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Catch Sutton Lake's Big Catfish Now!

Catch Sutton Lake's Big Catfish Now!

While most North Carolina anglers know about the Cape Fear River's big catfish, many make the mistake of overlooking the excellent fishing at nearby Sutton Lake.

Author Mike Marsh with a 35-pound Sutton Lake flathead. Biologists would like to see more of these big flatheads removed.
Photo by Mike Marsh

Anglers who fish at Sutton Lake find solitude and quiet. There are no personal watercraft, water skis or boaters out for Sunday pleasure cruises to destroy the serenity with their droning motor noises and rolling boat wakes. When the 850-acre lake was filled, many of the existing trees were left standing, leaving treacherous obstacles in the paths of boaters who like to lay heavy hands on their throttles.

While bass fishermen and anglers dunking worms for panfish rule the water by day, a few secretive souls sneak away from the public access ramp at dusk. Their gear is on the super-beefy side for largemouth bass. (In fact, it's actually more like the saltwater gear that most of them already own because of the lake's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.)

Catfish are what they are after and Sutton Lake has several species of them lurking beneath logjams, waterlogged cypress trees and deep channels along the lake's dikes. Anytime anyone casts something with a hook into the lake, they may come up with a big surprise when a channel or flathead catfish pounds it, whether the bait they're using is natural or an artificial, such as a crankbait or spinner. But those who head for the lake at night do so with purpose -- finding big catfish on the prowl.

Sutton Lake was originally called "Catfish Lake" by anglers because the major creek bed that was inundated was named Catfish Creek. The name was, in fact, a foreshadowing of what was in store once the lake was filled by pumping water from the Cape Fear River in 1972.

Several native species of catfish were in the creek as it was flooded, including white catfish, snail bullheads, yellow bullheads, brown bullheads and flat bullheads. Non-native channel catfish were also already in the Cape Fear River system and were likely trapped when the lake was completed.

A more recently introduced species is the flathead catfish. This predatory catfish reaches huge sizes in the lake and feeds on other catfish, as well as all species of panfish.

"We first noticed juvenile flathead catfish in our sampling in 1993," said Reid Garrett, Senior Environmental Specialist with Progress Energy -- Carolinas.

Progress Energy owns Sutton Lake. The lake's principal purpose is providing cooling water for the L.V. Sutton generating plant located on the southern side of the lake. A central dike divides the lake and several wing dikes extend from it and from the shoreline. This provides a long flow path, allowing hot water that is discharged into the lake to cool so it can be re-circulated through the power plant.

The arrival of flathead catfish was greeted with trepidation by biologists, and most likely occurred when an angler with good intentions introduced them into the lake. But no one knows for certain how the flatheads made their way into the lake. Biologists found the flatheads while sampling the lake and became alarmed, believing the bigger catfish had eaten or displaced the more desirable channel catfish and the native species in the lake.

By 2003, biologists estimated that over 1,000 large flathead catfish lived in the lake. But current sampling techniques no longer include rotenone, a poisoning technique that first turned up juvenile flatheads. All sampling now is through electrofishing, which does not provide as good a picture of the catfish population.

Initially biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Progress Energy became alarmed when channel catfish disappeared from their samples. Flathead catfish are voracious predators and small catfish are one of their primary prey species.

"Flatheads can decimate native bullheads and introduced channel catfish," Garrett said. "Blue catfish do OK in association with flatheads because they occur together on their native waters. But there are no blue catfish in Sutton Lake."

The arrival of flatheads was bad news to Garrett, who would rather see flourishing populations of native sunfish, which are also eaten by flatheads. He was involved in a tissue sampling survey of the big catfish prior to publicizing the excellent fishing in store for flathead catfish anglers.

"Our tissue sampling showed there is nothing in the flatheads that would make them unfit to eat," he said. "Flatheads are one of the best tasting catfish species and I would like to see them caught and retained by anglers. There is enough flow in the lake to stimulate natural spawning behavior and they are successfully reproducing."

