The Cape Fear's enormous drainage area near the Atlantic Ocean has millions of holes and logjams -- the perfect homes for several species of catfish. (August 2006)
Mike Marsh shows off a big catfish of about 40 pounds from the New Hanover County section of the river. Photo courtesy of Mike Marsh.
The Cape Fear River eventually drains into the Atlantic Ocean. By the time its turbulent waters get to Bald Head Island, they have passed through New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender, Bladen, Cumberland and Harnett counties. It begins life at the confluence of the Deep River and Haw River at Lee and Chatham counties.
Along the length of the Cape Fear anglers catch all sorts and sizes of catfish. Sometimes catfish catches are intentional, sometimes accidental. But catfish anglers are in for quite a jolt when a catfish strikes and makes a dive for the nearest undercut bank.
At lower stretches of the river, salinity keeps most of the freshwater catfish at bay. But there are still prized catfish to be caught.
Most anglers who first catch gafftopsail catfish are using cut bait or live baits while fishing for other saltwater fish. A big gafftopsail can break 10 pounds, but most weigh less than 4 pounds.
The gafftopsail is a tough fighter. Predatory by nature, this unique catfish chases live baits and therefore is especially numerous during the "mullet runs" at summer's end. Anglers using jigs or scented soft baits may also catch them while fishing for speckled trout.
The gafftopsail catfish is named for long streamers trailing from its pectoral and dorsal fins. The fins are apparently close enough in form to resemble a type of sail and give the fish its name. They cannot be confused with any other type of catfish but are sometimes caught along with smaller saltwater catfish called hardheads. Hardheads seldom weigh above 2 pounds and resemble bullhead catfish enough that they can confuse anglers fishing in the upper reaches of the river.
Both saltwater catfish have thicker slime coats than freshwater catfish and that turns some anglers off to dressing them. But once they know both of these saltwater catfish offer as fine an eating experience as any freshwater catfish, they happily drop them into their coolers. In fact, many anglers who have tried eating them believe the gafftopsail is the best tasting catfish in any waters.
Gafftopsail catfish form large schools in navigation channels. The best places to catch them are from the open sandbars along the edges of the navigation channels where bottom rigs won't get snagged. Hardheads like to stay in the depths. Deep holes are the best places to catch them, although either catfish can even be caught from the ocean surf.
The most likely place to catch these saltwater catfish in the Cape Fear is downstream of Wilmington. However, like many saltwater fish, they can survive in low salinities and may be caught as far upriver as Lock and Dam No. 1 at Elizabethtown if the water flow is low as it often is during the summer months.
The best places to launch for catching saltwater catfish are from the city of Wilmington ramp located at the foot of Castle Street northeast of the U.S. 74-76 drawbridge and at the NCWRC Snow's Cut Boating Access Area located off Spencer Farlow Road in Carolina Beach east of the U.S. 421 bridge.
In the freshwater catfish category, the Cape Fear has several contenders for top-flight fishing. The native catfish include brown and yellow bullheads, white catfish and channel catfish. These small catfish are the mainstay of many fishing trips. Bullheads seldom exceed a couple of pounds in weight. White catfish can weigh more than 15 pounds but usually are in the lightweight class with bullheads. Channel catfish are next in size and commonly weigh above 5 pounds, with 10-pounders not at all rare.
Bullheads are easy to identify with their bloated belly appearance and large heads in comparison with body size. Channel catfish are the next easiest to identify because they have more streamlined bodies and have scattered dark spots on their sides.
The white catfish is the most misidentified catfish in North Carolina waters, often mistaken for a channel or blue catfish. It has a forked tail with rounded lobes that is unlike any other catfish.
These smaller species are a "catfisherman's meat fish." They will strike anything that smells and looks like protein and are occasionally caught with soft-plastic lures and spinners. In one multiple-species catfish catch along a tributary to the river, I found that the fish had been eating small turtles, a wood duck hatchling, aquatic vegetation, minnows and fry, sirens, beetles and grasshoppers. In many of the bullheads the predominant food was laurel oak acorns.
Anglers can catch these smaller catfish using prepared stink baits, cheese baits and blood baits. Packaged baits are easy to buy, store and carry to the river. They also stay on the hook nicely in the rushing waters above Wilmington. Other all-around catfish baits include worms, chicken livers, hot dogs, bacon, canned luncheon meat, shrimp, cut fish and canned corn.
