When most fisheries in the state are winding down, trophy blue cats are still biting. (December 2007)
Photo by Terry Madewell.
When catfish guide Robbie Burr of Wadesboro fishes for blue catfish during the winter, he envisions darker shades of blue.
"Trophy blues that weigh 50 pounds or more take on a darker shade of blue that's almost jet black," said the former tournament bass fisherman, who sold his 85 bass-fishing outfits once he decided to fish for big catfish exclusively.
"I don't know if it's their age or their environment, but big blues definitely have a darker coloration than smaller blue catfish," he said. "I call them 'black catfish.' "
Trophy blues also have a different physique. They exhibit potbellies, while their smaller counterparts appear more muscular and streamlined.
Big blues and striped bass often share the same habitat. For that reason, Captain Gus Gustafson, a noted striped bass guide at Lake Norman (704/617-6812), joined a local catfishermen's club.
"In the winter, I'd catch big blue catfish while guiding for stripers because the two species favored the same places," Gustafson said. "I figured if I joined a catfish club and found out how those guys located big winter blues, I could learn more about striped bass movements, too."
Gustafson's catfish membership paid double dividends. He now guides for both species.
Like stripers, blues are big open-water fish constantly on the prowl for schooling baitfish and move about more than other catfish to dine. They prefer deep, well-oxygenated waters with gravel and hard sand bottoms. They also like clear waters with strong current, unlike channel cats and flatheads, which like turbid waters with only moderate current flow.
Only a handful of state waters satisfy the habitat preferences of blues, so housing for these fish is rather limited.
In the west, 32,500-acre Lake Norman has gained acclaim as a stronghold for big blues.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission received more than a modest return from its 1966 stocking of 4,000 8-inch blue cats into the Duke Power Company lake, though it wasn't until the '90s that numbers of big blues started appearing in anglers' catches. The catfish angling has been on the upswing ever since.
Data from the N.C. Catfish Association Tournament Series (www. nccats.net) operated by Omar Edwards of Claremont and David Johnson's now defunct N.C. Catfish Championship Trail indicates that blues up to 55 pounds have been taken at Norman tournaments, along with numerous fish in the 30- and 40-pound class.
The former state-record blue of 85 pounds was taken from Norman on June 19, 2004, by 54-year-old Joel Lineberger of Long Island while fishing near his home.
With the influx of big blues, striped bass fishermen at Norman feared blue cats would compete with stripers for forage. However, a 2000-2002 study revealed that blue cats and stripers do not compete for shad and herring throughout the year: Blues consume mainly freshwater mussels during the warmer months and devour shad mostly after winter die-offs.
Though garnering less publicity, Norman's neighbor, 3,235-acre Mountain Island Lake, harbors big blues and serves as a regular stop on the NCCATS trail.
"Mountain Island is a very good lake for blue catfish," Edwards said. "Blues up to 40 pounds have been caught during our tournaments."
While blue cats have found a home out west, only incidental populations of blues reside near the densely populated cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill -- the apexes of the Research Triangle.
Raleigh's famous trio of trophy bass lakes -- Jordan, Shearon Harris and Falls of the Neuse -- may yield big largemouth bass, but they're not noted for producing many fat cats as yet.
"The Raleigh lakes are relatively new impoundments and were stocked only with channel cats," said Piedmont Region Fisheries Supervisor Christian Waters. "We hear little about flathead or blue catfish catches from these lakes, though occasional catches may occur. But these catches are the result of 'angler movement' of cats from other waters.
"There are no established populations of flatheads or blues in these waters."
If Triangle fishermen want to catch the wintertime blues big time, they only need to travel to Badin Lake on the Yadkin River, another frequent stop on the NCCATS trail, where a hefty blue of 83 pounds was taken by Concord's Andy Richmond on May 1, 2003, and briefly held the state record.
The current state-record blue came from Badin in 2006 when Eric Fincher, a carpet technician from Mount Pleasant, landed an 89-pound blue while trolling with live shiners for striped bass, a further indication that blues and stripers favor the same waters.
The fish was weighed on certified scales at Mount Pleasant Milling and verified by District 6 biologist Lawrence Dorsey as a blue cat. It measured 52 1/4 inches in length and had a 36 1/2-inch girth.
