River Catfish -- Beyond the Cape Fear

As awesome as the Cape Fear is for catfish, it's not the only catfish river in North Carolina. Here are some other less famous, but still productive, rivers to try.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Jeff Samsel

"Cape Fear River" and "catfish." These go together in most Tar Heel anglers' minds for good reason. The Cape Fear has garnered national acclaim for its 100-plus miles of outstanding big-cat waters.

Still, the Cape Fear isn't the only catfish river around. In truth, rivers throughout the state offer fine summer action for anglers who want to catch channel cats, and several streams offer excellent prospects for flatheads and blues. Beyond the state's most famous catfish river are other destinations that offer first-rate whiskerfish action in the current.


Best known for its spring striped bass run, the Roanoke River also is an outstanding place for catching cats. Channel cats are the most abundant catfish, but bruiser blues also attract a lot of attention.

The blues are now well established in the river from Roanoke Rapids Dam all the way to the coast.

"There are 60- and 70-pound fish in the river now," said Bill Collart, District 3 fisheries biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. "Anglers sometimes will catch a couple hundred pounds or more of catfish in a night."

Anglers who want to catch big blues should look for the deepest holes they can find, primarily around outside bends, and bait bottom rigs with good-sized chunks of shad or other cut fish. Adult blues and large channel catfish will take cut bait much more readily than other popular catfish baits because most of their diets consist of fish.

For faster action from smaller fish, anglers should bait up with chicken livers.

Most anglers set up just upstream of big holes and fish at night, when the cats move up onto the flats to feed. By day, tangles of timber within the holes or along other current-washed banks offer good prospects. Basic Carolina rigs work well for putting baits down in holes, but several ounces may be needed to hold bottom in the current. Landing blues requires stout tackle and heavy line. Many anglers use braided line with at least 40 pounds of break strength.

The Roanoke is a large river that offers plenty of room for fishermen and can accommodate most kinds of fishing boats. Boat ramps in the town of Weldon and at the U.S. Highway 258 bridge at Scotland Neck provide access to a lot of good catfishing waters, Collart said.


Just southwest of the Roanoke, the Tar River offers outstanding catfishing in a much more intimate setting that gets little fishing pressure except by local anglers. A small river, best accessed by canoe or small johnboat during summer, the Tar River supports a great population of channel catfish, according to Collart.

Again, Collart pointed toward snags along the edges of the river as good areas to work, especially along river bends, where the old trees often pile up in deep holes. Dip baits, which carry scent downstream in the current and provide the double benefit of bait and chum, work well for fishing the Tar River.

Access to the Tar is fairly limited, which helps keep fishing pressure low and catfish numbers high, Collart suspects. A ramp in Rocky Mount provides access to only a couple miles of river because of a dam upstream and fall-line shoals just downstream.

"Those shoals are sort of a point of no return, and the next boat ramp is about 20 miles downstream," Collart said.

Two boat ramps in Tarboro provide access to a lot more fishable water.


The Neuse River is somewhere between the first two rivers in terms of size and accessibility. Like the Tar River, it gets mostly local fishing pressure, and a good catfish population gets little acclaim. Unlike the Tar, the Neuse supports a big population of flathead catfish. They are well established and provide the main attraction for big-cat specialists.

Flatheads are predators, not scavengers, and adult flatheads eat live fish almost exclusively. Opinions on the best kind of fish to use for bait vary quite a bit among flathead fishermen, but virtually all agree that using live fish is the only way to go. Bluegills and other sunfish are the most popular live-bait selections. Others kinds of fish that would get votes include shad, carp and small catfish, especially bullheads.

Flathead anglers often need even heavier gear than do blue catfish anglers. Flatheads spend most of the time lurking in and around tangles of timber, and they lunge for the thickest stuff any time they feel a hook. Geared-down reels and rods that have a lot of pulling power and heavy braided line are needed to get the fish out of the timber. Flatheads are also highly nocturnal, especially during the summer, so anglers should go out at night if they want to get in on the best big-cat action.

Despite the good flathead population in the Neuse River, catfishermen shouldn't overlook the river's abundant channel cats. Putting out one or two live baits and a few smaller offerings provides anglers the opportunity to enjoy fast action from channels while waiting on the flatheads.

Decent boating access to the Neuse River begins around Goldsboro, where there is a ramp near the U.S. 117/13 bridge. Access points downstream of there are widely scattered, but the river is generally navigable, especially by johnboats, so anglers can get to the fish.


Officially forming just west of Fort Bragg and twisting endlessly through swamps in the southeastern corner of North Carolina, the Lumber River is a first-rate flathead river that gets overshadowed by the Cape Fear. Although fairly good sized by the time it exits North Carolina into South Carolina, the Lumber River is wild, and access points are scattered.

A tributary of the Little Pee Dee River, the Lumber River used to produce good numbers of big flatheads and blues. Numbers of blues seem to have gone down quite a bit, according to Keith Ashley, District 4 fisheries biologist for the NCWRC, but flatheads continue to thrive in the river. Flatheads are well distributed in the Lumber River, but the biggest fish, overall, are through its lower reaches.

Again, using live bait and heavy gear are critical to catching flatheads. Because the Lumber River is so twisty and has so much good habitat, anglers should s

pend time looking at the river before setting up, seeking the very best spots. The more variety of depth, cover and current flows that can be found in a single area, the better the chances that flatheads will be there.

Two boat ramps near Lumberton and one on U.S. Highway 41 near the Scotland/Hoke county line provide access to the Lumber River. Getting to most parts of the river requires a long, slow and careful boat ride. The upper river is best suited for floating in a canoe or johnboat that can be launched by hand, especially late in the summer.


The Yadkin River lakes have gained a big reputation for their jumbo-sized flathead and blue catfish. In fact, Badin Lake yielded a new state-record blue catfish last year. Sometimes overlooked but also productive are the riverine sections above, between and below the lakes.

According to Lawrence Early, the NCWRC fisheries biologist over that area, three different stretches offer river-type catfishing experiences in the Yadkin and the Pee Dee (which forms at the confluence of the Yadkin and Uwharrie rivers beneath Badin Lake). Early pointed toward waters upstream of High Rock Lake, between Tillery and Blewett Falls and downstream of Blewett Falls.

Upstream of High Rock, the river is navigable by small boats for more than 20 miles to Idols Dam. This section can be accessed from the upper end of High Rock, although the area around the I-85 bridge is badly silted in and has a lot of hazardous sandbars. An alternative access point is located near the midpoint of this river section off state Highway 801.

Between Tillery and Blewett Falls and downstream of Blewett Falls, anglers must be extremely cautious. Water flows vary quite a bit based on dam releases, and at times flows run very low. Adding difficulty, the river is repeatedly broken by rocky shoals through this section.

While all three sections require care and are best fished in small, aluminum boats, they also provide good catfishing opportunities, typically with little competition. In addition to good numbers of channels, all three sections yield big flatheads and likely contain blues.


Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South. For a signed copy, send a check for $21.95 to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523 or log onto www.jeffsamsel.com.

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