Cold weather seems to bring out the bit for blue catfish. These three Catawba River chain lakes are all red hot for blues in cold weather. (December 2008)
There was a time when catfishing seemed reserved only for the spring and summer months. But that thinking has changed, and in recent years, catfish specialists have discovered that not only will catfish bite in cold weather, sometimes the action can be among the best fishing of the year. This is especially true for the heavyweight blue catfish.
Rodger Taylor of Catfish On! Guide Service with a nice wintertime blue cat. Photo by Terry Madewell.
Of the "big three" species of catfish, the blue, channel and flathead, the blues seem to be the most frisky in cold weather. According to many experts, right now is not only one of the best times of the year to catch numbers of blue catfish, but the odds of taking a trophy fish are excellent as well.
Lakes Wylie, Mountain Island and Norman are all loaded with blue catfish. Some of North Carolina's premier catfish anglers have provided the scoop on how to frequently slip the dip net under these big blue bruisers at these three lakes.
The first lake we'll look at is Lake Norman, which has been a red-hot lake for blue catfish for several years.
One of the top catfish specialists at Lake Norman is Chris Nichols, a professional guide on all three of the lakes we'll discuss (704/868-2298). But Nichols said his home lake is Lake Norman.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Lake Norman is a vastly under-utilized resource for blue catfish during the winter," Nichols said. "While there are largemouth bass and striper fishermen on this lake during the winter, we've pretty much got the lake to ourselves in terms of catfishing."
Nichols' partner in the guide business is Jerry Neely, and between the two, they have figured the blue catfish fishery out on this huge 32,475-surface-acre lake. You can visit their Web site at www.carolinasfishing.comfor more information.
The 42-year-old Nichols has been fishing Lake Norman all of his life. He's said that in the last five to 10 years, Lake Norman has become one of the hottest blue catfish producing lakes in the state, or Southeast for that matter. He compares it favorably to the Santee Cooper lakes in South Carolina where the blues are legendary for growing in prolific numbers and huge sizes.
"I still fish Santee Cooper some, but really, we've got just about as good fishing right here at Lake Norman," he said.
The pattern for the fall and winter is not difficult to understand, Nichols said.
"The key to blue catfish will almost always be the location of forage," Nichols said. "In the fall, the forage begins to move into the larger creeks on the lake. Actually, this is true throughout the lake, but I tend to focus on the lower end of the lake on Davidson, Mountain, Little and Ramsey creeks. But that's just convenient territory for me. The pattern is true throughout the lake.
"We've got a tremendous bait resource for the blue catfish," Nichols said. "That's one reason the blues do so well here. We have threadfin shad, blueback herring and alewives. As the baitfish move into the creeks when the water cools, the blues begin to stack up in there with them."
Nichols said the November through March period is the best time to catch a trophy blue catfish.
"The big-fish bite is more predictable during this time of the year," he said. "Blues up to 30 pounds are not uncommon, and there are lots of 5- to 10-pound blues caught at this time of the year. Nothing is absolute in fishing, but we generally catch fish in the 15- to 30-pound-plus range on most trips during this time of the year. There are some really huge fish in this lake as well, but you can't expect to hook up with those fish on every trip."
Nichols said that his preferred technique for wintertime fishing on Lake Norman is to drift-fish. But speed and depth are keys to success.
"Drift with the wind to your back, and if it's blowing at five to 10 miles per hour, that should make your boat speed just about right," he said. "I like to drift at a speed of .7 to 1.0 miles per hour. I use my GPS to track my speed. This enables me to cover a reasonable amount of area at a speed that seems to trigger bites from the blues.
"I also fish the places where the wind is blowing because it tends to stack up the forage in those areas," he said. "A great scenario is when we get a couple of days in a row with a steady wind from one direction. That will usually load the forage up in the downwind coves and flats. That's the specific places I start to drift. If the area has a hump or point, the blues will often gang up when feeding heavily. But sometimes, it's just a real consistent bite over a general area."
Nichols added that the preferred depth is usually in the 15- to 25-foot range for this time of the year. But he added that occasionally the wind will push bait far back in a cove or pocket and he's caught some huge blues in water less than 10 feet deep.