Badin's downstream neighbor, Lake Tillery, also produces big blue cats. Catfish guide Robert Tomasak of White Wolf Guide Service (704/ 888-1209) said 30- to 40-pound blues have become common at Tillery, where they bite best from December through March. Tomasak's biggest blue from the lake weighed 65 pounds.
Farther south, Burr of Pee Dee Guide Service (704/695-2587) has found "blue heaven," and he has it almost all to himself. Burr guides along a 25-mile stretch of the Pee Dee River between the U.S. Highway 74 bridge near Wadesboro and the North and South Carolina state line.
This segment of the Pee Dee meanders along private property with no public access. Anglers who use the lone public access near the bridge can't navigate downstream to the shallow, shoal-infested waters where Burr has constructed his own makeshift ramp. Through his association with a local sportsmen's club, Burr accesses the ramp through a locked gate on private property.
This stretch of the Pee Dee harbors plenty of big blues.
"People don't realize how many big blues are in this river," said Burr, whose two biggest blues weighed 72 and 74 pounds. "There are lots of 50- and 60-pound catfish in here."
To his knowledge, Burr is the only
guide fishing this stretch of water.
Kerr Lake, which lies north of Durham near Henderson, boasts of blues up to 40 pounds. East of the Triangle rolls the mighty Cape Fear River, which begins below the dam at Jordan Lake and flows southeasterly for over 170 miles before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean near Southport. The river has become well known for its giant blues ever since the fish were introduced into the river in the mid-'70s.
While blues are active year 'round, an increasing number of fishermen are targeting them in the winter when they gather in large schools to feed voraciously upon shad following winter die-offs, making them more susceptible to anglers' offerings.
Unless the water temperature drops below 40 degrees, blues can be taken throughout the winter with a variety of techniques.
Here's how local experts fish some of the waters that have been showcased for big winter blues.
Before Edwards started the NCCATS trail, he was an avid tournament catfisherman and still joins in on the competition whenever he has the opportunity.
Norman is one of his favorite lakes for trophy blues. In cold weather, he fishes for them at the lower end of the lake around main-lake points, ledges, or dropoffs near creek channels in 20 to 40 feet of water.
"Forty feet is the magic depth for blue cats at Norman," he said. "I catch cats at that depth fairly consistently."
Edwards said he'd rather anchor than drift-fish unless he encounters stiff winds.
He uses a Carolina rig and a 1 1/2- or 2-ounce egg sinker with a No. 5/0 circle hook at the business end. Upon the hook, he impales large chunks of freshly cut gizzard shad through the toughest part of the bait.
"Live shad are effective, too, but they're hard to keep alive during the winter," he said.
Edwards uses Ambassadeur 6000 and 6500 reels spooled with 30- to 40-pound-test line. He sets out 16 catfish rods around the boat if anchored, six to eight rods if drift-fishing.
Edwards said the catfish biting frenzy triggered by winterkill of shad at some impoundments happens occasionally at Norman but rarely at the part of the lake he fishes.
"The shad at the lower end of the lake can find enough deep oxygenated water to live," he said. "Winterkills sometimes happen at the other end of the lake."
Edwards' biggest Norman blue weighed 32 pounds.
"I haven't hooked a monster blue as yet, but I've caught lots of blues in the 20-pound class," he said.
Norman's two hot holes, the Marshall Steam Station near the Highway 150 bridge and the McGuire Nuclear Station at the lower end of the lake, don't become catfish magnets until shad gather at those areas in February.
Good holes for winter blues are Davidson and Ramsey creeks.
While the NCWRC doesn't have any record of stocking blues in Badin, the deep Yadkin River Lake not only has yielded the current state-record blue, but also bigger blues supposedly have been taken on trotlines and jugs.
Badin, with depths over 100 feet, has numerous humps and deep-water channel bends and ledges where blues can dwell. The stretch below Tuckertown Dam to the old railroad trestle near Old Whitney Landing draws plenty of blues because of the current when the lake is being pulled.
Last year's NCCATS points champions, Joe Montaigne of Statesville and Chris Kerley of Troutman, put Badin on a par with Norman for big blues. At Norman, they caught a five-fish stringer of winter blues totaling 130 pounds; at Badin they had a five-fish stringer weighing 93 pounds.
"We've fished both lakes on the NCCATS circuit, and both lakes have produced state-record blues," Montaigne said. "There's little difference from one to the other except that Norman is so big the catfish are more spread out and harder to find, while at Badin, the cats are mostly in the main channel."
