Great catfish angling opportunities exist in our state. These spots should be part of your fishing plans this year! (June 2006)
Catfish abound throughout South Carolina and the difficulty in identifying the top spots for 2006 is deciding which good lakes or rivers to leave out. There are few freshwater lakes or rivers that don't harbor excellent catfish opportunities in our state.
It seems that the catfishing resources throughout the state are more utilized now than in the past. But anglers are not tapping the catfish resource that hard. As a rule, there's plenty of room on most of our lakes for more catfishing pressure and therefore more catfishermen.
As a statewide policy, there are no limits on catfish, either size or numbers, when taken by rod and reel methods, which is what we'll be discussing in this feature. However, on a few specific lakes some special management regulations will apply. You must note and observe these on a case-by-case basis. But the major lakes and rivers offer literally unlimited fishing potential for Mr. Whiskers in South Carolina.
We're also fortunate to have excellent populations of all three of the major species of catfish, specifically the flathead, channel and the blue. Although not all three species are present in all of our lakes, some of the lakes do have all one, two or all three in excellent numbers. In some areas, where only one or two species are dominant, those species are usually found in very good numbers. And in some areas, especially the Lowcountry rivers, the bullheads also offer excellent fishing and grand table fare.
Part of the reason for such outstanding catfishing opportunities in our state is the climate, which is conducive to rapid growth. In addition, the generally fertile waters found in our lakes and rivers will foster fast growth and high populations. The abundance of freshwater lakes and rivers that harbor these species gives anglers an opportunity to catch fish in big numbers and sizes on a statewide basis.
Profiled here are a few of the better places to spend your catfishing time this year, with some hints on the best techniques and times of day and year to fish. Your job, of course, will be to locate the specific structures on these lakes that harbor the good catfish populations and present the right bait in the right manner to catch them.
There are many other lakes and rivers throughout the state that offer excellent catfishing possibilities and the following are consistent producers of outstanding catfishing: Lake Wateree, Clarks Hill Lake, Lake Murray, the Great Pee Dee River and finally lakes Marion and Moultrie.
Topping the list of places that have all three species is the Santee Cooper complex of lakes Marion and Moultrie. While the Santee Cooper lakes are typically noted when catfish conversations arise, there's simply no way to leave this big lake system out of the catfish equation when discussing the best of the best in the Palmetto State. We'll save the discussion of this resource until last. There are plenty of other great places to fish as well.
Although catfish are prolific and plentiful in South Carolina, that does not mean you can consistently catch them using a random, haphazard approach to your fishing. Catfish can be as structure-oriented as largemouth bass. If you wish to catch them in big numbers and sizes, then be serious in your fishing efforts. The first lake we'll look at is a perfect example of this. Points, humps, drops and ledges area all key structures for success.
To me, Lake Wateree is an ideal catfishing lake because of the type of lake it is, along with a very strong shad forage base. Fed by the Catawba River that winds through the lake, there are numerous river channel ledges and drops that offer particularly good catfishing possibilities. In addition, along the numerous creeks that intersect the river, there are humps and holes that also harbor excellent catfish populations.
Overall, Lake Wateree is not a real deep lake as compared with some in the upstate, but you find depths in the river channel down to 40 to 50 feet in the lower end of the lake. Much of the best catfish action will take place in the lower half of the lake during the warm months of the year. In addition to the main-river channel, the Dutchman's Creek, Beaver Creek and Colonel's areas are prime places to fish.
With water depths in this range, you'll need a sonar unit to find a lot of the best summertime places, but if you find yourself without a depthfinder, you can also look for the long, sloping, hard-bottom points that lead to deep water. Points are a catfish specialty at Wateree and are among the best-producing structures on the lake.
In fact, my most productive catfishing trip to Lake Wateree was during June a few years ago and the channel catfish were literally stacked on the points. Almost every point that dropped toward the channel (the main river and some of the major creeks) -- even if it didn't reach all the way to the channel -- produced several good-sized channel catfish in rapid-fire order. That day, I was fishing with Doc's Catfish Getter Dip Bait and I seldom had time to get more than one or two rods baited and set into the DriftMaster rod holders before a catfish would bite.
The fishing at Wateree is excellent throughout the late spring, summer and fall with sporadic success on cut bait during the winter. There are several public launching ramps located around the lake that will enable you to get close to your targeted area. However, if you have a big rig, the entire lake can be covered within a reasonable time. Also, during the spring and fall, some decent catfishing can be experienced from the shoreline around the public landing areas.
Also, in recent years there's been a strong increase in the blue catfish fishery in the lake. Although the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) did not stock these fish in this lake, the blue catfish are certainly here and are becoming a strong fishery. Last year (2005), I saw a number of blue catfish taken from this lake that weighed in the 15- to 25-pound class and there are likely some much larger than that in the lake as well. The forage base of threadfin shad is very good and seems to be ideal for the blues. There's no reason to think that 2006 won't produce yet another big crop of both channel and blue catfish in this fertile lake.
The first report I ever heard about catfish on Strom Thurmond Lake (aka Clarks Hill) was about a 60-pound blue catfish caught on a rod and reel many years ago. At first, I was shocked to hear of such a huge fish from this lake, but the more I've learned about the lake, the less surprised I am. In fact, the lake likely holds much larger fish for the catfishermen who can unravel the secrets of the many underwater structures.