For wintertime blue catfish, Nichols' preferred bait is gizzard shad and he fishes several rods on the drift.
"Typically, I'll drift with six rods," he said. "I like medium-action 7- to 8-foot rods with baitcasting reels. I bait a couple of rigs with 4- to 6-inch whole gizzard shad for big fish. I'll also use 2-inch chunks of cut gizzard on other rods. My fallback bait is white perch if I can't get gizzard shad. The threadfin are great baits in terms of fish biting them, but they are so soft, they get knocked off the hook easily. Plus, they are a favored target of white perch, so it's hard to keep threadfin on the hook for extended periods."
The drift rig used by Nichols, and the other experts following on the other lakes we'll discuss, is fairly simple and easy to rig. Using a 30- to 36-inch leader of 50-pound-test line, he places a 1 1/2- to 2-inch cigar float about 6 inches from the hook to drift the bait just off the bottom. Above the barrel swivel, he uses a 3/4- to 1-ounce snake-type sliding sinker.
A barrel sinker will work but is slightly more snag-prone than the "slinky" drift rig. Nichols uses a 2/0 to 4/0 style 42 Eagle Claw hook for his drifting. However, some catfishermen prefer a 4/0 to 8/0 circle hook. Fishermen can experiment to see which specific rig works best for specific fishing styles. This is a basic rig you can employ to catch plenty of wintertime blues on all thre
e of the lakes we'll discuss. All of the experts in the story like to drift at about the same speed as Nichols described for Lake Norman.
Moving down the Catawba River, the next stop for the blue catfish is Mountain Island Lake. While this is a small lake by comparison to Lake Norman, with only 3,281 surface acres of water, it does pack a powerful blue catfish punch.
Rodger Taylor is another professional catfish guide on Lake Wylie in North Carolina and Lake Wateree in South Carolina (803/328-9587). Taylor also frequently targets the blues at Mountain Island Lake. You can visit his Web site at www.catfishon.com.
"Mountain Island Lake is a very interesting lake for blue catfish," Taylor said. "I began fishing it during the winter about five years ago. My first trip specifically for blue catfish was in the lower end of the lake, near the island just above the dam. I drifted in 25 to 55 feet of water all day. I literally just worked the boat around the island and caught a bunch of 9- to 15-pound blue catfish. That got my attention for sure."
Taylor said that in the past few years he's found some other patterns that work real well on Mountain Island. The deep-water drift pattern near the dam is still very productive, but he has also discovered that if he fishes uplake, in the more river-type environment, he also catches many blues.
"We've fished a number of catfish tournaments at Mountain Island," Taylor said. "I'd say most of the tournaments during the winter are won up the lake. But the lower end of the lake area does produce well and tournaments are won there at times too."
Taylor said the key to the uplake fishing is to work the bends and drops along the old river channel. He said the best depths are usually in the 20-to 28-foot range.
"In the middle to upper part of the lake, there are a lot of bends and twists in the channel. That provides a number of ideal places for blues to be found," Taylor said. "Since the lake is not large, when water is being released upstream there is a good current, especially in the upper and middle portion of the lake. A good current situation is an ideal time to anchor up on one of the bends. I'll anchor in about 10 to 15 feet of water and cast baits all around the boat, mostly in the deeper water. The shallow-water ledges can be very good for blues, so I typically check all depths until I get on a solid pattern for the day."
Taylor added that if there is little or no current through the lake, he will drift-fish the same general areas. He'll look for signs of baitfish in the vicinity to help clue him to the most likely area for blues.
"I specifically like the McDowell Creek to Gar Creek area, but there are good places all along the river," he said. "One key to success on this lake is patience. Keep trying areas until you locate an area with plenty of fish.
"My preferred way to catch a big blue at Mountain Island is to drift-fish in the middle portion of the lake," Taylor said. "My preferred bait is whole or cut gizzard shad, with cut white perch a good backup bait. Threadfin shad are good baits, but soft and hard to keep on the hook."
Taylor said that while Mountain Island Lake is very productive during the winter, it could also be slow on some days.