A stocking program was begun to shore up the channel catfish population. The NCWRC has always been a partner in the lake's management. In the late '90s, the commission stocked about 30,000 channel catfish over a three-year period.

"We stocked 83,000 more channel catfish at Sutton Lake in November and December 2004," said Bob Barwick, fishery biologist with the commission. "The stocking was not necessarily to offset predation by flathead catfish, but basically to enhance the fishery. The stocked channel catfish were 4 to 6 inches in length."

In October 2003, the commission completed an electrofishing survey of flathead catfish. Electrofishing gear caught nine flathead catfish averaging between 20 and 28 inches in length per hour. The survey was conducted along the entire central dike, the Catfish Creek channel, Bay No. 1 and all wing dikes from Bay No. 3 to Bay No. 8. This survey covered the deeper water along the dikes where channels were excavated to generate the material used to build the dikes. Some of the fish were greater than 40 inches long and close to 30 pounds in weight. The largest fish turned up during any electro-shock survey weighed 39 pounds.

"It was so big, the tail stuck out of the holding tank," Barwick said. "The odds of catching a big flathead catfish at Sutton Lake are pretty good. We found them in all of the deep-water areas, with a slightly higher number along the dikes near the discharge canal."

What is interesting is that, although channel catfish disappeared from sampling surveys, it was probably due more to the method of sampling than the fact that the fish were no longer there. Lots of anglers fish for channel catfish and do very well at catching them.

Sharkey Stocks is a commercial and recreational catfish angler. Five years ago, he dropped some chum block made of coagu

lated blood into the deep hole at Bay No. 3. He came back a few hours later and dropped his fishing lines to the bottom. They were baited with a blood bait of his own making.

"Everyone had told me there were lots of flatheads in the lake," he said. "But I caught over 20 channel cats in a couple of hours of fishing. The biggest one weighed about 20 pounds."

Other anglers were having similar results. Eddie Trusch and Gregg Cross fish the lake often and catch mainly channel catfish. They use unsophisticated baits to catch them.

"We use hot dogs, Spam and chicken livers to catch channel catfish," Cross said. "We go out on the lake at night and use ocean-fishing tackle because there are really big fish out there."

The pair uses a lantern to illuminate the water so the fish can be seen during the battle and to make them easier to net. Most of the time, they catch a few fish, and occasionally catch over 20 catfish in a single night's fishing.

Progress Energy and the Wildlife Commission recently partnered again. In January 2005, seven biologists and technicians collected 175 Christmas trees and placed them at existing fish attractors around the lake. There are 25 fish attractors consisting of Christmas trees and PVC pipe frames which hold plastic fruit juice barrels sawed in half lengthwise. These fish attractors are likely to hold both channel catfish and flathead catfish. They were marked with new buoys when the trees were placed.

"We placed 75 trees within casting distance of the fishing dock that can be accessed from the boat ramp parking lot," Barwick said. "The rest were placed at existing attractor sites. We arranged the trees near the fishing dock to create casting alleys so anglers can cast between them."

One of the best places to catch catfish is from the fishing dock. The old Catfish Creek bed makes a curve near the dock and anglers can reach it with a long cast.

There are all kinds of fishing gear on the dock on a night when catfishermen are there. Trolling reels, baitcasting rigs and freshwater spinning reels can be seen. But the most successful catfish anglers use surf rods. They use heavy surf sinkers so they can heave their baits as far as the Catfish Creek channel.

A No. 3 heavy-shank hook is great for reeling in the fish. A hook that size will hold a 20-pound flathead or 15-pound channel catfish, but will still straighten out if it becomes caught on a log, root or submerged Christmas tree attractor weighted down with a cinder block tied to the tree with electrical wire.

A lantern is a necessity for landing fish, baiting hooks and tying on rigs. It also helps to prevent spilling a chum bucket. Saltwater anglers have adopted chumming as a prime technique for luring big catfish near the public fishing dock. But it is a good idea to stay upwind of their preferred mixture of catfish lure.