Although they rate both lakes equally, Montaigne and Kerley have a special fondness for Badin's blues. At the July 2005 N.C. Catfish Championship tournament at Badin, Kerley caught a 56.90-pound blue, the largest catfish ever caught in the 11-year history of the trail, which folded in January 2006.
"The hook got bent with that fish," Montaigne said.
Montaigne said that in clear, oxygenated waters with current, blues will come in shallower to feed. In the winter, blues like 55-degree water, but later in the year, 68 degrees becomes the "magic number" for catching large numbers of fish.
"We fish the area from the old railroad trestle to the dam, trying points along the way in 15 to 20 feet of water," Montaigne said. "We get most of our bites at breaklines where the points drop off into 10 to 12 feet of water."
The two anglers hold their boat steadfast with 35- and 45-pound anchors while they put out 12 rods -- 6 1/2-foot Eagle Claw rods -- housing Ambassadeur 6500 reels spooled with 30-pound-test line.
Montaigne employs a Carolina rig with a 10- to 12-inch leader composed of 100-pound-test line tied to a No. 3/0 Eagle Claw wide bend hook.
"I don't use a circle hook, which sets itself if the fisherman reels in steadily, so I have to set the hook when I get a bite," he said.
For bait, the two anglers use cut crappie fillets (crappie must be caught on hook and line before being used for bait) or cut gizzard shad that they thread upon the hook.
"There's little doubt when a big blue bites," Montaigne said. "The fish will yank the pole straight down."
The fishermen give a spot about 35 minutes before pulling up anchor.
They said the main difference in fishing for blues and flatheads is the bait and time of year.
"Flatheads prefer live bait and bite better in the summer; blues eat cut and live bait and are more active in the winter than flatheads," Montaigne said.
In the northern part of the state, Kerr Lake, the 48,900-acre reservoir straddling the North Carolina-Virginia line, harbors a healthy population of blues. Like Norman's inland sea, its size can be intimidating for those in search of big catfish.
Consequently, catfish guide Dewey Edwards (434/252-1349) breaks down the impoundment geographically for big cats and suggests anglers focus upon a specific area.
On the Virginia side of the lake, Edwards said good fishing for blues can be found from
buoys 5 to 15. Within that stretch, fishermen should target the creek mouths of Grassy Creek (buoy 14), Rudd Branch (buoy 9) or Eastland Creek (buoy 6).
On the North Carolina side, Nutbush Creek usually has the clearest water in the lake and features numerous fingerlike points that drop into the river channel.
"Go halfway down the creeks, and try points, channel bends and ledges in 24 to 40 feet of water wherever there's forage and fish," Edwards said. "Look for fish suspended in half the depth you're fishing. Those are the active fish. If you're fishing in 40 feet, the feeding blues will be in 20 feet of water."
Edwards said sometimes fishermen have to move with the forage and go farther into the creeks to find fish.
Even though live bait is difficult to keep alive in the winter, Edwards prefers to fish with 4- to 5-inch live threadfin shad and blueback herring taken fresh from the lake rather than with cut bait.
He sets out a couple of free lines (unweighted lines) 20 to 30 feet behind the boat and lets the bait swim freely about. Depending upon the depth of the fish, he uses a 1- or 2-ounce sinker with his downlines, and at the end of his 18- to 24-inch leaders, he ties No. 6/0 Gamakatsu hooks, which he runs through the nose holes of the bait to keep them alive longer.
"The average blue catfish at Kerr weighs 10 to 15 pounds," he said. "Twenty-pound fish are common, and there's always a chance of hooking a 40- or 50-pound blue."
SHADES OF BLUE
While fishermen after trophy catfish want to catch fish with a darker shade of blue, they don't want to turn blue themselves from the cold weather. Not only should they dress warmly, but they should also use access areas close to where they want to fish.
The following ramps are closest to the areas cited by our catfish experts. The Blythe Landing at the lower end of Norman is accessible from Highway 73 near Huntersville; the Old Whitney Landing at Badin is located off Old Whitney Road (Route 1521), which is obtainable from NC 740 in New London. Kerr Lake has landings within the creeks mentioned by Edwards. The GMCO map of Kerr Lake (www.gmomaps.com) indicates specific locations.
For some Carolinians, "blue heaven" might refer to the home of the Tar Heel basketball team, but for catfishermen, that expression conjures up visions of whiskered giants sporting a darker shade of blue.
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