"Generally, I expect to catch several fish in the 10- to 20-pound class during a day of fishing at Mountain Island, and I have caught them up to 42 pounds here," he said. "But there are some much larger blue catfish than that in here. A good day will produce 10 to 15 fish, sometimes a lot more. But some days it's tough to scratch out even a few fish. That's where patience and perseverance will pay off. Don't quit quickly, give the fish time to turn on."
The final Catawba River hotspot for wintertime blues is Lake Wylie. While the blue catfish fishery is not as far advanced as it is at Lake Norman, targeting blues at the 13,443-surface-acre lake is very realistic.
According to Dieter Melhorn, a Lake Wylie catfishing expert, the winter months are easily the most productive and predictable times to catch blue catfish of the entire year.
"During the cold months, the blue catfish seem to really stack up in the upper portion of the river," Melhorn said. "The best fishing is consistently in the two main arms of the lake, the South Fork River and the Catawba River."
Melhorn said the South Fork has a big advantage in one sense, because of the hot water discharge at the Allen Steam Plant.
"During the winter, such as in December and January, the water is warmed several degrees by this discharge," Melhorn said. "That certainly draws in the baitfish, which, of course, attracts blue catfish in big numbers. It's an ideal setup for having a lot of catfish in a fairly small area.
"However, the fairly small area also presents a bit of a problem, in my opinion," Melhorn said. "The water depths in the South Fork arm of the river are such that there's not nearly as much potentially productive fishing area as there is up the Catawba River arm of the lake. So there is definitely a tradeoff in terms of fishing opportunities."
Rodger Taylor also fishes Lake Wylie frequently and agrees with Melhorn on the best areas to fish on this lake for blue catfish.
"When the Allen Plant is producing the warmwater discharge, it also creates a good current and that is a prime place to set up and fish for blue catfish," Taylor said. "When I pull in to the mouth of the river and I can see the steam coming off the water, that means the warm water is being discharged. Plus, it means current is flowing though the South Fork River area. When conditions are like that, I'm going to fish there.
"I like to anchor in 10 to 20 feet of water and fan-cast all around the boat, including into the deeper water areas," Taylor said. "When conditions are right, it usually doesn't take too long to get a bite. It's not unusual to catch one or more 15- to 35-pound blues on a decent day. Plus, I know of some much larger ones that have been caught."
Melhorn is one of the anglers who have caught much larger blues in Lake Wylie. He caught a 55-pound blue in 2006.
"There are some huge blue catfish in the lake; however, there are a lot of blue catfish in the 12- to 20-pound class, and that's certainly a good-sized fish," Melhorn said. "There's a very realistic hope for hooking much larger fish as well.
"I certainly will fish the hot water discharge area," he said. "But much of my fishing is up the Catawba River, simply because I've got so much area to work with. The channel ledges are where I find most of the blues during the winter.
"I look for underwater bends, slight turns in an otherwise fairly straight stretch of the river, to help me pinpoint potentially productive areas," Melhorn said. "However, some places that have a steep slope to the channel wall are very
Both Tailor and Melhorn agree that the best way to catch blues on Wylie during the winter is to anchor, especially for big fish.
"Through a lot of trial and error, I have found anchoring works much better for me on Wylie," Melhorn said. "I feel that patience is a real key to success, especially during the winter months. I'll typically give a spot an hour-and-a-half at least to produce. Sometimes I'll see fishermen hopping from one place to another after only giving it a few minutes to produce. Typically during the winter, that's not long enough."
Melhorn added that much of the time, the best depth will be in the 16-to 20-foot range on this upper portion of Lake Wylie. Some of the deep holes he'll anchor may be adjacent to a 30-foot-deep or deeper channel, but most of the blues will be caught along the edges of the drop.
"I feel the best fishing here really begins in December and goes right on through March," Melhorn said. "The techniques remain basically the same for the entire period."
These lakes along the Catawba River offer sensation wintertime opportunities to target big blue catfish. Use the tips from these anglers, or hire one as a guide, and enjoy some red-hot cold weather catfishing action.
For information on maps and access points, you can get detailed information online at the Duke Web site at www.duke-energy.com/lakes/levels.asp, and go to the lake facts and map for detailed information on all three of these lakes.