Bait shrimp past their prime, shrimp heads and catfish remains are placed into a bucket and left in the sun for a day. The chum is covered with a tight-fitting lid and transported in a pickup bed to the dock. Every so often, a ladle or scoop is used to toss some of the stinky goop in front of the dock. Day-old catfish offal may smell awful, but it sure does the trick.

Fresh shrimp, cut mullet, cut shad, squid, hot dogs and chicken, beef or pig livers all make great baits for channel catfish, whether fished from the public dock or from a boat. Occasionally, a flathead catfish will be caught on one of these channel catfish baits. But anglers who want to target flathead catfish will have to adjust their baits and tactics to be successful.

Channel catfish are gregarious. That's why chumming is so effective. Channel catfish will travel long distances to follow a scent trail to its source to find food. Anglers who want to avoid too many hang-ups in the stumps and submerged logs at Sutton Lake can find a deep hole along the dike or old creek channel and drop chum blocks to the bottom or drop chopped chum over the side. Just putting the baits over the side can attract channel catfish from a great distance when the angler is in a boat along one of the deep channels beside a dike because the water is constantly flowing, carrying the scent to channel catfish.

But for success with flathead catfish, techniques must change. Flatheads are predatory and feed almost exclusively on live forage. They tend to be solitary in their choice of cover. As shown in the commission's electro-shock surveys, flatheads are widely distributed throughout the deeper waters of the lake.

Flatheads like to spend the day in heavy cover located in the deepest water. At Sutton Lake, Bay No. 3 at the northeastern corner of the lake has a hole that is about 30 feet deep. There are a couple of fish attractors, marked by buoys, that create flathead hiding places. There are also stumps, sunken trees and tree root systems in the hole.

Some very large flatheads have been caught from the hole as well as the deep channels along the dikes by anglers fishing with live baits. The best live baits are sunfish caught from the lake, with bluegill, shellcracker and redbreast sunfish available for the catching. The sunfish must be caught on hook and line and fished on hook and line to be legal for use as baitfish. The correct size sunfish is 4 to 8 inches long.

Sunfish can be kept alive in a livewell or in a perforated bait bucket tossed overboard to allow fresh water to enter. They can also be kept alive inside an ice chest with a bucket used to change out the water.

Flathead anglers fishing during the day try fishing the deep areas by fishing live baits on Carolina rigs. Hooks with wire weed guards or circle hooks with inward turned points decrease the chance of snagging submerged trees. Superbraid and monofilament lines of 50-pound-test and up are not oversized for defeating a big flathead.

The fish are extremely strong and fast during their initial run. Usually, the fish attacks the bait and heads toward heavy cover at a fast pace. The trick is turning the fish toward the surface before it can carry the line beneath a fallen tree.

Most anglers fish with a light drag and the warning clicker on. The fish is allowed to take just enough line to get the hook inside its mouth. With a circle hook, the drag is simply tightened as the fish runs, pulling the hook into the corner of its mouth. But with a standard hook, the hook is set hard once the angler feels the fish. Hooks from 6/0 and up are needed to catch trophy flatheads.

Some anglers prefer the odds of catching smaller flatheads. Buying a bucket of live shiners 4 to 6 inches long is the quick ticket to flatheads of up to 10 pounds in weight and also has the advantage of providing baits a channel cat will also pounce upon.

As the sky darkens, flatheads move from the deep holes to the shallower areas. They hunt in stumpy areas, beneath overhanging tree limbs and undercut banks. Float rigs are the key to catching big flatheads after dark.

Anglers can use a trolling motor to ease along, casting to the bank at intervals to cover as much water as possible. However, whether anchoring in deep water or float-rigging along the dikes, anglers must be aware that flatheads are spooky compared to other catfish.

It is a good idea to give a bait at least 30 minutes to entice a flathead after arriving in an area and making a cast. Multiple baits fished in all directions in a "shotgun" pattern around the boat give flatheads a better chance of finding the baits. Fishing both bottom rigs and float rigs at the same time allows the baits to cover the entire water column.

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