The best areas to fish for the smaller catfish are near fallen trees and at the places where oxbows and feeder creeks join the main channel of the Northeast Cape Fear River.
There are some excellent places for bank-bound anglers to fish. There is a New Hanover County Parks and Recreation public fishing area with a wooden dock located on Old Bridge Site Road on the southwest side of the N.C. 133-U.S. 117 Highway bridge across the Northeast Cape Fear River at Castle Hayne.
On the southeast side of the bridge, the NCWRC Castle Hayne boating access area is an excellent place to launch. The mouth of Prince George Creek located a couple of miles to the south and the mouth of Island Creek, a couple of miles to the north, are also excellent places for catfishing.
Another free public fishing area is located to the south of the NCWRC Holly Shelter boating access area on SR 1523. A trail extends southward along the riverfront and it is open to walk-in fishing along its length.
Lane's Ferry Bait and Tackle is located on the west side of the N.C. 210 bridge at Rocky Point. The private launching area charges a small fee for fishing from the boat docks and for using the ramp. It's a great location for accessing some of the best catfishing along the Northeast Cape Fear.
Other NCWRC ramps accessing the Northeast Cape Fear are Sawpit Landing at SR 1512 near Burgaw and Kenansville Landing off N.C. 24 at Wildlife Landing Road.
Of the smaller catfish species, only the channel catfish moves into the game fish category. Sadly or happily, depending on viewpoint, the native Cape Fear system catfish are being displaced by introduced big-game catfish -- flatheads and blues. Blue catfish attain enormous sizes, with documented records from the Mississippi River during the 1800s of fish weighing over 300 pounds. There is the potential for a 100-pound blue catfish from the Cape Fear, according to angler reports of huge fish that couldn't be landed. Blue catfish can be confused with channel catfish, but lack spots on their sides. The anal fin is long and straight rather than rounded like that of the channel catfish. Flathead catfish are easy to identify by the flattened appearance of the top of the head.
The state-record flathead catfish was caught from the Cape Fear Sept. 17, 2005, by Brian Newberger. He was fishing above Lock and Dam No. 3 in Cumberland County. The flathead weighed 78 pounds and was released, so anyone catching it again will be able to break the record. The previous state-record flathead weighed 69 pounds and was caught from the same waters by Edward C. Davis in 1994. While Davis used a live panfish for his catch, Newberger used a live eel.
Flathead catfish are voracious predators. They are more solitary than other catfish and defend territories. They spend the day inside heavy cover such as logjams and cruise into the shallows to chase prey by night. Their favorite prey is a live bullhead. But a panfish, eel or any other live bait will do for catching them.
Most flathead catfish anglers use live panfish, which must be caught on hook and line for legal use as bait. Panfish can be fished successfully for flatheads in deep holes near logjams and at eddies where streams enter the river during the day. But as night falls, the best bet is to fish them with float rigs beneath overhanging limbs and back in the oxbows.
Blue catfish are also predators and their favorite prey in the Cape Fear River system is shad. While some baits, such as liver, cut fish or shrimp will entice any of the catfish species including blues, cut shad seems to be the best bait for blues. Cutting a shad fillet into 1-inch squares and dropping them into a zipper bag with a few drops of anise oil is a great way to create a bait for specifically targeting blue catfish.
A former state record for blue catfish was caught at the same stretch of river as the new flathead catfish record. Blue catfish are more free-swimming than flatheads. They strike baits fished at any depth in the water column. But the best luck will come with baits fished at deep holes in the channel during the day and on ledges upstream of the deep holes at night.
Walk-in fishing below Lock and Dam No. 1 can be accessed at the Federal Paper ramp off Riegel Club Road. There is a fishing pier at the ramp as well as a free launching facility.
Moving upstream, the next available boat ramp is the NCWRC Tar Heel Boating Access Area located at Lock and Dam No. 1. There is a picnic area at the ramp and catfish anglers can fish from the bank below the picnic area. The boiling water just downstream of the dam is a notorious hangout for big catfish. However, it is also a notorious place for hanging up fishing tackle and boat anchors on the rubble-strewn bottom.
The fast water at the dam also poses risks to anglers in boats. Therefore, most anglers fish the quieter waters just downstream of Lock and Dam No. 1. This stretch of water, running from Lock and Dam No. 1 all the way downstream to Wilmington is a more natural stretch than the dredged channels between the locks and dams.
