into chunks, as the best baits to use whether drift fishing or anchor fishing. Threadfin shad are certainly good and chicken breast soaked in WD 40 or in garlic seasoning for a day or so will both attract blue catfish as well as channel catfish.
Some anglers prefer to go prepared for both species and that’s where the chicken breast bait helps: both blues and channel catfish will readily take that bait. Larger channel catfish will take the big chunks of cut gizzard shad or a perch head or body, but generally it’s the blues that take those baits most often.
Another way to target both is to also use shrimp on a drift rod or two. You may end up catching blues in the 5- to 10-pound class more often than huge fish, but the numbers of fish you catch will usually pick up and you’ll add channel catfish to the cooler as well.
A final tactic that works well for many is to get out at dawn or slightly before dawn and anchor on a point in10 to 12 feet of water near a drop that falls off to about 20 feet of water or more. Fan cast rigs into different depths with stink baits (most prefer the Doc’s Catfish Getter Stink Bait), as well as the chicken and shad/perch baits.
Give the anchor fishing a couple of hours while it’s still reasonably cool and the wind is calm and you’ll likely have a load of blue, channel and bullhead catfish in the cooler by the time the sun gets high enough to get warm. Then use the wind, if any, to drift fish. If there’s no wind, use your electric motor.
Lake Wateree will usually stratify during the summer in the lower half of the lake, typically at a depth of 20 feet or less, depending on rainfall, current flow and water temperatures. Because of the lower oxygen content below this depth most of the fishing will be at this depth or shallower. However, in many years the uplake portion of Wateree has enough current to keep oxygen in the water, so fish may be found deeper.
Lake Monticello is a trophy blue catfish fishery that’s made a name for cold weather fishing. But during the summer the catfish action can also be red hot, with both quantity and quality fish caught.
During hot weather this lake can produce a lot of catfish in the 1- to 10-pound class, both blue and channel catfish. To improve your chances of hooking a giant blue, focus on deep water by day and more scattered fish on flats and off points at night. Although the fish are not always found in the deep water, the proximity of deep water is a real key.
William Attaway (Slick Willies Guide Service, 803-924-0857) from Pomaria guides for catfish on Lake Monticello. Because Lake Monticello is so deep and serves as a pumpback lake, he says there is a real opportunity to catch fish very deep during the summer months. The lake is constantly having water pumped into and out of it, and that creates enough water turnover that deepwater fishing is possible.
Attaway says that his preferred style on Lake Monticello is to drift fish and he will sometimes work the shallower water early in the summer or late spring, especially if there have been rains and there is some water color in the creeks and coves.
“Generally the lake is so clear most of the productive fishing will be deep water during the summer on Lake Monticello,” he said. “I generally drift fish, or back troll, during the summer. Drift fishing is done by fishing on the on the bottom in the deep water where fish are depicted on the graph, often in 30 to 60 feet of water.
There are times that big cats will suspend in the summer so drift fishing with suspended baits on a freeline, or sometimes with a small splitshot to check different depths in the water column, will often produce. I actually catch a lot of fish that way and it is one of my preferred techniques (and one) that many anglers don’t employ.”
Attaway said that if the water color allows for it, then early in the summer he will fish shallow water with small baits and small hooks. That will produce a lot of fish, but the fish will tend to belong to a smaller size class.
“There is an abundant number of blues in the 1- to 10-pound class in this lake,” he said. “Much of the focus on the huge fish, but you can fill a cooler of good-sized fish on most days in the summer with a little bit of moving around.”
Bait is always a key to any catfishing success and most anglers prefer to use gizzard or threadfin shad. The baits can be rigged live, whole dead or cut. Lake Monticello is also full of white perch and Attaway said they make a very good blue catfish bait.
CLARKS HILL LAKE
This is a huge lake and has several advantages going for it during the summer months.
First, the lake is located on the Savannah River and consistently produces both quality and quantity of all of the big three catfish species. Anglers can target any of the three or focus on a specific species. Many anglers will set up in such a way that they have a great potential to hook either blues or channels using cut bait such as gizzard or threadfin shad and stink baits. The big flatheads typically prefer the live baits — live bream being a good choice during the summer months.
Plenty of blue and flathead catfish in the 30-pound class and larger are caught and some that are larger are occasionally caught. For the channel catfish a good-sized fish is usually in the 5- to 6-pound class. Unless rainfall has created some water color in the creeks, most of the fishing will be near the main river channel or in the lower end of the major creeks. But a heavy rain washing in fresh water and food sources will pull catfish to the back of the creeks even during the summer.
Not all of the fish will be deep all the time. The ledges, humps and points create ideal situations throughout the lake for catfish to migrate toward the shallower water to feed.
A good point that drops into deep water, preferably at the mouth of a large cove or creek, will give an angler a great opportunity to fan cast baits into a variety of depths.
Anchor fishing is also very good for such areas. Another good site for anchor fishing is a hump with deep water on at least two sides. The best technique is to simply cast around the boat in different depths. Once you catch a few fish you’ll have a good pattern for the day and can readily point-hop or drift your way to a cooler full of catfish.
When drift fishing it’s important to stay in depths where you are marking forage: That’s where the catfish will be. So watch the graph and don’t get too shallow or too deep.
The Santee River is often overlooked as a catfish resource, due in part to its proximity to the Cooper River, which has a justly deserved reputation for huge catfish.
But the Santee River has big fish too, and that is especially true in the years following times when a lot of water is released from Lake Marion through the Wilson Dam. When this occurs a lot of catfish come with that water and we’ve certainly had large releases of water for the past couple of years. The river restocks quickly that way and because of that there are plenty of big blue, flathead and channel catfish in the Santee River.
There are a couple different ways to fish the river effectively.
One is to anchor in or at the head of the deep holes and fish the deep water, especially during the day. Baits vary from bream to shad, stink baits and perch. Moat anglers will fish at least one rod with big live bait, such as a freshly caught bream from the river. A big blue will certainly take that bait, but live bluegill are prime baits for a big flathead.
In this river, both fresh cut bait and live bait will catch both species. The channel catfish seem to prefer cut bait, stink baits, minnows or worms. Further down the river you’ll find large sand bars that drop into deep water, island points, and small creek junctions that are very productive.
Many of the local anglers will fish the river at night when the catfish move into the shallows. These anglers may anchor in a deep hole but will certainly cast some rigs toward the shallows, while keep some in the deeper water. The entire river is really productive and will produce throughout the summer. For really big fish, local experts agree that the nocturnal hours or very early and late are best.
Another place to catch catfish on the Santee River is to drift fish the portion of the Re-Diversion canal that is open to fishing. There is a good stretch from the landing at Arrowhead Resort near St. Stephens that anglers can effectively drift. Check the regulations carefully to ensure you don’t venture into water closed to boats.
The fishing is usually best if there’s some current and a good tactic is to present baits vertically, just off the bottom, on a couple down rods. The depth you’ll be fishing typically varies from 12 to 18 feet, but at times you’ll find the fish deeper. Some anglers will also have a couple of trailing rods rigged with big sliding floats set to keep the bait within 3 feet of the bottom.
A big cat will quickly come up for bait that’s close to the bottom. Because of snags in the area using a typical Santee drift rig can be difficult. The float technique would work anywhere that a bottom-bumping rig would get snagged in the gnarly cover in this river.