The body of water is situated on the fertile Savannah River that flows along the length of the South Carolina western border. Although each of the lakes along the river is good for catfishing, this lake seems to have the ingredients for producing the best catfishing on a consistent basis.
The lake can be classified as a clear, deep lake, which when combined with the many twists and turns of the river and the many creeks which feed the lake, there are a multitude of underwater structures to which the catfish can relate. A depthfinder is perhaps not mandatory for success, but I'd really hate to fish this lake without one. There are many humps, ridges, drops, channels and other structure from which you can choose, as well as points and man-made structures, such as old roadbeds and the rip-rap areas around bridges.
Natural, cut and stink baits all work well, with large gobs of night crawlers being a particular favorite of many anglers.
Because of the sometimes very clear water associated with summer and fall, this lake is often much more productive at night than by day. The catfish will often migrate much more shallow during the nocturnal hours.
Lake Murray gets plenty of fishing pressure and is noted for providing good fishing for several species. The catfish, although it does have a following at the lake, does not receive the media light that the game fish receive. I'm sure that's fine with those catfish anglers who would like to keep it as quiet as possible.
But this lake does provide very good fishing throughout the spring, summer and fall. As I will repeat on each lake, structure is a key to taking catfish consistently. During the spring and early summer, the catfish seem to be located in the major tributaries; and during the summer and fall, they orient more to the mainstream portion of the lake. Depths will vary with water clarity and temperature, but look for the fish to relate more to "edges" along breaklines, than to specific depths in this lake.
Both day and night fishing can be productive on this lake, with many anglers giving the nocturnal fishing the nod simply because there is usually less boating traffic then, especially during the weekends of the summer months. The effect of humans is a factor that must be considered by anglers when looking for catfish (or any species) on Lake Murray.
No roundup of top catfish waters would be complete without at least one South Carolina river included among them. There are numerous rivers that produce excellent catfishing throughout the summer and fall; however, the Great Pee Dee River is certainly one that is often overlooked. While not known as widely for catfishing as the Santee and Congaree rivers, this river does harbor some excellent catfishing. According to SCDNR fisheries biologists, the Pee Dee has an excellent mix of catfish species, and the flathead catfish are found in good numbers and the trend seems to be one of increasing numbers.
Anytime anglers find a species of fish that's expanding in numbers, it offers a good opportunity for fishing success. There are many tributary creeks that enter this river and one area to key your efforts is at the junction of these feeder creeks with the main river. After a summer thundershower, these smaller creeks will wash/push forage into these areas, making it a perfect situation for a big flathead to feast. If you're interested in hooking into these finned freight trains, anywhere a flathead is feeding is where you want to be.
Among top places to find catfish in the Great Pee Dee are the eddy areas where small creeks enter the river, deep holes, sandbars, points of islands and the downstream area from fallen trees in the river. These trees create a current change to which the fish can relate and offer excellent spots to catch catfish.
The catfishing on the Great Pee Dee River is good throughout the summer and fall as a rule and both day and night fishing are productive. However, unless you simply prefer fishing at night, you can usually catch all the fish you care to clean during the day.
Possibly the most famous lake for catfishing in the state would be Santee Cooper, consisting of lakes Marion and Moultrie. The lakes produce outstanding fishing for flatheads, channel and blue catfish and the fishing for catfish is literally a year-round proposition at this huge body of water.
During the late spring and early summer, numerous catfish will be taken in fairly shallow water. Both blues and channels will roam the edges adjacent to shallow flats, foraging on a variety of foods and are susceptible to offerings of shad minnows, cut herring and stink baits, as well as minnows, worms and other natural offerings. This is an outstanding time to literally catch a cooler full of fish from one spot. Again, not just any shallow-water spot will do. With the huge expanses of shallow flats located on this lake, it's necessary to orient your fishing efforts to shallow flats near deeper drops. The fish very well may be in the shallows, but they generally require that deep-water access be present nearby.
Often the blue and channel catfish will be found together, especially if you're using stink bait. The shad and cut baits will work best for the blues. Throughout the summer and fall, good fishing exists. However, as the season progresses, you'll have to fish deeper and deeper water and likely have to try more places to make a big catch.
For the flatheads, the fishing really begins to get right about May and progresses toward a peak, which is usually in September and October, with Lake Marion the better of the two lakes. For these fish, live bait is the best bet and most guides suggest that you literally "hunt" for the big fish using your depthfinder. Most successful fishermen work the main body of lower Lake Marion, checking the many drops to locate the big fish. There is much natural cover on the lake floor and you'll have to be pretty good at interpreting the graph to know when you've marked a fish, or if you're simply marking a log. Fish vertically for these fish and lower the live bait to the bottom, then reel it up about a foot to 18 inches, just about eyeball level for a 50-pound flathead.
Even wintertime brings great catfish opportunities here as well. From December to February, outstanding fishing for the blue catfish is had by following the schools of shad. The shad bunch up in tight clusters when the water temperature drops during the winter and the blues forage on them like crazy. Again, use the graph to locate the baitfish and the blues will be marked underneath and beside the shad. Catch shad in a cast net and lower the bait to the depth the fish are marked. This cold-weather fishing can provide some of the fastest action of the entire year.
However, don't wait for the fall and winter to go catfishing. This is the time of the year to think in terms of catching catfish. Warm weather and catfish are linked because it is prime time to enjoy the lake and catch a bunch of catfish. From the list of hotspots we've listed here, you have more places to fish than you have time to enjoy . . . unless you get going now.