Anglers have the best luck in traditional catfishing areas. Deep holes on the outside downstream bends of the river and at the mouths of feeder creeks will hold plenty of big catfish during the daytime. The flats and slopes upstream of the holes will be the best places to fish at dusk, and as night progresses, the banks and oxbows will attract catfish on the prowl.
The Black River is tributary to this stretch of the Cape Fear and has excellent fishing. There is an NCWRC boating access area at the SR 1105 bridge at Ivanhoe that gives access to the Black River. Another NCWRC access to the Black River is the Hunt's Bluff ramp, located in Bladen County east of Kelly at the end of SR 1547.
The NCWRC Elwell Ferry ramp near Elizabethtown gives anglers access to the river between Lock and Dam No. 1 and Lock and Dam No. 2. The William O. Huske Lock and Dam No. 3 launching ramp had been closed for repairs through last winter but is now open for use. This gives anglers access to the river between Lock and Dam No. 2 and Lock and Dam No. 3.
The dredged channel between Lock and Dam Nos. 1, 2 and 3 is unusually homogenous for catfish water. It is basically a straight-sided, straight-running ditch with a uniform bottom depth dredged to allow the commercial traffic.
Feeder streams between the dams were blocked off to prevent the outflow of water to maintain navigation depth. The opportunity to fish deep holes, creek mouths and eddies between the dams is diminished. But that doesn't mean there are no catfish.
Anglers after flatheads target logjams and submerged trees felled by bank erosion. The area near the logjams is also an excellent place. Any blockage in the current flow will concentrate catfish. Many anglers choose the areas upstream of logjams, which are holding areas for woody debris whenever the navigation is cleared during maintenance activities.
Dropping baits to the bottom and ladling chum (consisting of fish entrails, pet food and leftover bait) pulls the fish from hiding. The catfish move upstream following the scent trail to baited hooks waiting on the bottom or suspended from float rigs. The skin of a catfish is covered with sensory buds, making the fish essentially a living tongue. The scent of food can therefore attract them from long distances and lure them from cover.
Newberger launches at Riverside Sports Center in Fayetteville. This stretch of the river above Lock and Dam No. 3 offers natural cover similar to that downstream of Lock and Dam No. 1. If two state-record catfish already came from the area, who can argue with the potential for future success above Lock and Dam No. 1?
Tackle for smaller catfish can consist of nothing more complicated than a baitcasting or spinning rod filled with the same 12- to 17-pound-test monofilament line river fishermen use for catching bass. But serious trophy catfish anglers use superbraid lines of 50-pound-test or greater and monofilament lines of 30-pound-test or greater spooled onto saltwater surf and trolling reels. They also use heavy-action rods. Stout rods are needed to boat large fish. Some anglers prefer long rods for poking them into overhanging cover, and others like short boat rods for better maneuverability when fighting a fish in the darkness.
Hang-ups are common and the heavy lines are necessary to allow the hook to be pulled free. Catfish are also known for heading for the heaviest cover at the hookset and the heavier lines allow them to be horsed away before they can carry the line beneath a submerged tree.
Anglers use float rigs or bottom rigs. Hook styles and sizes run the gamut. Meat-fish anglers use hooks that can be straightened when they get hung on cover, while big-game anglers use large 8/0 to 12/0 circle hooks for holding flatheads and blues.
Sinker styles also vary from 1-ounce egg sinkers to 5-ounce pyramid sinkers. The river flow is strong, so it takes a heavy weight to carry large baits to the bottom and hold them from sliding into heavy cover. Lighter weights are used for fishing the bars and slopes in areas that are fairly free of cover.
Between the locks, some anglers fish with a fleet of jugs or plastic foam blocks. Beneath the floats a hook baited with a piece of cut fish entices catfish.
Another practice allowed nowhere else in the state except between the locks and dams is electro-fishing with hand-crank telephone equipment. Fishermen in the "crank" boat idle along, turning the crank with electrodes dangling in the water. Fishermen in a "chase" boat try to catch stunned fish with a net. It is more difficult than it would seem and most big fish escape. The best part of a shocking trip is that you get to see how many catfish come to the surface, giving plenty of incentive to give it a try with conventional fishing gear.
Jug-fishing, electro-fishing and limbline fishing for catfish require participants to possess a special devices license. Consult a regulations digest or visit www.ncwildlife.org for details.